By Fred Dickey San Diego Union-Tribune May 29, 2017
Most of the time, she’s clear-headed and has an overview of homelessness that would cause the mayor to take notes.
But then her sense of direction starts to drift and Cat Howie’s thoughts go through Alice’s Door in the Tree, and she’s smelling flowers in the enchanted garden.
Cat is a 63-year-old, San Diego-born homeless woman who is small, wiry and percolating. If she’s in the room, you’ll know it, but not in an irritating way. Her real name is Leona, but call her that only if you’re armed.
Cat has a pretty good idea who she is. She will tell you she has a “borderline personality disorder” with the aplomb of saying blue is her favorite color. She is comfortable in her own shoes, though they sometimes pinch her feet.
Cat was a member of a street gang in her youth. She says, “The one thing all gang members have in common is rage within, and it comes from being raised in a dysfunctional family. I went through many, many years of psychological therapy.”
Cat says birthdays and Christmases were fun in her home growing up, but most other times, not so much.
She says she is not an alcoholic or drug addict. I’m convinced she’s telling the truth. If not, the falsehood would be plain to see. In a woman that age, her face wouldn’t be a road map, it’d be a diorama. Her body would be frail, not peppy.
I meet Cat at Serving Seniors on Fourth Avenue in downtown San Diego, where she is in the back of the game room checking her emails. She soon closes her smartphone and we walk over to the First Lutheran Church, where we can talk quietly. She goes there often because the Third Avenue Community Organization (TACO) she frequents is on a floor above.
She knows her way around these streets. It’s where she’s mostly made her home for the past dozen years.
“He took off with one of my skanky best friends. I missed her for five years, not him. OK?”
How many children do you have?
“Him and I? None together. But I do have four. The first one, the (father) was murdered, right here on Highway 94 in ’71. Shot by the Mongols. He was the president of the Hells Angels.
“That’s my first kid’s dad. My second kid’s dad, I don’t remember his name anymore. I hope I wrote it on the birth certificate. My third kid lives in Santee and that’s where I get my last name from.
“I married her father and had her. We got a divorce and then I found out in 2013 that I wasn't divorced from my first husband.
“I had committed bigamy and didn’t know it,” she says, incredulous and slightly amused at the idea.
She finishes the tally: “The fourth child is just a cowboy.”
I guess that means some guy rode in and then rode out.
How you might react to Cat would depend on your values and baggage — empathy, amusement, disgust. Regardless, she’d shrug, or maybe laugh.
Cat has command presence and strides downtown streets like the General Patton of the downtown theater of homeless operations.
Her possessions are in a shopping cart so overloaded it could benefit from extra wheels like a semi. It includes a tent, clothing and all the accoutrements of her lifestyle. A full inventory would bog us down.
She’s all teched-up. She tweets, has two email addresses and carries two smartphones to make sure at least one is always in working order.
She makes do on a Social Security disability pension of something more than $900 per month. She relies on a “free clinic” for health care, especially for acupuncture. Medi-Cal is her back-up.
From observation, she seems well regarded by both the other homeless and those who serve that population. Two-thirds of the time, Cat says things worth hearing. The part of society we call “real” would be intolerant of the remaining third.
She says she has a degree from the University of Washington in biological chemistry, but it’s under a fake name. I see no reason to question.
Cat may trip over the occasional fact that gets in her way, but she knows what she thinks, and she knows how she feels. She’s not shy about either.
At the moment, Cat has a festering indignation about a run-in with San Diego’s finest. The record states that on April 19, 7:27 a.m., at 1400 Third Ave., she was arrested for illegal lodging.
The violation she committed was erecting and sleeping in her tent on public property. What’s curious is that she was given a time-out in the slammer for what ordinarily could be just a ticket.
“Me and the cops played a little word game,” she says with an impish grin.
Cat plans to fight the charge. Her court date is scheduled for the morning of July 17 in the downtown courthouse. I suggest the judge get a good night’s sleep.
The arrest segues into a related topic. Erecting and dismantling a four-man tent can’t be an easy job for an older woman. She employs it because it’s big enough to sleep in and protect her goods from theft.
She says, “One man I know had everything ripped off and was left with only the underwear he had on.”
So, why doesn’t she take her monthly income and move into what’s called an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel?
The question has several answers. As homeless-housing pros have told me, and as I’ve seen myself, a lot of SRO rooms would be condemned if they were jails: dirty, buggy, dark and moldy.
They’re located in buildings from which the landlords are trying to squeeze a few final dollars before the structures are torn down and maybe turned into high-rent condos.
You, the resident, likely would have neighbors in these buildings you wouldn’t invite to your Tupperware party. Even if you’re not personally more appealing than those folks, you wouldn’t think of that before packing up and heading back to the street.
Outrageous rents affect trashy downtown pads as well as La Jolla apartments. If a homeless person has to pay $700 per month for a room without bath out of their government check, they’re broke by mid-month.
Cat says, “Most people don’t want to be homeless, but when they get unhomeless, they don’t have any money for food, clothes, toilet paper, stuff like that, and they get sick of just trying to make it every month, and so they come back out homeless. I’m seeing more and more elderly like that when I use to just see the middle-aged.”
How does an old person live on concrete in the rain and cold?
The 63-year-old woman answers, “I don't understand it either.”
Not having to pay rent means Cat can eat fast food with some frequency, and once in a while at a tablecloth place.
She says “soup kitchen” meals have lines that are too long and the food isn’t very tasty, what’s left of it when you finally work your way to the serving table.
“You can stand in line for two hours and then get a little bit, or maybe get stuff you can’t eat. Everybody’s got some kind of allergy, like I can’t eat spicy food. I can’t have milk products, all right? It’s not worth taking two bites and gettin’ the runs for three hours, OK? If you’re lactose intolerant, that's what happens.
“I’ve had the feeder (server) go, ‘Well, it’s better than nothing and it’s free.’ I'm like, ‘You should not be feeding Jesus’ people, honey. God is not gonna know you when you get up there.’”
You might say beggars can’t be choosers. Well, yes they can, if you believe Cat. She says she can make an easy $20 a day panhandling.
“I can stand there and just smile at people, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been handed 20 bucks. I’ve gotten $100 three times and a 50 about seven. But 20s, I couldn’t tell ya how many times I was handed a $20 bill. And fives and 10s, I don’t even bother to remember.”
She relates a panhandling experience with a homeless teenager as a partner. “We’re in front of the Vons and I pretend like I’m his mom and we’re stranded here and the car broke down.
“It was just a total lie. I’m a player and it was just a game. Half the money was mine, half the money was his, and the kid needed money to get out. I made $1,400 dollars that day. He got seven and I got seven. I ended up giving him an extra $100 to make sure he had food all the way home.”
You must be a pretty good actor.
“No, it’s the smile. I could sell dead people’s underwear.”
Cat has a steaming scorn for bureaucracy and the programs to help the homeless that are periodically unveiled with fanfare, then gradually whimper out.
She says, “We all know there are rich people that if they thought their money could be used to get people unhomeless, they would throw money that way. But without a decent business plan, you aren’t gonna get anywhere.”
Mayor Faulconer has thus far escaped Cat’s censure.
Cat is critical of the Section 8 program because it gives out vouchers for subsidized housing, but there are few landlords who will take them.
She says there are small children living on the streets with homeless parents; however, the other homeless in the area will help conceal the little ones so they won’t be spotted by authorities and taken away.
She says the streets are safe for “civilians” where the homeless live except for the “riverbed area,” because it’s peopled by “speed freaks.”
I ask: Let’s say a civilian woman walks down Imperial Avenue alone at midnight. Would she be safe?
“It actually depends on who’s out on that night and at that time. But if you are a woman or a child and you scream for help, the homeless will help you faster than the police will.
That’s where they live; they’ll protect it just like your neighbors will.
“When you park where the homeless sleep, your car’s not gonna get broke into because we’re not gonna get blamed for it. Ain’t nobody touching that thing.
Do you trust the police?
“Do I trust the police to do the wrong thing half the time? Yeah, I do.”
If Cat were to watch “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she would cheer for Jack Nicholson and maybe fantasize being him. In that reverie, Nurse Ratched would not work for a hospital, she’d work for city hall.
We tend to dismiss everything said by someone whose thoughts seem to tack into a strong wind. That’s foolish. Cat knows the homeless way of life as no social worker can.
She’s in her best groove as she says, “Homeless people are just like everybody else, there’s just degrees.”
You would probably like Cat. She might even like you. I wish her a Big Rock Candy Mountain. May her cops all have wooden legs, and may her bluebird sing beside a crystal fountain.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]