I had the opportunity to visit Arcata, California Sunday to pick up Adam, my stepson, to bring him home for Thanksgiving. Arcata is a small college town of approximately 16,000 citizens and home to Humboldt University, a four year college primarily for forestry education. That stands to reason. The college is in the middle of some of the oldest forests in the world; the famous Redwood forests with its giant Redwood trees over 300 feet tall and several thousand years old.
On the surface Arcata is a lovely small college town. The downtown around the center square looks to have been restored and you can rent kayaks or get your bicycle repaired or have a beer and meals at the Sideline or Alibi salons or shop for clothes or have a cup of coffee at The Jitter Bean. The center square is well groomed; a place that invites you to sit and rest for a minute. You can stay at the historic 93 year old Arcata Hotel and rent a room that overlooks the center square for $122, with an AAA discount, and eat sushi in the Tomo restaurant in the hotel. One review says, “…the front suites are well worth it…you can overlook the beautiful downtown plaza that gives you a feeling of serenity and tranquility…” Many people see what they want to see.
In the evening several dozen young people wearing hooded sweatshirts over layers of clothing loiter in front of the Sideline and Alibi bars asking for cigarettes and money. They have all they own in backpacks nearby and sleeping bags are rolled tight and strapped to backpacks. Their hair is long and sometimes unkempt but overall they appear clean. As the night wears on, they gather up their backpacks and sleeping bags and fade into the night to their chosen sleeping spot; some on the benches in the center park and perhaps others in alley ways or behind buildings. The night is cold in November.
At around 4 A.M., street sweeping machines and garbage trucks wake you up if you’re staying at the Arcata Hotel. You probably slept with the window open, even in November, because the steam radiated heat in the hotel cannot be regulated; it is ether hot or cold – there is no in between, so the outside noise is invasive.
Early in the morning as the dawn is breaking seagulls gather around the plaza to pick up whatever humans tossed aside, in spite of the street sweepers. As the day gets lighter ravens began to arrive to drive the gulls away, although not entirely successful, and a battle begins over the crumbs of society. The sleeping bags on and under the park benches began to move; a garbage can lid opens by itself and someone inside the can unwinds his cramped legs to emerge from the can; a person actually slept in a garbage can. Young waking people begin to walk the streets, folding their hands under their sweatshirts and hooded coats for warmth. One girl who couldn’t be older than twenty heads for The Jitter Bean for a cup of coffee. I notice that she has bitten her finger nails deeply, perhaps a sign of her fear and insecurity. I wonder where or how she got the money. She returns to the park bench and shares the coffee with the friend with her. She notices me but asks for nothing. Another young man walks passed talking to himself, oblivious to my presence.
According to the Arcata Hotel clerk, a private citizen runs a soup kitchen nearby where these young people can get something to eat and clean up with a shower and other amenities. But, no sleeping facilities are provided. Other Arcata citizens are opposed to helping, however, because they claim that help is the enabler; enabling them to stay in the situation they are in. Many of them should be on medication, but have no money for the medicine. So, she says, the town’s decision on what to do is at a stalemate; nothing is decided. She, however, must do her job of keeping the homeless children out of the hotel restroom and foyer.
So, our children, the crumbs of our society, sleep in the alleys and parks among us, waiting for the morning gulls and ravens. As a side note on the way home Adam received a text message that a male friend of his had died Sunday in an automobile accident where his vehicle had gone over a cliff near Garberville. While the details are not yet known, the Humboldt Sheriff knew nothing of an auto going over a cliff, but they did know of a young man who had jumped off a cliff Sunday in an apparent suicide. Perhaps they know they are the crumbs of our society.