The Homeless of Atascadero

On Capistrano Street, in Atascadero, California, the homeless humans sit in and around the downtown bus stop, the benches lined with adults and children; and the neighborhood end of the street, above Atascadero Creek, which empties into the Salinas River, lined with trees and forest-like, hosts tens of homeless cats attended to by volunteer folks who feed and water the cats several times a day. New cats in town are caught and spayed or neutered and released.

At the west end of Capistrano, near Highway 41 which plunges down to Morro Bay and the Seven Sisters mountain range, is the business part of the desert town—restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and even a Starbucks.
Yesterday morning, I walked five miles, circling back to the Starbucks for an iced green tea. A young woman was sitting in the outdoor seating area, nursing a coffee drink and writing with pencil onto a steno-type notebook. I asked her the time, and she looked up and said, “When you find out the time inside the store, come and tell me.”

I was instantly embarrassed, as I hadn’t really looked at the twenty-something woman, and now I saw dirty blond hair, unfashionably torn and filthy jeans, a threadbare white tee shirt and sneakers with no shoestrings. She resumed her writing and I walked inside.

Atascadero is a small town, 27,000 people, on the bank of the most literary river of them all, the Salinas, which flows north then cuts left to the Pacific Ocean at Salinas, California. Tom Joad and George and Lenny and the river rats of Canary Row are evoked there.

Palm trees are ubiquitous, as are cacti and yucca plants, and the style of the business buildings is faux Spanish, and the housing is all over the place. But the smallest house, the smallest apartment ($1,400), and even the footprints of the numerous trailer parks, are super expensive. The homeless congregate there because the climate is dry and mostly temperate—hot in summer, cool or warm in winter.

The homeless people, a mix of mostly Mexicans and whites, can get their meals free from various social work and religious agencies. They can bathe at the shelters. The kitties rely, whether they know it or not, on mostly women who unload SUV’s stocked with food and fresh water, and who sit in lawn chairs and greet the cats and talk to them.

Back to the young woman at Starbucks: She got cold—it was about 55 at mid-morning—and came inside the store, and, dear reader, I was drinking my iced green tea and munching on a yummy brownie, and I felt the urge to approach the woman and offer to buy her some food or treats. She was slumped over a tabletop, still writing—maybe the great novel or a poem to a loved one, a fellow writer, and I wanted to help her. And I didn’t. I was acutely sensitive to me the old man reaching out to the kid.

I walked home past the bus stop benches. A tiny brown girl, maybe seven, with tangled black hair, dressed in a short skirt and a tee with a cartoon logo, sat alone. I slowed and waited until I saw a momma emerge from behind a bush. Had that little girl been alone, I would have tried to adopt her. A pickup truck, its load space piled with two mattresses, was being relieved of cargo by some brown men. They dragged the mattresses over the bank of Atascadero Creek, disappearing into the wooded area.

I walked on down Capistrano Street, reaching the kitty dining space, and seeing an elderly lady sitting in her lawn chair, bowls of water and food at her feet.

None of what I saw seemed tragic in the bright sunlit day, the backdrop of green mountains and lawns, Lady Salinas her flowing robes of water flowing northward. Seemed. I am shaken to the core. I wish I had bought a meal for the young writer, adopted the little brown girl homeless, schoolless, friendless.

I walked into Dave and Linda’s house, the kitchen filled with light, the backyard bright with flowers, my guest room cozy, my needs attended to.

The sun would set into the Pacific Ocean, orange fire drowned by pulsing waves:Another beautiful day in the neighborhood of Atascadero, California.

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