I’ve been writing about people without a home to call their own long enough to know that they each have their own individual stories. I try not to use the word “homeless” to describe them. It has turned into a cliché that often prevents people who are living relatively comfortable lives from seeing, understanding and feeling compassion for those less fortunate than they. Still, one can’t avoid the word completely. After all, it’s a national and not just a local disgrace. Even in Sonoma County, the land of the millionaire and the Mac Mansion, an estimated 5,000 people are homeless, hungry and living in poverty. Too bad more reporters don’t seek out those who are on the edge, but prefer to talk to county officials and law enforcement.
Recently I traveled along the Joe Rodota trail—a bike and walking path that extends from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol—and looked at the encampment that has been there for months and that the county is upending. It was surprisingly calm given the imminent evacuations. Some people aired out their tents; others scraped mud from their boots. Still others waited to be taken to a temporary shelter in east Santa Rosa, operated by St. Vincent De Paul.
Near the intersection of Highway 12 and Fulton Road, a man I had never seen before, approached me and told me his story, with little if any prompting, though I explained I was a reporter. He said his name was Richard Boals, spelled B O A L S, was on Facebook as Rick Boals, and was right then living at Sam Jones Hall, a shelter on Finley Avenue in Santa Rosa operated by Catholic Charities. Boals didn’t ask for money, food or a place to stay. He seemed perfectly happy to stand in the sun and tell his story and he was eager to have his picture taken. He’s not an average or typical person without a home. No one is. Boals is a wordsmith and here are his words. He’s also, as he told me, a “salesman.”
“I drove tractor-trailers for forty years and worked for a company that made solar panels. I even started my own business, Tidy Industries. Then the roof caved in. I was hauling stuff for a dude, sheriff pulled me over —this was near my home in Lebanon, Missouri —found methamphetamine and so I went to jail for 34 days. I got a lawyer, told her I didn’t do meth or any drugs. They tested me and I came out negative. But the arrest and the lawyer set me back, and I lost my house and my belongings. I tried to stay with my mom. I love her, and send her money when I can, but I can’t live with her.
My dad, who was working class, was in the war, got hit by Agent Orange, and then cancer, which is what killed him, not combat in Vietnam. After my dad’s death, there wasn’t much keeping me in Lebanon so I came to Santa Rosa. I had been here before. California is one of the few places in the U.S. in winter where you don’t see snow. The weather is survivable. Right after I arrived here the transmission went out on my truck. I was broke, so I sold the truck for $300 and camped out along Santa Rosa Avenue. I had a propane stove with me and I bought a sleeping bag and a tent. To survive, I panhandled. Someone, I don’t know who—maybe the cops, maybe not— took everything I had. I panhandled some more. One day I collected $281 in two hours. I found that I made more money with a sign that said, ‘Smile, You are Awesome’ than a sign that said, ‘Have a Nice Day.’
Last November a guy named Patrick who had food stamps invited me to move in with him and I did that for a while. On New Year’s Eve when I was panhandling I made $300. The best place to panhandle is outside the movie theaters in Rohnert Park. One lady gave me a $50 bill. I don’t enjoy panhandling. I’d rather work. I can clean gutters, chimneys, offices and bars. I just did a dirty bar on Mendocino Avenue for Cody Brown. Haven’t you noticed that people like to be clean! When I had my own cleaning company in Lebanon I’d clean a place three times a week for $79.
Last Christmas I was staying under the bridge at Ninth Street in Santa Rosa where it was dry, but the people who were living there created trouble and so I moved out and went to the bridge nearby under Brookwood Drive. One day a woman lawyer came there, took me in her car and got me a bottom bunk at the Sam Jones shelter. Let me tell you, it’s better to be inside than outside! I get to take a hot shower everyday and they provide a hot meal at night. The other day it was spaghetti. The people out here who have the hardest time are the people on drugs. Some of them would rather be outside than inside because in a shelter they can’t do drugs. They let drugs ruin their lives. You know, God didn’t give anyone limits and some people go way out
I’ve never done drugs or alcohol and never will. I’m going to go on and fight the fight for as long as it takes. I tell people out here on the trail, ‘You can’t wait. You got to go and make it happen.`Now what’s missing in my life is a woman. I’ve never been married. I’d love to find a woman, but it’s hard when you’re living under a bridge or in a shelter. When I was a truck driver I’d meet women hitchhikers and have some female companionship. But at least I’ve made friends at Sam Jones, which is co-ed. Nothing of mine has been stolen by anyone, not yet anyway. People seem to like me. I’m a good salesman. I can sell anything to anybody. It’s a God-gift.