I Have Good News to Share, For Once

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The question I'm most frequently asked along the Recession Road Trip goes something like: "Don't you get depressed listening to people's problems every single day?" My answer is generally no, that appreciating harsh realities of economic hardship creates perspective for my own petty concerns about mounting credit card debt and the vagueness of my future career. But that's sometimes a lie, especially when it pertains to the Zimmermans, the 62-year-old couple I wrote about last week on their first night of homeless, spent with their wonderful new friends of SafeGround Sacramento. This is a piece that really stuck with me, and considering the number of comments, emails, and phonecalls I received about it, I realize the heartbreaking story affected many. So much has happened to the Zimmermans and SafeGround over the past week, I had to update their story. Best highlight: Charles Zimmerman's military pension is being resolved, and he will soon receive a large check for back pay.

First, I have to admit that it was difficult for me to leave Sacramento this past weekend. It's not in my nature to walk away from anyone in need, a potentially crippling character flaw that has occassionally made for excruciating forward progress on this trip. The night I left Sacramento, the bed in my cousin's Presidio Heights home in San Francisco was just too luxuriously comfortable to afford me the kind of peace of mind that permits sleep.

After a few days spent camping with SafeGround in their tent village or in the forest near the river, my heart had melded in alliance with their cause. I never feared arrest by the police--not only because I knew my case would be handled differently--but a few days in the life outside helped me appreciate the bone-numbing exhaustion the homeless have to endure in order to keep moving along. Stay in one spot too long and the police will pick you up. Even when staying in the SafeGround tent village, everyone would wake up by 5:30 am and head to Loaves and Fishes to wait for breakfast, just in case the police decided to have another raid that day.

The Zimmermans spent only one night in the SafeGround tent village before a local non-profit group, Francis House, arranged for a one-week motel voucher so they could heal from their heart attacks out of the elements. I made sure they had food to eat, and tried to help arrange for travel to Seattle so Charles could still have his dream job on that ranch. The rancher, unfortunately, decided he didn't want to hire Charles anymore.

I'd also started lobbying political and military connections to see if someone could fast-track resolution of Charles' stalled military pension. As it turns out, I didn't even need to do that. According to Charles, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) apparently read my piece about the Zimmermans and contacted Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), who sits on the Committee on Veterans Affairs. As a result of their efforts, Charles Zimmerman had a mind-blowing meeting with a representative of the US Army yesterday afternoon.*

Charles called me as soon as the meeting had ended to tell me that the man had apologized for the delayed resolution of his case. He said Charles would start receiving full benefits within a matter of weeks, including an initial check that would cover backpay for the past 18 years since his retirement.

"Are you sitting down?" Charles asks. "Yes," I say.  "They say they'll be sending me a check for $972,000," he replies.

We both laugh semi-hysterically for a bit before calming down enough to discuss rationally. "What are you going to do with all that money?," I ask. "Retire," he says. "Then help SafeGround as much as I can. And that's it."

Mayor Kevin Johnson joined us at SafeGround for dinner Saturday night, breaking bread with the small homeless community to demonstrate his understanding of their situation, and his dedication to formulating an effective plan to give them a safe place to lay their heads at night. Johnson committed to having a comprehensive proposal in front of the City Council within the next month, drawing from the input of the homeless, and various relief agencies.

Though a positive light hovers on the horizon for SafeGround, on Sunday they had to abandon the tent village they'd established in the vacant lot owned by lawyer Mark Merin. The city consequently dropped its case charging that Merin had created a public nuisance by allowing the homeless to camp on his property. A judge dismissed charges brought by the neighbors to the property, though allowed them a window in which to charge civil damages against Merin.

For now, the SafeGround people have retreated into the woods, camping in small groups of 3 to 5, never in the same spot for two nights in a row. Winter is approaching faster than any government bureaucratic process could establish a secure shelter for those in desperate need, so Charles Zimmerman has been brainstorming alternative options.

If they could secure an abandoned building, through a government grant or otherwise, the people of SafeGround have sufficient skills to remodel it for their own habitation. Cowboy Bill is a laid off iron-worker with experience in construction. Then there's Henry, who ended up homeless after enduring a 7-month trial this year, charged with assaulting an intruder inside his own home. The jury found him not guilty, obviously, but he still lost everything while going through the legal process. Henry is an unemployed union plumber and electrician.

Cowboy Bill, Henry, Michael, Caryl, Carmen, Joanne, Nemo, Tip, Scarecrow, John, Space, Old Man Jim, and the rest of my wonderful new friends of SafeGround are fully capable of and willing to do any amount of work to establish a safe space for those homeless citizens who can abide by the most basic rules barring alcohol and drug use. They just need a chance.

*UPDATE: Before one more person congratulates me for performing the accidental good deed of forcing resolution to Charles Zimmerman's military pension problem, I must confess that some doubts have arisen about his mental stability and reliability as a source.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's press office ultimately conceded they could find no evidence any member of her staff had played a role in the situation. When I told Charles this, he expressed surprise, but said that's what the Army official had reported when he came with the good news about the pension.

I've also encountered problems securing official verification on some of the details of Charles's story. Last time I spoke to him, he said it was no surprise military public affairs officers could not locate his file, considering the trouble he has had wrangling Army bureaucracy since his retirement 18 years ago. He gave me additional information to assist their search for his file, but that has not led to any success on that front.

Could Charles have made up the whole story about his military service and pension? Yes, possibly, but I don't want to draw that conclusion just yet--and not simply because I don't want to think that I was so easily fooled. I don't believe it makes any logical sense that he fabricated that part of the story.

First, when he discussed his military service, he gave details about regiments and deployments, and used appropriate Army acronyms as a vet would tend to do. If he never served in the military at all, then I would have to believe he had constructed this lie (or fantasy) after doing quite a bit of research.

Second, I either talked to him or saw him on a daily basis for the 5 days I was in Sacramento. During one of those conversations, he mentioned someone from the military had gotten in contact to arrange a meeting to discuss his pension the following week. The next week, he called to tell me the good news that came from that meeting. A skilled swindler might lay preparatory groundwork for a long con, but Charles would have to be the most illogical thinker to have engaged in such advance planning.

A con artist would generally be seeking some kind of material (or other) gain from their fabrication. The Zimmermans received material gain after the first piece I wrote about them, when people responded wanting to send financial assistance to ameliorate their dire situation. Charles reporting news that they were soon to become near-millionaires put a end to that. So my hesitation in concluding that he could have made up the goods news about his pension springs mostly from my inability to discern any positive benefit that could have resulted from such a fabrication.

Lest anyone suggest the couple perhaps made up the entire story, I want to conclude by saying that my interviews with them were mostly separate. Charles was setting up a tent and getting their bedding ready most of the time I was speaking to Elizabeth, and no inconsistencies arose to make me question what Charles had already told me.

I have been calling the Zimmermans once or twice a day to try and sort out some of this confusion, but they haven't been answering their phones. My friends in the Sacramento homeless community have instructions to call me if they cross paths with the couple, but that hasn't happened. I will create a new post as soon as I have enough information to draw a certain conclusion one way or the other.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.
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