I Have Good News to Share, For Once


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.

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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.

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