December 3, 2008

The Bannon Street Irregulars

The red-roof building to the left of the red star is the admin area of the mission. The large gray-roofed building just below [to the south] is the chapel, dining hall, dorm room and several small offices. Most of the Bannon Street Irregulars sleep in front of the gray-roofed building along both sides of the road with a few in sleeping bags on the sidewalk directly in front of the admin building.
A very curious thing about the Sacramento Union Gospel Mission — like nothing I've ever seen anywhere — is just outside mission property, out on the street.

On the sidewalk, against the black wrought-iron gate and fence and on the dirt on the other side of the two-lane street, are where the Bannon Street Irregulars* sleep and rest and eat. And on the pavement itself is where they frolic, mostly at night. It's very dangerous for the Irregulars because the road is narrow and there's a sharp curve right where they congregate. Sometimes cars pass through the area at high speeds.

In the spring and summer, during my first months of homelessness, the Irregulars had bedding and their few belongings on the street in spots they maintained. The Irregulars, a constantly shifting, changing group of perhaps fifty street people look out for one another, for the most part, but there are also very frequent fights that break out. Some fights end with a fire engine and ambulance showing up on the street and then, maybe, a police car with an arrest occurring. Too, there are other passionate discussions that occur on the street that may end quietly or escalate into something more troublesome.

The great majority of the street people are men between the ages of 20 and 55. Between four and eight, at any given time, are women. A few of the people will have dogs; there are typically three or four dogs on leashes around, most of which are gentle pitbulls. The street person who is recognized as the leader is an older black man named Champ. He often nobly intervenes when passions are raw, but other times stays out of things.

Though dirt poor in accumulated assets, most of the Bannon Street Irregulars do get checks and have expenses. At the beginning of every month, or shortly thereafter, the Irregulars get their "happy checks." The sources of the checks can be SSI or SSDI or veterans benefits, or, sometimes, small short-term general-assistance payments from the welfare office. Also, many find what work they can to earn some money.

By sleeping on the street and getting food from various sources, the Irregulars are able to use large portions of what money they receive for fun or to numb their suffering on substances they are fond of or addicted to. Alcohol, weed, crack, crystal meth, speed or a wide variety of other substances are targets of addiction, in addition to tobacco which is commonly used in the form of roll-your-owns, known as rollies.

Early in a month the Irregulars get their checks. At that time, the availability of beds in the guest shelter in the mission free up such that we regular mission sleep guests have no trouble securing a bed. Usually before mid-month, after the Irregulars have spent their money, largely on short stays in motel rooms and on their substances of choice, beds become competitive again and some men who want one will have to stay out.

Russell Yeargun of Radiant Life distributing food to the Bannon Street Irregulars. The story of how God changed Russell's life can be read at the Radiant Life webspace. [Permission to use photo granted by Russell Yeargun.]
While the Bannon Street Irregulars can and do get food from the mission [dinner at 8:30 every evening and lunch on Sundays are offered, following a sermon] or lunch, available seven days a week at Loaves & Fishes, which is just a mile away, they have other handy free sources of grub, too. Many are likely to be getting food stamps. Several groups, including Food Not Bombs with their hot tofu-and-vegetable plates, distribute food once a week in Chavez Park, downtown about two miles from the mission. Also, many groups and individuals, acting on their own, come to where the Irregulars are to feed them. Radiant Life
and Abundant Life are two church groups that bring food on a set schedule. Bikers for Christ come with food, with their appearance being preceded by the roar of their choppers. Individual Samaritans come with sandwiches, pastries or soup they've prepared. Two young men irregularly appear distributing dozens of McDonald's burgers they bought nearby. Another food option: Pastor Dick Hedger of Downtown Baptist Church, who gives a sermon at the mission the first Thursday of each month, offers tickets for free McDonald’s meal deals to homeless people who attend his church’s Sunday or Wednesday services. Truly, like any metropolis, there are opportunities out there for the homeless of our extended city to stay fed. But it is especially important that the Irregulars, who may be apt to neglect their needs, be aided with diligence efforts that they be well. While there are many organizations involved in giving food to homeless Sacramentans, only Loaves & Fishes with their daily lunches [giving meals to 600 to 800 folks] feeds more than 125 people at a time in a metropolis where there are, perhaps, 2800 homeless.

In late summer, the population of the Irregulars began to increase and their presence on the street became more pronounced. A man with several ramshackle vehicles made from steel fencing, grocery carts and bicycle tires established a spot for himself. People began putting chairs on the street near the sidewalk. A hibachi got used regularly. Down the road, several vehicles were parked where homeless people slept. A large old trailer without a license tag became a few people’s makeshift home for a few weeks.

In May the city had reached an agreement with Greyhound to move their terminal from downtown to an area near the mission. Word later was that the new depot would be built beginning in mid-September. This was clearly the spur that got the police to make a play to move the Irregulars away from the area they occupied.

At night the police would arrive and roust out the street denizens. When this first happened, many Irregulars relocated at a spot near the American River. But others returned quickly to the Bannon St. locale. Soon, the Irregulars learned that there was no penalty for near-immediately returning after being banished.

After many rounds of roust-and-return, the economy began its tailspin and that put the skids to both the Greyhound move and the police effort to displace the Irregulars.

As fall arrived and the trees took on all their earthy colors, the nights got a bit wet and cold. Sometimes very cold. Tents began to spring up like wild mushrooms on the across-the-road-from-the-mission side in the Bannon Street Irregulars community. There were several big tents that were erected which could hold four beings. And there were small ones, too, that could keep a loner dry. Down the street, near where North B Street rounded a curve and had a name-change to Bannon, a tent village emerged on a piece of property no bigger than a quarter acre. The people there cooked chicken on an open fire and hung their clothes to dry on the wire fence.

Because of the bitter turn of the economy, the county of Sacramento delayed the opening of the so-called Winter Shelter [aka, Overflow] from Nov. 1 to Nov. 24. Overflow has a good reputation in the homeless community because of its beds on bunks [instead of bunk pads], tasty meals, lenient rules and TV room. Overflow adds 154 beds [104 for men; 50 for women] to the shelter opportunities we Sac’to homeless have in the cold months. The official close date is March 9, three weeks before its usual close. Hopefully, the weather will be friendly then. [Update: I am told by Barry Wisdom of VOA, in an email received on Dec 8, that, per Angelo Gama, there is a possiblity that the close date might be extended. Let us hope that it can be, especially if the weather in March is bad.]

In synch with the opening of Overflow, the Irregulars got notice from the police of their eviction from the street. As it happened, this time the police action was mostly successful. Today [Dec 3], only a few stragglers continue to sleep in front of the mission. And down the street, in the tent village, the population seems slightly reduced.

In the mission shelter, for the past three days, there have been about ten empty bunk beds out of the sixty available. And the number attending services and sitting for the evening meal have been greatly reduced. For the moment, things are rather good. The weather is chilly, but dry. Life goes on.

* I call them this, a play on the Baker Street Irregulars of several Sherlock Holmes stories. The Bannon street people are "irregular" in that they intermittently eat at and the men get beds at the mission.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I may not be eucated as Tom, but I do think he needs to get his facts straight. The overflow shelter is open from Nov. 24 till March 30th. I also wonder why tom, who claims to be homeles continues to identify homeless as them, their, and those homeless people. Maybe, just maybe the name of this blog should be changed to. (I call myself homeless Tom but Don't consider myself as one of Them, or one of those).

Tom said...


According to a sheet posted at the Info kiosk at Loaves & Fishes, Overflow is scheduled to close on Mar. 9. An earlier version of my post said Mar. 31 was the close. I'll try to verify or correct the Mar. 9 info.

If you read this blog, I DO identify myself as homeless. I AM one of us. But, I do not sleep on the street [except when I cannot get a bed], so I am not one of the Bannon Street Irregulars. I am an "outsider" reporting on the people sleeping on the street, for the purposes of this one blogpost.

Tom said...


I sent an email to the attention of Angelo Gama, a VOA program director, asking him to tell me what he can about the closing date of the Winter Shelter.

As you likely know, but other readers may not, VOA [Volunteers of America] runs the Winter Shelter on contract with the county of Sacramento.

Anon: Thanks for your comment, and your interest in this blog! I certainly want whatever information I post to be correct and I very much welcome and appreciate comments like yours.

Tom said...

Received an kind email from Barry Wisdom of VOA today. Here's the gist: "[Angelo] confirms that March 9 is the 'tentative' closing date for the Winter Shelter 2008-09 season. That is the best information he has. There’s a possibility it may be extended, but March 9 is the current official closing date."