www.iPoet.com: Feature: PEOPLE ARE TREES TOO
Online post date: May 28, 1999
- News Story: EDGE CITY
a reprint of the East Bay Express article of that name
by Chris Thompson, reporter, and
Faith Cathcart, social documentary
freelance photographer
April 9, 1999: page 4

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image: Pat McMullin (left); : photo by Faith Cathcart.

(page 4 OF 5)

Last month, the Albany City Council voted to clear the landfill. Between now and the June deadline, councilmembers resolved, the city must do everything in its power to find shelter beds and services for the squatters. But City Councilmember Allan Maris, who has nursed the landfill since its inception as open space and helped draft the plans for the Bay Trail, knows it's not going to be easy. "I'd known for years that there were a few people living out there," Maris says. "But within the last few months, there were suddenly so many more. It's a new experience for the city. A lot of these people don't want services. They want to be independent and don't want to be crowded into a shelter with so many other people. Many also have social and behavioral problems. They need space-that's why they're out there."

"The council gave clear instructions for us to do this in as humane and dignified a manner as possible," Ritzma says. "These are human beings, after all." That's where Operation Dignity's Alex McElree comes in. Since January, McElree has driven out to the landfill twice a week, delivering food and supplies to anyone he finds. If he and any of the squatters get to talking, he tells them a hard truth: the end is coming. The city's going to kick you out-you can't hope this will all just go away. Why don't you come in from the cold and leave this life behind?

My day with McElree begins at the Operation Dignity offices, on a dismal stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Way in West Oakland. McElree's office is a mess. His desk is covered with architectural drawings of a planned housing project in Alameda, certificates of appreciation from the Veterans Administration, and rolls of nickels. A framed photograph of the Vietnam War Memorial hangs on the wall.

In 1963, when a couple hundred American "advisors" were stationed in a far-off place called Vietnam, McElree joined the Navy. He may well have served as a career man if the war hadn't broken out; as it was, he served eight years, often fighting deep in the Vietnamese bush. We don't talk about what happened to him there, but shortly after McElree returned home, he found himself homeless. "That was due to substance abuse-I don't blame Vietnam for it, I don't blame the world for it," McElree says. "I made some really bad life choices and paid the price. I went in and out of rescue missions, the Salvation Army. Living in the street, living in abandoned cars, places like we're gonna go visit tonight. Poor, hungry, lonely. Wishing for the end, mostly."

After six years on the streets, McElree managed to get back on his feet. He moved to Oakland (from San Jose) and eventually took a job as an emergency medical technician. After fifteen years of combat and homelessness; McElree got a job picking up Oakland's dead and injured. "That was a lot of fun, but it didn't help my combat [fatigue]. It all caught up with me one day. In 1991, I had a heart attack, suffered a major depression, and went through some major therapy. While I was in therapy, I started looking at the homeless issue. [The doctors] wanted me to go for one hundred percent disability and never work anymore. Just do nothing. I guess that's not my style."

As McElree recuperated, he began thinking about a friend he had known when he was homeless. His friend was also a Vietnam vet. McElree knew he was still out on the streets along with so many other vets. Determined to do something, McElree rented a house in West Oakland, bought some furniture and groceries, found some homeless veterans, and moved them in.

"These veterans want to stand on their own two feet, but they need somebody to believe in them, and they need a place to stabilize long enough. That's what we try to do. We let the VA do all the head counseling and all the other stuff, and we concentrate on helping them stay clean and sober in an environment that's safe and secure, where they feel good about themselves. You can take a look at my office and see that I'm not too organized, but when we go out today in the ambulance, that's what this is really all about, going out there and taking care of our own."

We walk out to the Operation Dignity driveway, where an old ambulance which once served the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital is gassed and ready to roll. McElree opens up the back door, leans in, and asks, "You got the hot water on?" "Yeah, I just put it on right now," a voice replies.

I lean in and take stock of the supplies: bags bristling with day-old sourdough; cans of Spam, pork and beans, and Vienna sausage; Styrofoam cups of dehydrated soup. "We get a lot of these Clif Bars and such, and those are very high-nutrition," McElree says. "We try to get socks whenever we can; socks are like a luxury item. For a long time, we didn't even think about the women and didn't have any feminine hygiene products. But the women kept asking for them, and we finally got some.

"Now these right here, we got plenty of these." McElree holds up a slick, black vacuum-sealed pouch: surplus Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) from the Gulf War. "I got four hundred cases of these from the Department of Defense. There's twelve different kinds of meals. This one is corned beef, one of the better ones. Back in my day, the food came in boxes and cans. We had to use Sterno to heat 'em up."

Ironically, almost all of McElree's supplies come courtesy of the Gulf War He's packed countless pairs of night desert camo pants and green slick ponchos. Green sleeping bags rolled up into little balls are stuffed in a storage shelf near the ambulance's ceiling, along with plenty of wool blankets "The good thing about wool is that if it gets wet, it'll still keep you warm," McElree says "You can dry 'em the next day. These here are hiking kits." He points to a pouch filled with soap, a comb and toothbrush, toothpaste, suntan lotion, and a little prayer card tucked in a pouch. "As you can see, they're from the Salvation Army. We usually take the prayer cards out, because we're not allowed to give stuff like that out." He grins. "We replace the religious stuff with condoms."

As we drive to Albany, McElree points out all the homeless encampments he's visited in Oakland. "We do almost a six-hour run in Oakland. We could do this eight hours a day, seven days a week, and on almost every run, most of the people we'd see would be new. If we went down to 34th Street and Peralta, you'd find the homeless who sleep under the freeway. Farther down Peralta, you see more of these dead-end streets-you find homeless there. There's a Caltrans yard down here, and people break in there and sleep. We may go to it when we come back."

We pull onto West Grand Avenue. "Down in this area, there's a lot of homeless," McElree says. "Almost anywhere you find the least amount of buildings, especially where people are doing metal work and recycling and stuff, you find a lot of them. Most of them are pushing shopping carts, you see. I guess it's not something you should be proud of, but I'm really good at finding [camps]. I just ask myself, 'If I was homeless here, where would I go?' You wanna get someplace that's safe, where you're not gonna get harassed or hassled." As we drive north on I-80, McElree point to places he figures hide homeless camps: certain overpasses, groves of trees along the frontage road.

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