I reflect on the legality of our options. If we, like the family at Prado, had been denied shelter access and couldn’t afford a motel, where could we go? I recall my phone conversation this morning with an officer at the SLO Police Department.
“If somebody’s asleep on the sidewalk downtown,” I asked him, “can you legally give a ticket or force them to move?”
He explained that sleeping on sidewalks is a “gray area,” with police intervention only in response to citizen complaints or to preempt ongoing calls. Even when someone is ticketed, a county judge ultimately decides whether to levy a fine. Police officers are in a difficult position, he explained, walking the line between protecting public safety and upholding individuals’ rights when no law is technically being broken. However, he pointed out, sleeping downtown does raise a sanitation issue. Because local restrooms close at night, people are left no option but to defecate in bushes and planter boxes, which is illegal and a health hazard. The officer told me it’s frustrating to be regarded an “enemy of the homeless” when he’d actually like to see a true solution as much as anyone, freeing up officers’ time to serve the public in other ways.
Our conversation broadened my perspective on the issue but doesn’t help much right now, contemplating where to sleep to avoid a potential $200 to $300 fine. We eventually head downtown, seeking a place more populated and (perhaps?) technically legal. Upon arrival, we learn that the group who used to sleep at the transit center (with one person watching over everyone’s safety during the night) was recently evacuated by the police. I have a sinking feeling as my fantasy about “safety in numbers” evaporates. There will be no ad-hoc community or volunteer watchman for us tonight. Like everyone else, we’re on our own.
We head downtown looking for somewhere to sleep, but most areas seem too brightly lit, too crowded, or too narrow. We want a place secluded enough for some privacy, yet exposed enough that harassment would be noticeable. After searching unsuccessfully for a while, we pause to enjoy a musical trio jamming on Higuera Street. The rhythms are upbeat and we dance together on the sidewalk, temporarily forgetting the uncertainties of the night ahead. For a moment, it’s actually kind of fun being on the streets of SLO—the music, the adrenalin, the bizarre sense of adventure.
Around midnight, we finally find a spot to sleep. Tucked behind a low wall, it’s shadowed and invisible to passing cars … seems perfect. We unpack our sleeping bags and attempt to settle in. But Michael feels uneasy, remembering stories of homeless people being attacked on city streets. It feels vulnerable to sleep as people walk past.
Michael wants to return to the creek, but I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of walking so far and finding a spot in the dark. Our attempted window into homelessness definitely isn’t fun anymore. Now that it’s past midnight and I’m exhausted, cold, and confused about where to go, it feels awful.
We eventually search for a better place and settle on the corner of Marsh and Morro, deciding to sit awake on our sleeping bags and see what happens. This is technically legal, right? We want to know for sure, so Michael sits while I try flagging down an officer. The first one who drives by ignores us. Finally, another approaches and brakes in the middle of the road.
“Can we legally sleep there?” I call out.
“No,” he responds without hesitation.
“What law is it breaking?”
“647(e) of the Penal Code. Illegal lodging.”
“Is there anywhere we can legally sleep tonight?” I ask.
“What if it’s full, or not accepting people at this hour?” (It’s nearly 2 in the morning.)
“There’s nowhere else we can go?”
“No. You can’t just roll out a sleeping bag anywhere you want,” he says firmly.
I nod in compliance, and Michael and I groggily re-pack and start walking. After a few blocks we meet a homeless man who invites us to join him at the Occupy tent by the courthouse. It’s illegal to sleep there, he says, but fine to sit and hang out. And if we happen to doze while hanging out, no worries. He’ll wake us if anyone comes.
So we spend the next three hours cramped in the tent beside two other “dozing” people, huddled in our sleeping bags and drifting in and out of consciousness. It’s nice to know someone is keeping guard and that morning isn’t too far away.
Just before 6 o’clock, we head bleary-eyed back to Prado. It’s still dark and the air is chilly, but we want to leave before being noticed. When Prado finally opens at 8:30, we unroll our sleeping bags in the yard, relieved at an opportunity to sleep freely. I imagine how difficult it must be to hold a job, apply for housing, and do errands during the day without adequate rest at night. Even napping in this yard is a privilege not everyone has. What about those who aren’t admitted to Prado and have nowhere to meet basic needs for rest, food, and sanitation, even during the day?
Too exhausted to ponder this further, I drape a sweater over my face to block the sun and fall asleep for the rest of the morning. When we awaken, there’s just enough time to grab food and have a mandatory intake interview before Prado closes at 4 o’clock. We head back to the creek and eventually find a low-lying willow with branches reaching the ground: a perfect hiding place. On hands and knees, we break through the dry underbrush and clear a tunnel into this tree-cave, making room to spread our sleeping bags beneath the low canopy.
We share some leftover lunch from Prado, then brush our teeth and crawl into the sleeping bags. It’s early but already dark, and we don’t want to draw attention with flashlights or sound. I hate this sense of hiding like outlaws. I lie awake for a long time, listening to the roar of the freeway nearby. Floodlights from an industrial plant flicker on and off, causing subtle changes in the shadows. I sleep like an animal that night, ready to awaken at any moment from any sound.
Dori Stone is the author of Beyond the Fence: A Journey to the Roots of the Migration Crises. Send comments to Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.