“Awful! You sliced it low and left. What did you get— 65 yards?”
That’s how I met JR. Those were the first words between us. JR is a homeless man living among the 400 or so tents off highway 57 in Santa Ana, California. He had his golf balls, mostly cheap Wilsons, lined up on tees made of sand and rock whacking away and landing in the ironically named Santa Ana River which had not a drop of water in it on this November day.
“You know so much about golf—come show me something!” JR yelled back at me.
I was there looking for a story. I’d been embedding in homeless camps on and off for the past year to learn about the bottom one percent virtually no one is talking about except in statistical terms. Homelessness is declared a crisis in every major West Coast city and Los Angeles is seriously considering a 100 million dollar outlay to “solve” it.
For the working poor who spend half their income on shelter, some 11 million according to the latest Housing and Urban Development numbers, it doesn’t take much to fall into homelessness.
If there are “Forgotten People” as president-elect Donald Trump claims, then these are those people. The unhoused who’s numbers are rising by 15 and 20% along the West Coast since 2014. They come from the South, Mid-west and rural Northern towns hoping to make a break for themselves. Instead they often find themselves priced out and locked out.
This camp, one of Southern California’s largest, is post apocalyptic. It’s locked behind a slapdash fence between a long and steady crawl of traffic and the riverbed. Nothing but dirt, gravel and tents, no electricity or bathrooms, but tents for more than a mile.
“First is your stance. Your shoulders aren’t squared over the ball, your hips are turned and you’ve got a happy foot sliding on the right. It’ll never work. Plus, why are you trying to drive with a five iron?” I say to him smiling and pretending to scold.
He lowers his camouflage hat over his eyes surrounded by smile lines and chuckles. “You see a spot for me to set a full bag around here? He points to his camp site set up tucked against the cyclone fencing. “This is my sleeping tent and my food tent. You may not have noticed this isn’t a country club.”
He is smiling. His teeth are hit and miss, his breath smells like a white jug wine and he is charming the flip flops off me. At 61, he stands shirtless in the ruthlessness of a Southern California sun.
“I’m JR from Michigan. Not a bad body for an old guy, don’t you think?” He gives a model like pose and stares out toward the river bed like a general surveying his battle field. He giggles, fondles his beard and asks, “You’re a sight. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for a photo op. and a story. But I can see my real purpose is a golf lesson. Okay, show me your best stance. JR, what the hell is up with your grip?” His hands are tight and he’s choked up on the club.
“Okay. What’s wrong with my grip?”
I pry his hands away and tell him, “Hold it like a bird. Don’t let it fly away but don’t crush it.”
He works on it. Shifts his feet. I position his shoulders and knees above the ball. “Okay, you’re set up. Keep your eye on where you want the ball to go. Let the club hit the ball. It’s not force but feel. Go!”
JR whiffs it. The ball barely dribbles twenty yards. “You’re wrecking what little game I have!”
I assure him it takes a bucket of balls to get comfortable. But his stance and grip are improved if he stays with it. We both know there are limits to how far he can go with one club and a handful of banged up Wilson seconds.
We both know why it’s unique to see a guy working on his game out here. Surviving day to day, finding food, water and a job are the normal pre-occupations.
He shows me around. We meet artists who sing, make rock sculptures and write poetry. We meet edgy, young guys who have dogs on ropes and a few tweakers toward the back of the camp who mostly day sleep.
“We got all kinds in here. I just talk to everyone and feed them if they’re hungry. It’s us making the best of it. It’s not that bad.”
JR is constant motion running me through the homeless village like a tourist, waving and smiling like I’m the new kid in summer camp. He moves through the groups introducing me to his people. “Julie is a journalist reporting on homelessness . She’s writing about us.” Some people want to talk to me, will let me take a picture, most aren’t too impressed. They’ve seen the reporters come and go. They are still here either way.
JR hit the road five years ago. He only wants to tell me he prays with people and uses what money he has to feed the hungry. He says he’s on foot but that’s the only detail he’ll fill in.
He stops and leans in to tell me something.
“These are the people this country doesn’t work for and more and more are coming every day. When I got here a few months ago there were twenty of us—now it’s four hundred and still growing.”
I ask him why he thinks it’s happening. “ Nine dollar hour jobs land you here. There’s not enough left over for rent and rents are too high anyway. How you going to pay rent when it’s 15 hundred a month and you don’t even make that?”
He says if one thing goes wrong, you get sick or have a car break down then you can’t recover, although people try.
“Why work and still live here? Although lots of people do. I see them getting up early and heading to work. I couldn’t do it.”
JR had been in the military and construction at one point. “This is hard but it’s nothing to compared to what I’ve seen. I’m okay. I do feel sad for the young ones out here. I don’t know how they ever get out of here. There’s really no way.
We make our way back to his tent and driving range. We go back to our golf lesson.
“Okay JR, settle in. Let’s see you breathe into the shot. Hands, shoulders, feet. All good. Okay, give it a whack.”
He winds up, swings easy. The ball pops up straight and lands about 150 yards away. He smiles. I clap.
The sun is going down. “Better get you out of here missy. I’ll walk you to the gate.”
As I leave there is a young family setting up a small outdoor grill. The dog is tied to a stake in the ground and the kids look hungry.