It's been 13 years since 71-year-old Wayne hopped on a bus in Augusta, Georgia, in search of somewhere with trees to call home. Trees that he had seen in a dream for several weeks. He even googled “where to live with trees"; naturally, the City of Trees called to him. The first time he laid eyes on the American River Parkway, he was in love. Just a few weeks later, someone walked near his camp with a bucket of puppies, tiny bundles of all-white fur. Again, Wayne instantly fell in love, picking up one specific 6-week-old female pup, drawing her close and agreeing to keep her. He named her Whitey.
Wayne and Whitey cuddle together on a black leather couch, dotted with wiry, white hair. Whitey is tucked up tight against Wayne's side. She greets everyone at the open door on the blue welcome mat that says, “It's Good to be Home." Cautious but with a wagging tail, Whitey determines if visitors are safe and friendly; she immediately reverts to her place with Wayne.
A door, even an open one, is a new concept for Whitey. She's lived her entire 13 years of life outdoors. But two weeks ago, Wayne and Whitey moved into their first apartment together. The couch, ottoman and side table are the only furniture in the common room. On the side table next to Wayne is a CD/radio. Wayne loves music, particularly Country music – like any good Georgia boy. Jelly Roll is one of his favorite new artists, someone he relates to with a checkered and dangerous past, living a different life now and wanting to help others. He loves sports – particularly baseball and football. He is loyal to the Atlanta Braves and Falcons, a nod to his roots. His goal is to get a TV and cable, so he can actually watch his team play.
The kitchen has two plates, a bowl, a cup, and a pasta strainer drying next to the sink. Dish clothes that say, “Happiness is homemade" and “Eat well, Laugh often, Love much" sit on the counter. Cooking for himself isn't new to Wayne, but safely cooking hot food without the fear of a citation or starting a fire still feels surreal. Access to a shower, a toilet, a bed, and a full kitchen is something Wayne hasn't experienced in more than 13 years. He was housed in Georgia but hasn't been housed at all since coming to Sacramento.
“They made me the mayor; I feel responsible for everyone." Wayne comes from a family of law enforcement officers. But when assessing his own future, police work was never on his list. He describes himself as tough, doesn't back down from confrontation. “I don't think I would've been a very good cop. I got in a lot of trouble." Wayne acknowledges that life can be dangerous for those living unhoused. Violence and theft run rampant between encampments. But for Wayne, he had a sense of purpose – protecting people that he now considers family. One woman in particular, Mary Jane, is someone Wayne considers a daughter. “I promised I'd always watch her back, but now I can't do that all the time. I'm worried about her. She needs to come inside too."
Mary Jane, like so many others that Wayne knows, is very happy for him. Wayne hopes to inspire others to accept the help they're offered, now that they see him living housed successfully. “I had chances over the years to get housing, but I always said no. But when I met Jenny, and she offered to help me get housing, I decided it was time – because Whitey deserves to be inside."
Jenny is Wayne's Community Health Worker from Sacramento Covered, hired in October 2022 as one of the 10 new positions funded by the Board of Supervisors that are dedicated to encampment outreach on the American River Parkway. In 2021, the Board approved $940k for 10 navigators dedicated to the Parkway. Since then, funding has increased to $1,714,000 a year, which includes 10 navigators plus flexible client assistance, funding for short-term motel stays for particularly vulnerable people and/or folks actively working towards permanent housing goals, as well as funding for client transportation.
Jenny first met Wayne in December 2022 – she came upon his camp while out offering help to those along the Parkway. She asked Wayne if he was interested in help and for the first time, he said “yes." Like many people living unhoused, document readiness is a hurdle to receive any kind of help. Without identifying paperwork such as an ID or social security card, even individuals with income that are approved for housing cannot move.
Wayne has a monthly income from both disability and SSI. He also had a robust recycling business while living on the parkway, making up to $50 a day. But income isn't the only thing keeping people unhoused – it is also a severe lack of available, affordable units that meet people's needs. Before his current apartment, Wayne was unsuccessful living in a more congregant environment with a single room but shared kitchen and bathrooms. He isn't much of a people person, so he bid his time, waiting for a single unit to become available.
During the January storms, Wayne saw the extreme impacts that weather can have on those living unsheltered. He was living off the Two Rivers trail when a woman experienced a tragic loss of life due to the storms. Wayne knew her and carried that tragedy around with him. It was then that he realized that it was imperative he get housed. When the second set of storms rolled around in February, he took the offer of a motel weather respite voucher, bringing safety to him and Whitey. However, when he returned to his camp, everything was destroyed. Jenny was able to help replace most of what he lost – a new tent, sleeping bag, and food for both him and Whitey.
To qualify for housing, Wayne had to face the dozens of camping tickets he had accumulated over the years. While he had cleared his warrant, he needed to go to court and needed Jenny's help to get there. When asked why he had so many citations, Wayne replied, “Sometimes I do the wrong things to take the heat off other people, to keep them safe. The Rangers respected me because they knew I only ever toed the line but didn't cross it. I was always just trying to protect everyone else; they needed me."
Wayne and Whitey again moved into a motel, waiting for their new apartment to be ready for move-in. Sacramento County's community partner Elicia Health's mobile vet clinic visited Whitey, ensuring she was healthy and ready for housed life – giving her vaccinations and a chip. Jenny helped Wayne enroll in CalAIM, to provide ongoing medical care, ensured he had every document, and eventually, helped him purchase housewares for his new place. A bed, a dresser, sheets, towels, pots, and pans – basic items that many housed people don't give a thought.
While Wayne is no longer an active client of Sacramento Covered, Jenny stays connected to Wayne -helping him navigate housed life, ensuring he is taking care of himself and assessing what else he needs to stay successfully housed.
As far as Wayne's long-term plans now that he is housed? He laughs, “I haven't quite figured that out yet."
As he sits in the comfort and safety of his new home, Wayne reflects on the hardest and best parts of living unhoused. He painfully remembers the two times that Whitey nearly drowned in the river, and his worry that her white hair/skin would sunburn. He remembers the time someone hit him with a 2x4 plank - Whitey bit his attacker, scaring him off. He fondly remembers endless days of fishing, until all his equipment was stolen. And he remembers the people, all the names and faces from the last 13 years. Some are no longer alive, but many are – still out there - like Mary Jane.
“If she doesn't come inside soon, I'll have to go back out there. I promised to take care of her, and I'll keep that promise." Jenny reminds Wayne that Mary Jane has her number and can call when she is ready to accept help. Right now, Wayne reminds himself why he came inside – “I came inside for Whitey. She is getting older and slower, and she deserves to be comfortable. Because she is the best thing to ever happen to me. We saved each other's lives."