Voices of the other world
This is the second of two articles examining the homeless problem in Nevada County. Today, The Union talks to the homeless themselves.
This is the face most of us don’t want to see.
It is a face creased by the harsh outdoor elements, sunburned to a copper hue.
Its eyes dart, searching for a morsel of food, a sip of liquid, a blanket.
It is the face of a man who, if not for the kindness of strangers, would be in a dark alley behind the National Hotel, with nothing but the clothes on his back to shield him from the elements.
It is the face of Charles Paxton, 62, who sits in a wheelchair, holding his broken leg up with one hand and closing a hole in his esophagus as he struggles to find words to describe his fall from business owner to homeless vagrant.
His shirt, adorned with a faded American flag, reads “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.”
“It’s my prerogative to be back on the street, but no, I don’t want to be there,” he said last week from a room at the Holiday Lodge, where the kindness of strangers has allowed him and another homeless guest a week’s worth of showers, clean sheets and hot meals. “I don’t want to be out there. It will kill me.”
Paxton, a Pottowatomie Indian who grew up in Grass Valley before moving to Washington state, said cancer of the esophagus forced him to quit his family business. For seven years, he’s been on the street.
He was in a rehabilitation center in Phoenix before finding his way to Grass Valley, where he’s lived in several places – including behind Raley’s, where he said police kicked him out and handcuffed him, dislodging his breathing tube – where he can stay for a while without being too obvious.
And, he said, there’s no one to help him. A sister who lives in Fairfield has cancer, and he hasn’t seen his only son in seven years.
Still, he says, no one should feel sorry for him or any other homeless person.
There’s no way of knowing how many homeless there are in Nevada County, but those without shelter are there – under freeway overpasses, in municipal parks, even behind the historic National Hotel.
Grass Valley Police Chief John Foster said the problem barely registers a blip on his radar screen.
“There are a couple of areas where people have been sleeping and have been arrested for trespassing,” he said. “I can’t say it’s a major workload issue for us. It’s not at a point where the problem is alarming.”
While moving around Nevada City, Paxton was helped by Charles Frohm, 34, a Modesto native who became homeless shortly after a head injury 11 years ago. Frohm has lived in San Francisco, Oakland, behind Ralphs grocery store and under the Broad Street overpass.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” said Frohm, wearing a black shirt and faded jeans in a room at the Holiday Lodge and eating fast-food hamburgers. “It gets hard in the winter, but I don’t mind it so much because I have a street family out there. We hang out together on the street, and I’m not afraid so much.
“It’s easy here because no one bothers you.”
Frohm said his greatest wish is to get back on his feet enough to see his 4-year-old daughter, Gabriella, who was taken away when he could no longer work.
Frohm and Paxton were brought to the Holiday by the Emergency Assistance Coalition, a group of church leaders who created a contingency fund for temporary assistance for the homeless.
Claire Grondona of San Juan Ridge also paid for part of their stay.
“It’s an embarrassment to mention that we have homeless people now,” she said. “But we have to get the citizens of this county to get together and give these people a chance.”
The Emergency Assistance Coalition is one of the few agencies that helps those with immediate needs.
During the first three months of this year, the group provided 86 nights of lodging, 37 meals and 13 gasoline vouchers.
Last year, the group fielded 974 calls; disbursed 416 nights of lodging to 333 families, including 506 children; and distributed 140 meals and 86 $10 gas vouchers.
“We will never adequately address the problem,” member Marilyn Tilford said. “We are grateful for whatever the churches provide. We’re just a drop in the bucket.”
Robin Manross, manager of the Holiday Lodge and a member of the coalition, said summer means less room at the inn for the homeless.
“I do this as much as I can,” she said. “I wish I could take them all in, I really do.”
In a few days, Frohm will be back on the street. He’ll get some assistance. People will feel sorry, but do little.
“They shouldn’t,” he said. “We have pride, and we’ll survive. People hate me simply because I’m a bum.”
A fund for Charles Paxton and Charles Frohm has been established at Citizens Bank. Donations may be made at any Nevada County branch.
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