I took Rosie, our usually sweet black lab/pointer out for a walk the other day. Passing the CVS, there was an older gentleman sitting on the ground near the entrance. Rosie went right up to him, and the two really hit it off. The man had a sign about having been recently evicted from his home and was reaching out for some sort of assistance.
This guy reminded me of the Sadhus I saw in India. They were Hindu holy men who wandered around, religious ascetics, who had renounced the worldly life. Not really begging, they patiently waited, and somehow survived, on the offerings of strangers who would leave a few dates, or a few rupees in the dish set before them.
Here’s what I learned about Charles Uerling.
When and where were you born, Charles?
Born and raised in the town of Sonoma in 1958. I graduated high school up in Washington where my dad had gone to try his luck with a restaurant and bar. We moved back down here pretty fast when that failed.
Is that a German name, Uerling?
Yes sir. We were part of the Kaisers back in the 1800’s. We were actually Jewish and saw that it wasn’t going right for the Jewish population, so we left. On Ellis Island our name of VonUerlingstein was changed to Uerling.
Really?!? Did you go on to college after high school?
(Charles laughs.) Well, I’m working on that now at 63! I’ve always wanted to create a no-kill animal shelter, so I’m working towards that.
Did you ever marry?
No sir. I never found someone I could trust quite enough.
Can I ask what you had for lunch?
Sure. A lady came by and gave me some cheese and prosciutto. It was pretty good. I sit here maybe once a month when things get dicey at camp. People just drop off food for me. (Charles points to a bag beside him, full of granola bars, crackers and a few cans.)
It’s rough out here, but I get it. There’s fires and catastrophes, but certain human needs just have to be met … Sebastopol is a good town. Officers don’t push us along as long as things are clean and you’re sober.
What did you do for work?
I was a chef by trade, but with my psoriatic arthritis I couldn’t stand or sit for long periods. So I could never keep a job for too long.
Do you have medical coverage now?
Yes, MediCal. I use the Brookwood Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa.
Your sign says you were evicted from your home? What happened?
It was about a month ago. The house was over by Ives Park. It was a nice two bedroom for $2,800. Between my disability check and Social Security, I could swing it. But the owner came and told me she needed $150 more a month, and I just couldn’t do that. So after just two months in that house, and before I could find a good roommate, I was out again.
Before that I was in Guerneville, sleeping on the plaza for a while, but I was asked to move on.
So, in the last five years, how much time do you think you spent under a roof?
Maybe six months, while I was in a program. But that ended, so pretty much all the time.
The fires have left a toll on housing. People like me are just left behind.
So, you’re back on the street now?
Yes sir. I live just off the trail (motioning to just behind the feed store).
How many people are back there?
Just me and my buddy at our camp, but all told I’d say there are maybe 20 to 50 people out there.
The church by Ives Park gives showers Mondays and Thursdays, and lunch Monday thru Friday. Really nice bag lunches.
I’ve got to applaud the people of Sebastopol. They’re always dropping food or clothing off at the park. You don’t get that sort of treatment in Santa Rosa, but they may be jaded there by all the drugs and alcohol.
I’ve been clean and sober now for close to 30 years. I try to give as much as I get.
(At this point, a woman comes over to us and asks if we need some dog food for our dog. I try to explain that I’m okay, but she clearly wants to help in some way, and insists on bringing us something. She goes to her car and brings us an offering of some very fancy dog treats. She left happy, and Rosie loved the treats.)
How do you do it in the cold?
I’ve probably got 40 pounds of blankets in my tent! I’ve got a great tent too. It really kept the water out.
The stimulus checks we got in March, April and June, really helped me get housed. But that certainly wasn’t a long-term answer.
Did you get a COVID shot?
Yes, I did. On Morgan Street in Santa Rosa at the Catholic Charities drop-in center. We even got a $25 gift card with it. That was a nice incentive.
You said earlier that your family were actually Jewish. Do you relate to the world as a Jewish person now?
No. I’m more of a Buddhist now. I actually took vows in 2003. I met a monk, who said that Buddhists were only asking four things; do no harm, don’t abuse alcohol or other substances, be of clean mind and always try to pay it forward. That just made sense to me, and that’s the way I’ve tried to live ever since.
You were probably living that way before you met the monk.
Yeah, probably. I was raised humble. Do the best you can do.
Charles, as someone who has lived on the streets for so long, do you somehow feel cheated?
No, but sometimes I try to understand why it’s been so hard for me, and so easy for others.
So, what’s your plan going forward?
That shelter for animals.
So, you’re dreaming of a shelter for animals, before shelter for yourself?
There are some people working hard with me to find a place. They’re from The InterFaith Shelter Network. With their help, I may have to leave the county, but that might be part of the answer. They’re looking at options in Solano or San Rafael. Some housing for the homeless is being built on Terminal Island. It’s kind of like what was built a little while ago out at Los Guilicos out near Oakmont.
You really want that?
Not particularly. I like my privacy and independence, even if it’s in a tent.
One more thing. If you had an extra 20 bucks, who would you give it to?
Usually, when I get my check, I’ll take a few 20s and hand them out to other people on the street. I get a good check. I tell them, no drugs or alcohol with this. They probably don’t listen, but it makes me feel better.
Charles, it was a pleasure speaking with you.
No. Thank you. And you have a beautiful dog.
…. After we parted, Rosie and I walked towards S. Main, and then into Ives Park at the old Vets Building. There was a huge Redwood Empire Food Bank truck there, and a number of people in bright vests busily setting up a food distribution event. A longish string of cars was lining up around the building, waiting for the opportunity to stock up on free food, and I had to wonder just how many people, like Charles, were living on the edge.
If you had a spare 20, ….
The InterFaith Shelter Network is at 2455 Bennett Valley Rd. C200 Santa Rosa, CA 95404 or ifsn.org
The Sebastopol Christian Church is at 7433 Bodega Ave, Sebastopol, CA 95472 or firstname.lastname@example.org for outreach services to the homeless.