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An Interview with a Homeless Environmentalist

by R of the Northeast LA Radical Neighbors Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007 at 4:40 PM

“I’ve gotten to where picking up [litter] is just a never ending job.” -- Willow

An Interview with a ...
willow1.jpg, image/jpeg, 1024x768

At the weekly peace vigil in Highland Park, we meet numerous homeless people. A few months ago, one of them in particular piqued my interest.

The first time I saw him, he was diligently and meticulously collecting small pieces of garbage to prevent them from entering the storm drain. He was also very dedicated to sweeping up leaves and garbage at the nearby veterans’ memorial, and he stopped a young child from scaring pigeons. (His harshness toward the child didn’t win him many fans. However, the child eventually learned that even people who are hard to deal with can be allies in our endeavor to improve the world.) One of our vigilers claims to have seen this man praying while picking up litter.

He goes by the name Willow and appears to be in his mid-forties.

I sat down and talked to him in early January. Nearby, the Sunday peace vigil was still going, and many cars were honking in support of it. To me, it was as if our conversation had a musical score behind it

We talked about a variety of environmental issues, some of which exceeded the scope of the topic at hand. (Our tangents included alternative sewage treatment, alternative energy, the recirculation of grey water in homes, and we shared our experiences with environmental movements that have been undermined by ego-driven people.)

However, the focus of our talk was his passion for the environment as well as his activism, and that, primarily, is what is included in this transcript.

R: I’ve seen you picking up litter, and I do, too, when I go places. What got you started?

WILLOW: I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Probably a public service announcement, something about Woodsy the Owl, who was a friend of Smokey the Bear. “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” I don’t know if that was the start of my inspiration or was just contributory toward it. Oh yeah, and the Indian [Iron Eyes Cody].

R: And McDonald’s had the singing trash cans.

WILLOW: I think I remember singing trash cans along with the singing french fries.

I’ve just always been a nature lover, so those ideas probably helped form my ideals. [But my ideals were] probably already there.

R: Did you pick up litter when you were a kid?

WILLOW: Oh yeah. When my friends threw litter on the ground, I used to pick it up. And I would basically lecture them about littering, not that that made much of a change in their littering habits. But that was my position, and I maintained it even until now.

R: I’m surprised by how much litter people leave. You find it everywhere you go, hiking trails…

WILLOW: [It’s] everywhere. People just throw their stuff everywhere. I don’t understand it.

R: A lot of stuff gets into the oceans through the storm drains.

WILLOW: Oh yeah. It all gets washed out. A lot of times I pick up those little plastic pellets that the kids shoot at each other with those BB guns. [Inaudible] they’re laying all over the streets, and they’re going to get washed into storm drains and washed into the sea, and the fish are going to try and eat it.

R: Yes, pelicans and jellyfish turn up dead with chunks of plastic in them.

WILLOW: Yeah, because they mistake it for food. It’s floating in an environment where it’s not supposed to be.

R: What other aspects of the environment are you concerned about?

WILLOW: Oh, the whole thing: air pollution, water pollution. There’s a lot of ways that we could innovate.

. . . There’s a lot of things that could be done, like they could use hemp to replace paper. That’s just one example of the things that hemp could be used for as an industrial tool rather than as people smoking the blowers--but I’m not against that either.

R: You mentioned being in the service. When was that?

WILLOW: The early ‘80s.

R: Where did you serve?

WILLOW: Germany. Things are much cleaner there than they are here, let me tell you. The Germans appreciate their outdoors much more than we do. They have the Volksmarchen, which is a popular sport. It’s just hiking. They don’t condone people trashing their wilderness, and so their laws are probably a lot stricter.

R: I heard that in Germany recycling is actually a law. Whereas here, even when we have recycling bins, people will put their yard trimmings into the blue ones instead of the green ones.

WILLOW: Yeah.

[The conversation turns to keeping the veteran’s memorial clean.]

WILLOW (cont’d): I’ve gotten to where picking up [litter] is just a never ending job.

R: It is . It’s daunting.

WILLOW: When I had an apartment, I would occasionally pick up areas [near] trash cans just to give myself something positive and constructive to do. But now that I’m out on the street, it’s like, “Good grief, it’s all around me all day long!” So I’ve got to get used to dealing with the fact that it’s there because if I consume my time and energy with cleaning up everywhere I go, then I won’t get accomplished [with] finding a new apartment. So it’s a matter of prioritizing.

R: If everyone did their share, it would make a huge difference.

WILLOW: Yeah, if everybody just put their stuff where it should be, that would be a big help.

Even on my cart I have a little bag that I keep tied on the side for trash. So I put all my trash in that little bag, and I empty it into a trash can when I need to. I don’t throw my cigarette butts on the ground—I always put them in my pocket if there’s no trash can around. I used to have a little pouch. Actually, I still have it: it’s in storage. But I don’t very often use it because I’m here with my trash bags.

R: . . . In Europe many people are carrying around little hand-held ashtrays with a lid that flip open and closed (see: Treehugger.com).

WILLOW: That’s interesting. I just had a pocket envelope that was made of foil on the inside and plastic on the outside. Somebody gave me that, and I’d carry it around. I used to carry it around more, but then I didn’t have this [cart] to push around, so I didn’t carry a bag around with me all day to put them in. But even if I didn’t have them with me, I’d knock my ashes and tobacco out of the cigarette and put the rest in my pocket, because I think every little bit helps—or every little bit hurts depending upon what you do.

R: . . . Cigarette stubs that get into the gutter go out into the ocean, too…

WILLOW: Everything goes out into the ocean if it doesn’t just clog the gutters up. I don’t think most people are very conscientious about that. They just throw their stuff on the ground, and they give no thought to what’s going to happen to it. “Somebody gets paid to clean it up.” Basically they don’t really care

R: All they’re concerned about is getting it out of sight and out of mind.

WILLOW: Yeah, they’re finished with it. They’ve eaten their sandwich or drank their coffee, so there goes the cup, or there goes the wrapper. A trash can be sitting three feet away from them, and they don’t have any cognizance that the thing is there and what to use it for.

I see that problem all the time. I saw some kids walking by eating this bag of chips. All of a sudden they finished this bag of chips, threw it over their shoulder, and about five steps in front of them was a trash can that they could have put it in.

R: It seems to me that people don’t feel like they’re a part of nature.

WILLOW: I think that’s part of it, that people don’t have an affinity. Since I’m a nature lover, it means something to me when I walk by a set of flowers that have trash sitting on them. I feel for the flowers being covered with trash and not being able to get the sun they need, or the air they need, or the water they need. It means something to me, but for other people apparently it doesn’t mean a damn thing because if it did, they wouldn’t be doing it.

R: And sometimes people will have left-over orange peels, and they just throw them in the gutter. At the very least they could throw them in soil because in nature everything is recycled.

WILLOW: Oh yeah. I usually don’t throw organic material in the trash. I usually throw it on the ground somewhere. I don’t throw it down the storm drain.

R: Where are you from?

WILLOW: I grew up in Rhode Island. I’ve been out here for 10 years.

R: What brought you out here?

WILLOW: Well, I fell in love with somebody, but that didn’t last for very long. But what the hell, I’m here. I like the weather a little bit better, but I don’t find there’s as great a sense of community. The people are very transient.

When I was in Rhode Island, I knew people for years and years and years at a time. But here it seems like I only know people for a year or two years. There’s a few people I’ve known for several years but very few. Everybody else [is] there for a while, you seem to maintain a decent friendship, and all of a sudden they move somewhere else.

R: When I was growing up here, I’d make good friends, but then they’d move to another part of the country…

WILLOW: …or even to another part of the state or another part of the county. When I was in Rhode Island [the community] was very small. Even in Providence, the capital of the state, if somebody moved across town, it wasn’t much to go visit them there. Here, it’s lucky if you hear from them again.

(Sighs.) I’ve been looking for a Section 8 apartment, and it seems like the only ones that are available are in South Central.

It’s really wretched the way they’ve decreased all the housing downtown to revitalize, to gentrify the place and rent out all these lofts for beaucoup bucks that most people can’t afford. And then they’re trying to get rid of the homeless.

Homelessness hasn’t been a perpetual problem for me. There’s only been one other time that I was homeless. I stayed at a shelter for a while.

I don’t like to do that because it’s almost like being a voluntary prisoner. You have to be at a bus stop at a certain time and get on the bus and travel to the place. Then once you’re in there you can’t leave and return. You can’t even go across the street to the store for something. If you leave, you can’t come back. I just don’t like that. It’s taking away people’s freedom. “We’re caging the homeless for the night.”

Then [t]hey wake you up at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning, they feed you, and get you out on the streets by 6 o’clock, rain or shine. It could be pouring down rain and they’d be putting you off that bus. So it’s really not much of a shelter. It’s just some place to put you for the night.

Apparently, the shelter owners get about $80 a head for the people that are living there.Good grief, if they just gave half of that to each of the people living there, they could go out and get their own places, and they wouldn’t be homeless anymore. So it perpetuates [the problem].

The people that are organizing the homeless shelters are getting very, very wealthy. If you get $80 per person a night, and if they’re staying there for the entire month, then it’s a lot of money. So it’s in their best interest to keep you there. They’re supposed to help you find housing or what-have-you, but there’s no real incentive. And the longer you’re there and the more they know you, someone who’s not a problem, then they don’t want to get rid of you.

There was some improvement on the meals while I was there, but most of the meals are very unhealthy. Some of them I refused to eat, but I had SSDI, so I had money in the bank [and] could go out and get breakfast. They didn’t [serve] lunch there, but the dinners were really atrocious, especially for people that might have high blood pressure or cholesterol problems. Once or twice I saw them serve salad. Oftentimes, they would have boxes and boxes of wholesome bread, and they would give us the white bread. And they would [take] the wholesome bread and put it in the backs of their cars. So there’s more going on than just them making money. . . . I wouldn’t think that they could eat it all because they took more than it looked like they could eat.

How regulated is it? They’re pretty much free to do what they want. I would see people driving in Mercedes and Rolls Royces. These are the people that are running the homeless shelter. That’s business. And they’re going to Hawaii and all these other places, and they’re buying land and investing in what-have-you.

To be honest, it’s been a major adjustment to being homeless in the first place. Since I’m disabled (I’m neurologically-impaired) I can’t carry my stuff on my back. That’s why this thing [the cart] around. All I’ve got in here is my backpack; my bedroll; my sleeping bag; a couple pieces of blanket; food; plastic to cover myself up when it’s wet; and my stick that I walk around with when I don’t have the carriage, because my balance is pretty screwy. And if I have to walk in close quarters, I can bump into people and potentially fall. Sometimes, if something distracts me when I’m walking and I turn my head, I’ll lose my balance.

This [cart], becomes cumbersome because I can’t take it on the buses. I can take it on the Red Line and the Gold Line. So I have to take it from here all the way to Korea Town, where my storage is at. They’ll let me park it there for the day, and then I can go look for a Section 8 apartment. But that’s an hour or an hour-and-a-half journey from here to there. I can change clothes [at my storage], and I can look better for when I go to the interviews.

I’ve just gotten to the place where I can do that, and it’s been since before Halloween that I’ve been homeless. Three months. I was basically homeless before that, but I was staying in hotels. That costs a lot of money, and I can’t save up [for] a deposit for a Section 8 if I’m staying in a hotel.

Right now I can go to the 99 Cents Store and stock up on sandwich stuff and feed myself sandwiches. . . . If I can eat a sandwich for less than a dollar, why am I spending $4 in change or $5 in change on Penny’s burgers or Ok Chinese? And my New Year’s resolution, perhaps, is to quit smoking because I can probably save money there.

[He then talks at length about religion. The subject then segues back to the environment.]

R: Were there any other influences on your childhood that made you feel strongly about nature?

WILLOW: Nature itself did, the animals mostly. Animals, plants… I was just always intrigued by those things. I thought the rest of creation was wonderful. I’m one of those crazy people that believes that human aren’t the only creatures that have a soul. What’s the word animal? Isn’t animus the word that means “soul”? And if something is an animal, doesn’t it mean that it has a soul?

R: In your family, were you the only one [with this interest]?

WILLOW: Pretty much. My grandmother [was] kind of in the same mind-set, but I interacted with her very minimally because she lived in Florida, and I lived in Rhode Island. So occasionally there were bits and pieces of our lives where we interacted a bit.

I think that she had a great role in shaping my mind-set about those things, but at the same time we diverged on things. I believed that maybe there is reincarnation, but she believes that no there isn’t. But who cares? As long as we’re focused on living a good life.

R: Could you talk more about your reverence for animals?

WILLOW: It’s just interacting with them You interact with animals if you have a heart , if you care. Animals seem to know that.

Again, there is the religious mind-set. Basically, humans have souls and need to be saved and nothing else does, so it can all go to Hell, or “It doesn’t matter if it goes to Hell or not because there’s nothing to save.” So [to them] all of creation is just there for the sole purpose of human benefit. There’s that mind-set that nothing else really matters, that we can trash the earth.

Some people even interpret part of Revelations, which talks about a new Earth, that the old Earth was just wiped away. [It’s] almost as if you went out, got drunk and crashed your car this weekend, so Dad’s going to buy you a whole new Corvette on Monday because he loves you. He doesn’t care what you do with what he gives you. As long as you’re still there, he’s going to give it back to you anyway. And I think it’s very childish.

R: There seems to be a division among religious people that we’re either supposed to be protecting the environment that we’ve been given or we’ve been given dominion over it.

WILLOW: [A]pparently God gave Adam/Man dominion over everything, and some people interpret that in sexist ways as well, that the male of the species, not humankind, has dominion and therefore domination over everything. I think they don’t understand the difference between dominion and domination, and we all live under the dome. But that doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to subdue everything. Perhaps tame things in one way, but at the same time, what’s the wilderness without wildness?

R: The Native Americans seemed to be on the right track. They only used what they needed…

WILLOW: I’m also part Cherokee. I might be part Muskogee, we’re not too sure. But a lot of my ancestors seem to have ties with the earth. [The] Irish [have] husbandry and agriculture and what-have-you. If you’ve got to live on that island, it’s not the easiest place to live. The potato famine really hit us hard back then, and that’s probably why I’m here [laughs]. I’m supposed to have Jewish ancestry as well.

I always had an affinity with Native American ideologies, and ways of looking at things, and animistic mind-set. Seeing the soul in everything is what I think animism is. It says that “you and the rocks are alive.” Basically, a Native American would say something like that, but even Jesus said that. One time [in the New Testament], because the people were praising Him, He said, “The rocks and stones would start to sing.” It was like something was going to celebrate an enlightened person walking amongst them.

[At this point, Willow feels we’ve covered just about everything, and our conversation ends.]

***

A few weeks after this interview, I noticed some plastic BB gun pellets in a gutter. Remembering Willow’s mention about these pellets harming sea life, I pick them up and drop them in a nearby trash can.
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