Peter and Gabriel sit with their backs to a garage door, taking shelter from the midday sun in an alley off Park Boulevard. Fixtures of this spot, the pair can often be seen exchanging pleasantries with local apartment dwellers; today, they wave hello while taking a break from their weekly can-gathering routine. They smoke cigarettes and sip from cold tallboys of beer, dual bicycles and backpacks carefully propped up around them. The men are friendly and polite and pointedly avoid profanity.
Gabriel's been living on the streets for two years. He used to work in construction, but his struggle with alcoholism has put him in and out of rehab facilities and makes it difficult to keep steady work. Peter was a Marine who served in the first Gulf War and has been in and out of jail a few times--he doesn't offer up too many details but gets teary-eyed when he says he violated his ex-wife's restraining order by showing up at her house with birthday presents for her kids.
"I'm out here," Peter says, "because I'm mending a broken heart."
It seems the two are part of an extended family of homeless people who camp out together. One member of the little tribe is a rather difficult woman who suffers from encephalitis and is confined to a wheelchair. The last time Peter took her into Borders bookstore "to feel human again for a little bit," he caught her trying to steal books. Gabriel once pushed her into Tijuana to buy cigarettes--$16 for a carton instead of $30--and came out of a restroom to find someone trying to steal her. Still, they seem to relish taking care of her and proudly display several pairs of brand-new shoes they found to take back to her today.
For these guys--relatively fortunate homeless men, with their bikes, well-stocked backpacks and family solidarity--it seems that the hardest part of living on the street is constantly being ignored and misjudged. Particularly horrifying is child abuse they claim they witness simply because people think they don't care."Please, please, don't harm a child in our presence," says Peter. "We're the good guys."