L.A. Now

A homeless man serves the homeless

The flower is fake, the puppy belongs to a 24-year-old homeless woman and this strip of dirt under a highway overpass that Ray Polk is trying to turn into a sacred ground of sorts is surrounded by nothing but concrete and tattered tents.

But Polk wears a warm, gap-toothed smile watching the puppy, Mercedes (the name means mercies), tussle with one of the plastic flowers on his memorial to the homeless who have died here.

"You got yourself a friend there," he tells owner Christina Calkins.

A cold wind whips Calkins' hair across her face as she reads the names beside each flower: Sam, Eddie, Baby Doll, Theresa, Hiddie, Duckworth, Mr. Miles....

Polk points to names and rattles off the different ways they died: "hit by a train, overdose, overdose, murdered, just wore out, beat to death other side of G street — sweet guy, handicapped, couldn't defend himself, another train...."

"Sometimes I come by and look, even though it scares me," said Calkins. "It makes me realize how dangerous it is out here. It makes me realize I shouldn't be out here. But I am."

Polk, 58, is out here too.

In the shadow of an abandoned overpass, less than a quarter mile from the larger tent cities that flank the south side of Fresno, he's carved out a one-man social agency: a homeless man helping the homeless.

That fresh-white counter over there (a donated cabinet with a coat of paint) is where he distributes food to a few dozen homeless people.

A church group picks up donations from Trader Joe's and brings them to him every week. Polk displays bread and produce in a repurposed Otis Spunkmeyer case on top of the counter.

Along the dead-end road he calls home he has staked Bible verses on poster board — a picket fence of misspelled Scripture. He has a locked shack full of clothes in case someone needs something to keep them warm. There's a chapel fashioned of blue tarp.

At his counseling station — a desk and two mismatched chairs — a nondescript painting of flowers hangs on plywood that might generously be considered a wall.

It's here, Polk said, that he does his most important work.

"I give them my ear to hear what they have to say. Sometimes that's what people need most: somebody hearing what they're saying."

The name of the place, Homeless Ministries, is spelled out marquee style, but instead of in neon it's with white cups placed in the holes of a chain link fence.

If Polk is mentally ill, there aren't obvious symptoms. His eyes are clear, his speech focused, his manner good-humored. He says he hasn't touched drugs or alcohol in years.

So, what's he doing out here?

"Sometimes people break," he said. "And the pieces go back together different."

He'd been in trouble in his youth. He was 13 when a neighbor in South L.A. gave him drugs to sell. Later, he used a bat in a street fight and ended up in the California Youth Authority for two years. A teenage marriage lasted less than a year.

But by 1989, trouble was decades behind. He was working as an appliance repair man at Sears and caring for his mother, Wilma.

She ran out of blood pressure medicine. Polk came home to find her on the floor, in anguish, dying from a stroke.

The funeral was in Fresno. The family has had roots in the area since the Dust Bowl blew them in from Tulsa, Okla.

After the funeral, "my head wasn't right on my shoulders," Polk said. "It's like after you bury someone it's a hush-hush thing. You're not supposed to talk about it anymore."

On the street, he found drugs and alcohol — and people who would let him talk on and on of loss.

Two years later, when he could finally see his mother's face without watching her dying, he replaced the drugs and alcohol with Scripture and projects.

Polk's sister Shirley Whitfield, 64, says the family used to try to get him off the streets, but it's been more than 20 years now.

"Where's the sympathy if we were always chastising: 'Why can't you be normal? Why can't you get a job, get an apartment, pay your bills go rest a bit and get back out the next day and do it again?' " Whitfield said. "He talks on so strongly about what he's doing out there that you can't want but to leave him alone. He's got work to do."

As Polk returns from his rounds collecting cardboard for recycling, a man in a truck with boxes of oranges and bottled water drives up.

"You a veteran?" he asks Polk.

"No, but a lot of veterans live around here," Polk says.

The man drops off the oranges, water, pens and hats. Polk takes a towel and wipes off each orange before stacking them in the case. He sorts through clothes looking for a long pair of pants for 45-year-old Louise Killebrew from Phoenix, who has only bicycle shorts. She's still wearing a hospital bracelet and has a bloody bandage on her stomach.

A man on a bicycle, deep cracks in his weathered skin, rides up.

"How you doing today, Julian?" Polk asks.

"Pretty good, Ray, but I'm hungry," says Julian Fernandes.

"You can always get something to eat here," says Polk. "But, man, you should have come by Monday. I had some of that bread you like. The sesame bread that's your favorite."

If Sister Francis Christine Alvarez can't place Ray Polk's name right away, you can understand why.

She is coordinator of children's activities at St. Agnes Holy Cross Center for Women. It's in the same gated compound as Poverello House, a bustling social agency for homeless men. Probably a dozen people each day ask her for markers or poster board. She vaguely remembers getting someone plastic flowers for some project.

But Polk has named her as the memorial's main benefactor. She wants to see what she unwittingly helped build.

"Sister Francis!" Polk exclaims when the petite white-haired nun shows up at his compound. She recognizes his face. She asks him for a tour, and he shows her the food station, the chapel and the counseling center.

When they come to the memorial, both stand quiet.

Alvarez knows many of the names.

The man nicknamed Kramer was once chief executive at the local hospital. His picture still hangs in the lobby there. He died on the streets from alcoholism.

Birdman, Alvarez recalls, used to stand silent in one spot all day pointing at birds, and everyone thought he was too far gone to speak. But then one day he said to her co-worker, "Good morning, Sister Mary, how are you?" and he greeted her every day after that.

Denise was a sex worker trying to put her life right, coming to the center almost daily. She was murdered and her body dumped in a canal.

Alvarez looks at all 77 names memorialized in Magic Marker.

"Why did you do this, Ray?" she asks." What made you build this?"

He tells her he heard that homeless people are often cremated and their ashes thrown into a common grave.

"They're invisible in life, and then when they die it's like they never existed. There's nowhere for a person to go and say, 'I knew them. They were my friend.' "

Marcum is a special correspondent.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World