Along the San Joaquin River, coyotes come out of hiding during full moons. They cast long, shaggy shadows as they wander the river, howling, on bright midnights.
I have lived near the San Joaquin River for more than a decade. I cannot see it. But when the moon is full, the coyotes remind me how close it is. Even inside the house with my doors tightly locked, they scare me. And for miles around, other animals cry back, frightened like I am.
My old, sweet dog is startled awake when the coyotes wail and scratches frantically at the door to go outside. Agitated, he races across the yard to the farthest edge of the fence, getting as close to the river as he can. Under a glowing night sky, he closes his eyes, lifts his head and howls back. The sound he makes is primal, coming from deep inside him, and joins a chorus of other dogs wailing up and down the river.
Then, exhausted, he drags himself inside and collapses on his bed. As his ancestors wander the river, crying until sunrise, he whimpers softly. Jerking his legs as if he is running, he dreams of chasing a fat brush rabbit, racing with a pack of his wild cousins along the river's sandy edge, glinting with flecks of fool's gold.
The San Joaquin River was one of the first Valley features Spanish explorers spotted. A wide, meandering blue crack on the bottom of Central California's fertile bowl, the river was a safe harbor, overflowing with promise and potential. But in the shadow of houses on the Fresno bluffs, a rising flood of people are washing up and hitting bottom. Floundering in life. Weighed down by drugs, alcohol, domestic violence and mental illness. Pulled under by bad decisions, or bad circumstances, they drift down to the river, and never come up again.
In communities across Central California, our homeless are drowning on the banks of the San Joaquin River.
According to HUD's 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment report to Congress, the Fresno-Madera region had one of the country's highest rates of unsheltered homeless: 88.2% of the 2,421 homeless in this area do not have shelter. This data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is based on the annual Point In Time Survey. Administered each year in cities across the country, the survey collects data and demographic information on homelessness, which is used, in part, to allocate federal funds for homeless services.
And sadly, it includes questions for those living, unsheltered, along river banks. In communities across the country, including Fresno, these have become terrible rock bottoms for those who have nowhere lower to sink.
When coyotes howl during full moons, it must be terrifying to be on the river bottom with no doors to lock to keep them away. And Mother Nature has other dangers. The mosquitoes along the San Joaquin are relentless this year. When the sun sets, they attack in terrible, blood-sucking clouds. Whining and biting with no mercy, they leave welts that torment for days. California's drought has left river banks brown and crisply dry. How ironic that along miles of water, the risk of fire is dangerously high.
And then there are the threats that people make for one another. Increasing numbers of law enforcement helicopters circle the river bottom with spotlights at night.
The next morning the news will mention a crime, a drowning, someone hurt. I hear a startling number of gunshots from weapons of all calibers. More law enforcement personnel on specially equipped dirt bikes drive through the neighborhood on their way down to the bottom of the river.
The circumstances, decisions and paths carrying a wave of people there must be terrible if life along that wet blue crack where coyotes wander and wail is the better choice, the best option, the last port.
But for people up and down the Valley, the San Joaquin River is a soggy, miserable harbor for those pulled under by the weight of life's challenges. They are dragged down to drown on the river's sandy banks that sparkle with fool's gold in the light of a bright, full moon.
Dawn Golik lives in Fresno with her husband and their two young daughters. Her email is email@example.com.