Darion, who also calls himself Blackbird, has been homeless for 15 years. He forages for edible plants in the Mendocino coast to supplement his diet. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Every Tuesday, the Mendocino Presbyterian Church offers free meals and showers to homeless locals. On this particular Tuesday, 30 or so visitors emerge from a church building carrying paper plates with scrambled eggs, pickles and bags of potato chips.
The once-a-week meal is welcome to regulars like Darion, who calls himself “Blackbird" and declined to give his last name.
Unlike homeless people in urban areas with more options for meal programs and shelters, Blackbird has a very limited number of soup kitchens and other services nearby. Only the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center in Fort Bragg, 10 miles up the road on Highway 1, offers daily breakfasts and dinners. Clients at the Fort Bragg Food Bank may pick up food bags just once per week.
So Blackbird turns to the wild to supplement his diet -- he forages edible plants and wild eggs in the headlands near the town of Mendocino.
“When I am hungry and I don’t have any money or no means of making food, I can always walk around and make a stew or a salad out of all the different plants,” he says. He has been living out of his backpack for 15 years and carries pots and pans to cook the food he gathers.
Blackbird lists boysenberries, peaches, apples and garlic as some of the plants he relies on.
He wanders off a trail and stops by a plant he recognizes -- wild radish. He carefully picks a seed pod and munches on it. The radish grows underground.
Blackbird learned about foraging after he graduated from high school and left his family and started a nomadic life that he calls traveling -- living without a regular residence.
He says he wanted to get away from the people that fed his years-long methamphetamine addiction in San Luis Obispo. “I had to get away from my dealer and friends there,” he says.
Now 33, he says he shuns fast food and avoids anything with additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) if labeling is visible. He has ample time to forage, but the amount of food he can collect is still not enough to sustain himself. So, to the dismay of some local business owners, he heads to local dumpsters and digs for food on a regular basis as well.
"A lot of businesses throw food [away] that's not even bad yet, and you can just jump in there and eat it," he says, adding that this is just part of his choice of lifestyle, just like living without a steady home or job. “I proved to myself that you don’t need money to live.”
Blackbird’s friend Evan Singer, 28, who used to be homeless, says he also learned to pick edible plants as a way to survive.
“I can eat three different things I’m looking at right now,” said Singer, as he gazed at the bushes by the trail leading to an ocean bluff. “Even if you are homeless this is the best place to be. Because I’ve been places where I didn’t eat for weeks, eating food off the ground in alleys, and now I’m in the redwoods looking at blooming flowers.”
The Northern California coast's temperate weather is a big plus for homeless people here, estimated at about 1,000 by county officials. But Susan Holli, a board member of the Mendocino County Homeless Services Continuum of Care, says that estimate is low. She believes the real number is triple that -- with many living along the coast, mostly in the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg.
“The density of homelessness is very high here,” said Holli, noting that Fort Bragg and Mendocino's combined total population is about 8,200. “And we don’t have enough resources.”
Mendocino County has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Finding healthy food on a regular basis can be tough for low-income residents in more remote communities such as Laytonville and Gualala. Fewer grocery stores exist there when compared to Ukiah, the county seat, or Fort Bragg.
Housing is even more challenging, Holli says. Along the 140 mile coastline only one 24-bed shelter is open, the Hospitality Center in Fort Bragg, and low income residents must compete for those spaces.
“(Mendocino) is a very pleasant place to live if you have enough to live on," said Laura Welter, executive director at Safe Passage Family Resource Center in Fort Bragg. "If not, it’s really hard.”