Street View: L.A.’s Homeless

Woman holding sign that says I used to be someone.

Jennifer Connelly plays homeless in the 2014 film Shelter (but you get the point). (Photo: Courtesy Bitfrost Pictures)

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those who live here, and likely encounter dozens of lost souls per day, but Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the nation. It’s a dubious distinction. Yes — it’s democratic — the rich and poor and middle class stirring it up on the same streets.  Well, mostly; few vagrants can be found in tony areas like Bev Hills and Brentwood, but even there you’ll find some. And if you drive down Burbank Boulevard in the wee hours of the a.m., through Lake Balboa park and into North Hollywood, you’ll see an army of the night — ragged and stiff-gaited, pushing shopping carts at every corner.

Since 2013, L.A.’s “chronically homeless” population has grown to 12,536, up 55%, according to an L.A. Times report on Housing and Urban Development. Nationally, that accounts for 15% of the chronically homeless. (As a state, California has about 30%.)

Recently, it’s become more difficult to simply avert my gaze. It started when I was pulling out of an upscale grocery store with my windows down, and overheard a little band of street folks talking to each other on the corner. “Hey, I saw the Wizard down on Riverside,” one said. The nickname made it all very personal. The “Wizard” had his handle, his image. He was a known entity among friends. This is not set dressing, they’re real people, who’ve had to adapt to a very harsh way of life.

White guilt and suburban gilt blended and bubbled to the surface. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Many homeless actually do choose to live on the street, for a variety of reasons. True, most of them do suffer mental illness to one degree or another, and are substance abusers.  So their “reasons” aren’t well thought-out. But a common one is they don’t want to live by other people’s rules, which could be something like “no alcohol while you’re living under my roof.”

I actually thought I could “save” one of these people — a woman with a matted mop of grown-out but at one point carefully applied highlights, and intelligent blue eyes that popped against her deeply tanned skin, burnished further by a crust of grime. Standing outside a 7-eleven, she asked if I would purchase beer for her, telling me she would pay for it herself (and making good by thrusting a fist of damp bills  my way). “You look old enough,” I observed. “Why don’t you buy it yourself?” “They won’t serve me,” she said. When I declined, she said, “Oh, I can’t get a break! And it’s my birthday.” I asked to see her I.D., and it was.

So we started to chat. She was bright, and had a good sense of humor, which really surprised me — I’d have thought any trace of spirit would get crushed by the harsh living on the streets.  During the course of the conversation she lit a cigarette,  stubbed out and stuffed it into her purse, setting it on fire. Apparently she’d already had a few birthday beers that day. Of course I was very curious as to how she’d arrived at such a low point. As it turns out, she used copious amounts of alcohol to flush a promising show biz career down the drain. She’d come to the set drunk, rant at people and cause a general disturbance. (Even Charlie Sheen, though his darkest hours of addiction bragged that he was a true professional on the set.)

It was a shocking story, and heartbreaking too. She was from out of state, and though she had friends here, no one close enough to “intervene.” She received an eviction notice at her apartment — not because she got behind on rent, but because the neighbors complained of her unsavory friends and ensuing disturbance. She wound up walking out the door, leaving her belongings to be sold or thrown away. And now she lived around the corner from that very nice two-bedroom apartment in a parking lot and on the street.

After that initial meeting, I’d sort of check up on her when I had errands near that intersection. I made calls on her behalf, printed resource lists for her. I found out she had federal and state health insurance benefits and helped her use them to check into a detox program at a community hospital.  She did well, a model patient. And after a shower, a few meals and a couple of night’s sleep in a soft bed, she was much more coherent, and she looked pretty good. This homeless makeover was going to be easier than I thought.

While she was in there, I contacted various city service departments — Adult Protective Services, the Department of Mental Health. With a few exceptions, these workers seemed harried, overburdened, and uninterested in what they were doing. The most common reaction seemed to be “fill the phone with enough words to get this person to hang up.” They were big on referring me to other departments. One woman gave a hearty recommendation to the hospital’s staff social services worker. “That is your best bet. Those people have resources we don’t.”

Really? Didn’t I read somewhere that the state has allocated about $2 billion to combating homelessness? And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has committed $150 million in additional funds this year. Sounds like a lot of resources!  (San Francisco “spends a record $241 million on homelessness, can’t track results,” trumpeted a headline in The Chronicle).

The social worker, an earnest brunette with Tina Fey glasses and the perkiness that go along with ’em, managed to find a sober living facility nearby that had room that was affordable by this patient’s modest means (an $800 Social Security disability check, direct-deposited into her bank account). “Tina” asked if on discharge I’d pick the patient up and drive her to her new home.

When we got there, the room was no longer available. “That social worker called yesterday. We don’t take reservations, it’s first come, first served.” The place was dismal and smelled of stale cigarettes. People slept three or four per tiny room, some in bunk beds. Yet the residents seemed friendly, and rather colorful in a David Lynch kind of way. A fish tank lent a colorful glow to the the communal living room. It had to be better than the streets. But my former-show-biz charge turned up her nose and was thrilled she didn’t have to stay.

“Well, I’m sure we can find something else. I’ll make a few calls.” I didn’t get to do that, though, because we stopped at an In-N-Out Burger. While we were waiting in line at the drive-through — and Valley dwellers know those In-N-Out lines can stretch 20-cars long — though they do move quickly — the patient, who seemed light years improved from the person who’d checked in to detox 10 days earlier, started talking about how she’d “really like one last beer.” “No, that’s not a good idea,” I said in what I thought sounded like a firm tone.

Then it was “I really need to stretch my legs.” “No, please don’t get out of the car,” I said, feeling like I was losing control. I tried to activate the baby-locks, but my daughter is 20 and I was out of practice. I must have clicked the wrong button, because she sprang from the vehicle. But her purse was still in the back seat. Maybe she does really want to stretch her legs?

She came back with a jumbo 22-ounce can of Miller. “I just want one last beer. I like the taste. I give it up any time. It’s no big deal.” And that is how she wound up back on the streets. The nights are getting colder, and the marine layer rolls in like a thick, damp blanket. Last time I saw her she was sleeping on cement, swaddled in some thin blankets, an open can of beer nearby. I offered to take her in for another detox. She didn’t want to go.