HOMELESS, NOT HOPELESS
Temecula, CA – Years ago we ran a picture story here about the teen-trending underground stunts of planking. For those unfamiliar, 'planking' is posing stiff as a plank of wood, on top of something, resting against something, or perched at an angle to something. The pictures were pretty funny, especially the one with my 'plank' friend upside down and his dog pointed to sniff his bluejeans butt.
The local planking subject, never identified by name or face, wanted it that way because he comes from a proper Protestant, not Catholic, home. His parents go to church every weekend and participate in church family activities. In fact, my planking friend is churched and home-schooled. Raised in a stable upper middle-class environment, now entering his middle twenties, my friend whose life was once fishing with his dad on a lake and having a bright future, lives in a tent, homeless.
His parents have sought counseling through their church so the family perils aren't secrets or private anymore, a trait shared also in with past Muslim circles here. I took my friend a full tank of propane to where he was spanging, or spare changing, aka, asking for spare change. An economy which once would have been able to support my friend until he gained mature footing or maybe even an alternative success path, has evaporated thanks to decades of trade erosion brought on by both parties. Ignorance or greed? Does it matter now?
What was once a domain just for the lowest dregs, the completely disowned, or the totally outcast then became a haven for many vets who washed-up PTSD homeless, is now in increasing areas like here, filled with young people. We are not talking about runaways, aka teenagers, but twenty-somethings now traveling through life with a knapsack, donated pants, a vacant look, matted hair, and a corner seat closet to the door at McDonald's, a warm place to take a shit. With the country falling apart, there is a sign even in this.
With the exception of occasionally seeing someone begging by a building or off a freeway/expressway ramp, the light of today's distressed never crossed my path until I went up to cover Occupy Los Angeles a few years ago. Though you become acclimated to 'roughing it' sleeping in a tent at the foot of the building Superman flies out of in both TV and movies, nothing quite prepares you for the feeling you get when you come across your first homeless person up close living in a space that would cramp a VW.
In front of you, in a heap of plastic bags, rags, and tatters is someone that used to exist as you still do, as a person. A person who had a job, or a family, or a kid; a person who was once a teenager, or pretty, or clean, a person who had an existence. It hits you in the face – what happened?
The 'what happened' question doesn't stop with the homeless heap you see though. The 'what happened' question goes to the tagline of 'living in the richest country in the world' that is used to sell everyone the American Dream. That was the question for me as I wandered about LA. That is the question I wonder about my friend, my Christian plank when the version of the Bible I have says Charity begins at home. As does forgiveness. Granted, in this case I happen to know when and how this train wreck started, but his comment, “Homeless, not hopeless,” uttered in thanks brought a memory back from my OLA days in Big Town.
I was staying mostly out of camp at future book editor Jeff's apartment which was a mile due west from Occupy at city hall. Not sure of anything when I got to LA at first, I got to know how to get around in the two months I was at Occupy. Still, for stuff in the neighborhood where Jeff lived lived, I walked.
Under most freeways passing over viaducts are or were the encampments of various homeless. Most of these camp sites were as you would expect them, a collection of various stuff, bundles, gathered tight, clustered, and dirty. One day walking under the 101 over to Sunset I noticed that the belongings there were gathered neatly in order. They weren't just tossed in a pile. I thought to myself, 'hipster homeless' only in LA.
The proper etiquette toward the homeless is not to gawk at them. You can't begin to empathize, unless it through a donation for they are aware of their situation. They are not looking for sympathy, again unless they are asking for a donation. You glance but you don't make direct eye contact.
One late fall afternoon as I walked again under the 101 on the west side of the street where the neat homeless camp was, I was a little surprised to see someone there at one end of the pile of belongings. He was an older person 50-60s, and he was sweeping his sidewalk spot clean.
A lessor person might have laughed at this effort given the situation but as I walked by, I glanced at him and smiled a look of pride in seeing someone not beaten down by the system. I probably thought about Uncle Floyd [Memoirs] but the man looked up, then with a glean in his eye looked back at me with an acknowledgement smile. It was one of those big-city moments that only happen in New York or LA. Probably. When I returned back through the area a while later, he had disappeared again.
Over the course of my remaining weeks in LA, I was torn about what to do. I was barely a leg up, practically couch-surfing after having boll weevil-led in to Jeff's life, but there was something about what happened that made it a moment for me. I had to either do something or say something. Saying anything stressed me out because what would I say? Sorry for your discomfort? Dollar for your thoughts? I even thought about getting him a new broom, maybe just leaving it there.
At last I decided just to hand the man a five dollar bill and not say anything. Even having a course of action did nothing to affect his availability and he was never there when I walked pass. Since that route was destination specific, I only went that way now and then.
Finally the day came for me to leave Jeff's place and I went through the underpass viaduct one last time. I opened my bag from the neighborhood bakery and took out a fresh croissant, wrapped it in a napkin and left it on top of the main container in the group, and then I walked away to meet my return ride at camp.
About two weeks later I returned to Los Angeles to qualify for a medical recommendation to legally smoke Mary Jane [I was yet to rewrite chapter 20] and visit the friend I had made in LA, Jeff. By the time we parted company, we had a fond appreciation of each other and interestingly similar taste in many things.
The first order of business was a walk by the place of the 'hipster homeless' guy. To my surprise or dismay, the person who had been camped under the 101 at least the entire two months I was at Occupy LA was now gone, lock, stock, and barrel. The area of his sidewalk camp was as clean as a whistle also. To this day, the last time I was by that same 101 overpass area there were no homeless sheltered like trolls on either side of the street.
Homeless, not hopeless. And I pray not hapless either. First of two parts about today's disenfranchised.