Tents, lean-tos, off-leash dogs, rats, and mounds of trash line many of the streets of Los Angeles. These areas can look more like sets out of some dystopian movie than like communities made up of women and men forced out of stable housing.
As homeless encampments grow and spread, the idea of finding a reasonable solution seems to move steadily further from our grasp. Angelenos are frustrated and fed up. The unhoused people are desperate for improvement in their situations. We all long for answers.
Within the endless dialogues and debates about the crisis, an idea that seems to get thrown around a lot starts with declarations like “Most homeless people are on the streets because they want to be.”
The appeal of this kind of thinking is clear. It relieves the rest of us of responsibility, while at the same time suggesting that we can significantly decrease homelessness by simply requiring unhoused people to vacate public areas. Why not? If we accept that they occupy sidewalks, onramps, and every other available corner by choice, it seems perfectly justifiable to require them to accept other options or pay the consequences.
But is this starting assumption true? Do people really choose life on the street, and if they do, why? I felt the need to explore the situation so that I could come up with an opinion I felt comfortable with. Admittedly a little nervous, I got in my car and headed for downtown Los Angeles.
Driving around the Skid Row neighborhood it’s difficult to accept that so many people truly choose to live here. Tents and tarps draped over unstable boards and stacked crates line the garbage-piled streets that reek of urine and feces and vomit. Rats scurry around the area gorging themselves on discarded food. Though many people on Skid Row are simply there because they’re poor, addicts are present at all times, as are people with mental illness, and gang members.
Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 unhoused people live in Los Angeles County, according to the 2019 homeless count. Around 4,760 of them live within the 50 blocks that make up Skid Row. That number is up 11 percent from 2018.
Not having any real plan mapped out, I circled blocks for a while and finally paid premium parking prices to leave my car in a lot on the border where hipsters meet the homeless. Looking up at the buildings, I saw signs for luxury lofts. When I shifted my gaze to street level, I found people slumped in doorways and people walking dogs wearing booties. I walked east, toward the rescue missions and soup kitchens.
I soon came to the front of one of the rescue missions in the heart of Skid Row. Drug dealers offered me weed, morning shots (a street name for amphetamines), and crystal meth. They made no attempt to hide what they were doing. They were polite, even jovial, when I declined, just regular guys conducting business. Behind them, on the steps to the mission and in the patio area, men lay passed out or sat “on the nod,” the semi-conscious state heroin induces that causes people to sit with their heads bobbing. Another man paced back and forth in front of the mission doors arguing dramatically with someone only he could see and hear.
This is the kind of image that fuels the urgency and often anger that Angelenos feel about the state of homelessness. Many will argue that some of these people should be arrested immediately while others should be taken into involuntary treatment for their own good. But while this scene provides wonderful photo ops, my zigzagging exploration of the area helped me to recognize that the diversity of Skid Row reflects that of Los Angeles itself. And while there may be merit in both of these plans, they will not solve the problems in this neighborhood.
As I walked on, I was able to meet more of the men and women living on the sidewalks. I quickly learned that not everyone spends their days drunk or high or talking to the voices in their heads. In fact, some people don’t even ask for money because they support themselves with legitimate jobs.
Several blocks from the mission, I met a cat named Petey when he butted my leg with his gigantic head. Petey was on a leash secured to a shopping cart. It was about 11 in the morning and I was informed by his human pal, Ryan, that he wanted his walk. Ryan had every intention of taking him, but he first needed a short break because he had been working since 4 a.m. He works almost every morning helping local merchants in the floral and garment districts set out their wares.
Ryan is probably in his seventies, but it’s hard to tell age on the streets. He looks like someone’s grandfather, the sort that works hard and drives a pickup truck, but he used to be a machinist living in the Bakersfield area with his wife and three sons. He says it was a good life, the kind that everyone takes for granted. He admits that he did. But that was before a pivotal decision and a couple of tragedies changed everything.
As Ryan tells it, an insurance representative showed up at work to sell policies for when “something real bad happens.” Ryan and his wife decided they didn’t need one since they were both in good shape, and besides, it was pretty expensive.
Then his wife was diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life.
Then his oldest son was killed in Iraq.
Ryan needed to step up and care for his daughter-in-law whose grief made it impossible for her to keep working at the 7-11. At about the same time, the medical bills from his wife’s fight against cancer, the ones not covered by his basic insurance, began pouring in. Still struggling with his own grief, he sold his house to try to get out from under the financial burden. And the downward spiral began. “It was a rough time,” he says.
Ryan now lives in a tent with a female companion, his beloved cat, Petey, and two cats recently rescued from the freeway where someone dumped them. “I just don’t understand how anyone can be like that to an animal,” he says, and for the first time in the conversation, his eyes get a bit misty.
Nothing about Ryan fits the stereotype of homelessness. His tent area is clean and odor-free. According to him, he doesn’t ask people for money, and he doesn’t use drugs or alcohol. He seems like the kind of guy anyone would happily have over for a barbeque and a game of cards.
Ryan isn’t participating in any of the city’s housing programs. He doesn’t want an apartment. He has plans to get back to the country where he can “wake up to the sounds of birds and crickets.” So, for a while longer, as he has for years, he will continue making his home on the sidewalk, working as much as he can, and taking care of his own.
I continued my walk around the block from Ryan’s encampment, where I came across the winter wonderland that belongs to Lilian who lives across the street from a line of RVs and around the bend from a dozen or so tents that are shoved tightly together under an overpass. Like Ryan, Lilian keeps her space tidy and free of offending odors. Her home brings to mind what realtors call the “pride of ownership.”
After asking me to wait while she combed her short, gray hair, she came out to show me around. She had strung colored lights on the chainlink fence that borders her area and positioned a stuffed Santa and a snowman made of plastic bags around a decorated tree. To top off the Santa’s workshop feel, she wrapped the telephone pole in garland and adorned it with a wreath.
Lilian explained to me that she had always loved to decorate for the holidays and saw no reason to stop. Neighbors had thanked her for her Christmas spirit, and that made her very happy. “You have to put joy wherever you can,” she said. She got no argument from me.
Continuing from Lilian’s tent toward the eastern border of Skid Row, I met the female Jesus. Her area is not as pristine as either Ryan’s or Lilian’s, though it isn’t as bad as some in the neighborhood. While her belongings aren’t neatly organized, and there is a bit of a smell, there are no piles of filthy possessions or signs of human waste. Jesus lives with a partner whom she periodically reminds to “Be nice,” though, at worst, he seems not to have much to say to visitors. They also share their home with her “angel-cats.”
Jesus knows the cats are angels because the oldest was sent by God the day after Jesus’ brother died. She says she was grieving and drunk, standing in front of a local store, when out of nowhere the first angel rubbed against her leg. It was clearly a sign from God, she explains. What else could it have been? The angel-cat, who might be the mother of the other two, has been with her ever since. Jesus and her partner will let you stop and see the angels, but they keep a close watch, explaining that one of them was recently “murdered.” They’re not going to stand for any more of that, the partner explained. I believed him.
As I prepared to move on, Jesus told me she found me “pure and deserving,” so she offered me a blessing and a hug. Before the parting ritual, however, this daughter of God enlightened me about covert operations being carried out by the pagan government, the illuminati occupying the Mayor’s office, and the coming of the next era which has something to do with the number 777. She also told me how to follow her on social media.
Jesus has been called by powers that only she can hear to minister to Skid Row and battle the forces of evil. Because of her mission, she also will not willingly move into a shelter and says she’s good where she is. “Besides, where would the angel-cats go?” she asks.
Ryan, Lilian, and Jesus have unique stories, but they have in common the fact that they choose to occupy a public sidewalk, at least for now. To understand their choices, it’s important to understand that getting off the streets can mean different things. There is overnight shelter, interim shelter, and permanent housing. According to 2015 statistics released by Santa Clara County, 93 percent of homeless people want permanent housing. Not as many people are open to leaving the streets for overnight or even interim shelter.
A major drawback is that emergency shelters and some interim options allow only single individuals, providing gender-separate sleeping quarters. While this policy makes sense from a shelter management perspective, it is important to keep in mind that people we lump under the banner “the homeless” have lost their housing, not their lives, explains Herbert Smith, President and CEO of the Los Angeles Mission, one of the nation’s largest homeless service providers.
Like Ryan, many people surviving on city streets and highway embankments have partners, not to mention pets. Facilities simply cannot accommodate them.
In addition to the occupancy rules, space limitations force shelters to restrict the number of possessions a person can bring inside. All emergency shelters have a one-bag rule, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. This prevents many people from coming indoors. Like the rest of us, unhoused people have belongings that matter to them. Going inside for the night would mean stashing most of their possessions somewhere and hoping they’ll be there tomorrow. This would be like a housed person leaving home with the front door wide open. It doesn’t make sense.
On top of the rules that keep many people away from temporary accommodations, there are the conditions of the shelters. Whether strictly true or grossly exaggerated, stories persist about attacks, robberies, and parasite infestations occurring inside. The perception seems to be that it’s better to stake out a place on the street where you stand at least a fighting chance of getting through the night relatively unscathed.
As I walked back to my car at the end of the day, I admit that I was leaving Skid Row without any profound solutions to the crisis of homelessness. I did form a better sense of the complexity of the neighborhood and the people who call it home, and I drove away with a clearer understanding of why life in a tent with companions, both human and four-legged, might be preferable to a bunk in a shelter. I recognized clearly that the idea of choosing life on the street is much more complex than it sounds.
Skid Row is home to many people who more closely resemble Ryan and Lilian, and even Jesus, than those who lie passed out on the sidewalks too gone on drugs to function. But there is no shortage of addicts and individuals with serious mental illness. Some folks sleep in tents, cars, or RVs at night. Others sleep where they fall on the sidewalk, with only their filthy clothing to shelter them. Some hold down legitimate jobs, while others panhandle, deal drugs, or sell their bodies. Some individuals are probably dangerous, but most certainly are not.
I may not have left with clear answers, but I did take with me a deeper sense of humility. When I thought of the openness and optimism of the people I met, I felt awe. If faced with their experiences and their options, how would I fare? I’m not sure what choices I would make, but I can at least imagine choosing my dog and a tent.
What I can’t imagine, however, is that I would hold up as well as some of my neighbors on the sidewalks seem to be doing.