Signs like the one I posted above appeared out of nowhere in Toronto. They were bolted to posts at major intersections in busy downtown areas. “Quiet,” read one, “Homeless people sleeping.” Another advised, “Homeless warming grate. Please keep clear.” But they were unofficial and taken down.
I have an affinity with the homeless. Becoming homeless is my biggest fear, and I never see one homeless person without thinking “there but for the grace of God go I.” I think most of us have the same thought. I sometimes (during my bravest and darkest periods) imagine myself as a street person. I think there is a part of me that could go there, and I’m not talking about the Will Smith depiction of that heroic figure in the biopic about Chris Gardner, or about the schizophrenics talking to their voices. I’m talking about the others.
I don’t remember ever noticing a homeless person when I was growing up. But I had an experience with the homeless when I was about 18, when I went to try my hand at being a hippie in San Francisco in the early Seventies. To this day, I think SF has more homeless crazy people than anywhere else I’ve traveled and more than L.A. Back then, it felt as if they were on every single corner and in every doorway. It was my first time living away from home, in a strange city with colder, foggier weather, and I had barely any money. One afternoon I was in the downtown area riding on a street car when a middle-aged woman, obviously crazy and homeless got on and took the seat right next to me—mumbling to herself, and smelly. I averted my eyes and assumed that stoic far away stare. Within about a minute, she started whimpering and getting agitated, and she urinated. Right next to me. I can tell you, I was appalled and freaked. She got out of her seat and ran to the exit, dribbling urine, getting off at the next stop. A huge sadness overcame me. It was the first time I felt the weight of the world. I thought, “What can I do, in the face of all the pain I see around me?” I remember having a bonafide epiphany. I understood the concept of Christ dying for our sins. At that moment I wanted to do that too if it would take away all the sadness I saw around me. Young people are like that.
When I was in my late twenties and thirties the homeless were off my radar. For one thing, there were very few of them in the San Fernando Valley suburbs (at least not visibly in an area where walking is practically unheard of) and for another, I never gave them a thought. I was too busy trying to live the most conventional life possible. Part of that conventional life was joining a synagogue. That’s when I learned something about the homeless that changed my attitude. Without going into the whole teaching, I learned that it is very wrong to ignore the homeless—to even call them “The Homeless.” I learned that giving charity is essential, but more important, I was taught, was acknowledging them as individuals. (The Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, means “justice.”) We don’t have to give them any money necessarily, but we are forbidden from ignoring them. When they approach us, we can’t pretend we don’t see them. Instead we must look them in the eyes and talk to them, even if what we say is, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money today.” Once I started doing this it was a blessing to me. Literally. Every time I interact with a homeless person, they bless me. What a bargain! Not coincidentally I also began to notice how many previously unseen homeless people there really were.
There was this one homeless man around that time who I met through my ex-husband.The man was in his late sixties and he lived in his old Cadillac in a parking structure in Sherman Oaks. It was the structure next to my ex’s bank, so he saw him every week. My husband got to know him and it turned out he had been a second-string baseball player back in the day for a major league team. I’d cook extra food and my ex would bring it to him and they’d talk. Eventually, we tried to get him some state aid but he wanted no part of it. He didn’t have a substance abuse problem. I don’t know what other demons haunted him.
I’ve had debates with people about whether or not to give money to people asking for spare change. Some say they will just use the money for drugs or booze. Others say it keeps them from getting a job, or that it is a scam. Another argument against giving them money has to do with the effect it has on the small businesses they tend to loiter in front of—that they scare away business. (Of all the arguments, I am somewhat sympathetic to that last one, but just barely.) As for me, I don’t care why they ask for money or what they are going to do with it—they just obviously need it. And I also think that standing all day in the sun or rain or cold is hard work; it’s not as if they are merely lazy. And I have never encountered one who was belligerent or demanding. It must take a lot of patience to be turned down over and over and still maintain some equanimity.
There are a few of varieties of begging, at least the ones common here in Los Angeles. The most frequent form of panhandling is to stand in front of any Seven Eleven store and quietly ask for spare change. There are homeless people who sit on the sidewalk, leaning against a building with a paper cup for alms. There are many, many beggars who stand along the side of freeway onramps or on traffic islands with signs: “Please Help,” “God Bless You,” “Homeless Disabled Vet,” and the now out of fashion, “Will Work for Food.” Personally, I enjoy those with a sense of humor and candor: “Why lie? I need a DRINK.”
Several months ago, I experienced a new form of begging when someone knocked at my door. He was a older middle-aged man, cleanly dressed in well-worn clothes and combed gray hair that was a little too long. His horn-rimmed glasses had a band aid keeping them together. He was even wearing a tweed sports jacket, and I noticed he had a paperback book in his chest pocket by a mystery writer I enjoy. When I opened the door, he simply asked if I had any money to spare. I went to get some and we struck up a conversation but I can’t remember how that came about. He told me he hangs out a Starbucks where they allow him to use their rest room to clean up. He can stay there for a few hours and get refills and read the paper that someone’s left behind, or read his paperback. He told me that he had recently had a bad experience with the Long Beach cops. While he was sleeping on a bench, they rousted him and broke his glasses and they took his driver’s license for no apparent reason. He explained how hard it was to get a new one. Aside from the expense, he has no way of proving his identity—his papers were downtown in the Hall of Records, and he had no address where his new license could be mailed. Fortunately, he knew a kindly person who was helping him get his paperwork completed. I was really shocked and asked why in the world the cops would do that. He just kind of laughed and said, “Oh, they do that to the homeless all the time.” I never asked about how he came to these circumstances. He was clearly not schizophrenic or a substance abuser. He could have been anyone you’d see anywhere. After we talked for a while, I brought out some paperbacks I thought he’d like, judging from the one in his pocket. I told him to please come back next week—I could give him a few more bucks then too, but he said, “Oh no thank you. I don’t want to start depending on that. And besides, I try to keep from staying in one neighborhood too long.” I haven’t seen him again.
There are, though, a few homeless men who I see on a daily basis. I live near a portion of the L.A. River that has been turned into a bird sanctuary, with lovely trails. I walk my dog, Zorro, there every day. It’s about a three mile loop, and people bring their dogs and there are horse trails too. I don’t know exactly where, but beyond the end of the loop is a homeless camp. I got to know one of the residents because he has a dog, Sasha, with whom my dog plays. He’s wiry and quick and probably a lot younger than he looks because he has that leathery tan that comes from living outside. He adores his dog. Every summer, he scrapes together enough money to get her a haircut. He makes some of his money (as many do in my neighborhood) by going through the trash in our alleys and redeeming recyclables. He told me the other day that a “nice old English lady” just paid for Sasha’s dog tags and rabies shot so that the cops wouldn’t take her from him. (He also scolded me for giving money to that other homeless gentleman who came to my door. He said I can’t really know who he is. He has a point; a few years ago three men and two women were shot to death in that homeless camp I mentioned.) Also, whenever he winds up in jail, he knows a family who cares for Sasha when he’s away. The last time we spoke, I noticed he had one of those tattooed teardrops in the corner of his eye. I thought that meant death row, but I guess not.
The other homeless man with whom I regularly speak lives in his van by the river. (I know—that sounds so trite, like that old SNL skit with Chris Farley.) He has a dog too: Oscar. The last I saw him, he said he was moving to the Mojave desert with his brother. They were going to build a shack and live off the land, he said. He wanted Oscar to be able to roam free. How one lives off the land in a desert is beyond me. By the way, neither of these guys has ever asked me for anything. I have only given them food or treats for their dogs, for which they are grateful. (Zorro takes some umbrage at this.)
Then there are the true heart breakers. Again, by the L.A. River near me, but not in the pretty part—on the concrete embankment—is a young woman. From the overpass, you can just make out her blankets and bottles and whatnot. I have seen her walking on the street, but rarely. She is completely lost, completely crazy. Sometimes I see that someone has left her a bucket of Colonel Sanders or a box of food at the trail leading to her spot. One of the most horrifying things is, she is right next to the horse stables. I don’t even want to imagine how she might be abused. I called Social Services about her and she was gone for a while, but now she’s back, poor thing. It is a nightmare. The homeless women—they are the most heart wrenching to me. Them and the young people.
I am so disgusted by those “boot strappers” who have the smug attitude that homeless people deserve it. It seems to me that they use their self-righteousness to mask their fear. They probably are not all cold-hearted, but I’ll bet they feel at some deep dark level that misfortune is contagious, or that insanity is contagious, or that even weakness is catching. They are similar to people who shun those who have just lost a loved one. I’ve seen that happen to friends who lost a child, and then lost friends—as if their pain was too scary for others to witness. Or maybe some are too afraid of feeling the guilt and upset that homelessness evokes.
Some facts about homelessness in the United States:
It is almost impossible to get accurate statistics on the homeless. The latest estimate from Housing and Urban Development (in 2008) is 1.5 million people who have used a shelter. There are about three times the number of homeless as there are shelters, so that figure is really inadequate. Plus, the economy has gotten much worse since that estimate; if you add all the foreclosed homes and job losses, it is much worse.
One out of 50—or about 1.5 million—American children are homeless each year, according to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
From that same report, the main causes of homelessness are: Lack of affordable housing (and I wish they would add poverty to that); mental illness; substance abuse; low paying jobs; prisoner release; unemployment; domestic violence; and the release of 18-year-olds from foster care.
Almost as incomprehensible as those numbers are in the wealthiest nation in history, violent crimes against the homeless are on the rise, according to a report from National Coalition for the Homeless. And if that wasn’t despicable enough, many municipalities have made it a CRIME to provide food for the homeless in public areas. As Gandhi said,