My partner and I are walking down the sidewalk for an evening stroll. “There he is,” I whisper. “See?” “No, I don’t see a thing.” He states. The lump of blankets and personal belongings on a bench in the shopping plaza was well hidden from prying eyes, yet visible enough to patrolling police to detract thieves and aggressors. My friend and pro bono coaching client, who we will call “Karl,” has chosen “his spot” with care.
Karl is one of the invisible people, the ones who fall through the cracks of society. Unlike the homeless people you see panhandling, Karl has a job, though it’s only a couple of days a week. He tries to be discreet with his backpack, so he won’t look homeless. He doesn’t scream at traffic, get drunk or do drugs. He takes classes at the community college. He even donates some of his income to food for the needy during food drives for the poor at St. John’s, the church where I first met him. When I told him The Hollywood Sentinel would be collecting blankets for the homeless, he asked, “how can I help?”
Karl became homeless after losing full-time employment. He could not afford to properly maintain the paperwork on his motor home, and it was confiscated by police in 2009, shortly after he was terminated. He lacked the social skills and support to handle the situation, and has been sleeping outdoors ever since, saving his money for a new (used) motor home.
Karl was born the smallest of three fraternal twins and labeled mentally retarded at birth, presumably due to brain abnormalities. Nevertheless, he served in the Navy and was given an honorable discharge on the grounds of a detached retina and speech impediment. (He claims, however, that he was targeted for dismissal due to a personality conflict with a commanding officer who felt threatened by his ambition and performance.) Karl deeply regrets being unable to serve his country further, and remains patriotic as well as a devout Christian who attends church daily. He continually prays for a solution to his housing crisis. He doesn’t want to sleep on the bench anymore, with cold water from the gutter dripping on to his face.
Karl’s story, I continue to learn, is deep and complex. He makes me wonder about the missing stories, the ones of people who die out there, cold and alone, taking their stories with them. In Los Angeles county, the emergency shelters are full to capacity every night. The better programs have wait lists. Being transferred from one city worker to the next, it feels like it would be easier to get into the Vanity Fair Oscar party than get Karl into a program that will provide the short and long term assistance that he needs.
Tens of thousands of people a night sleep outdoors, in tents and makeshift shelters, or sometimes in dirty clothes, on open-air sidewalks, in broad daylight. While Occupy LA members no longer camp out at city hall, the problem isn’t getting better. And in addition to those at risk of death by exposure to the elements (a risk made all too real to this author, who witnessed a police squadron pulling a corpse from the brush near the 101 last winter), there are tens of thousands more who live in substandard, overcrowded, and vulnerable conditions.
Yet, perhaps unbelievably, there is good news to report. The good news is you and I can make a difference and end chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County by following the example of our neighbors to the east, in Utah.
Utah’s Housing First program takes the simple approach to homelessness. It treats homelessness as a condition and homeless people as people who deserve safe and secure living conditions. It is based on compassion, choice, and human dignity. And if it can work there, it can work here too.
I spoke with Gordon Walker and Nic Dunn at great length to prepare for this story, and I need you to believe me. This can happen. Curren Price, the city council man for my district, has already expressed desire to help. All we need is public support. Thank you in advance for your compassion and concern.
Do what you can: Contact the office of The Hollywood Sentinel at 310-226-7176 if you live in Los Angeles and want to arrange a drop off of blankets or other items to help. Or, visit use the paypal link below to make a donation and we will make sure 100% of your donation goes directly to helping this cause as well as spreading the word about Housing First.
And for you fiscal conservatives, there is more good news to report: Housing First saves Utah taxpayers an estimated $8,000 per year per homeless person. Good policy doesn’t “just” save money, it just makes sense.
Make donations at the link here www.BruceEdwin.com.