Homelessness is More Than Lesshomeness

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Waze directed me to, “Continue straight for half a mile,” but I needed to come to a complete stop at the red light first. I looked over my left shoulder toward the sidewalk to take in my unfamiliar surroundings of the downtown Los Angeles streets.

From the safety of my locked sedan driver’s seat, I watched as an old homeless man sitting on the ground brought a syringe across his body to inject a clear amber liquid into his upper arm. It was broad daylight and no one batted an eye as he shot up, except for me, whose eyes rounded by the millisecond.

There was no privacy, no shelter to hide his shame, likely from years of cumulative pain beginning with a rough childhood and continuing into a sad adulthood. This man was left out on the streets and forgotten; our broken system unable to catch him before he fell through the cracks and tumbled down without a way to climb out.

I watched in total astonishment as the drugs he either begged or bartered for caused his mouth to gape open and make his eyes flutter back. I watched in total horror as the expression on his face changed from agony to a momentary look of ecstasy.

I was shaken to my core- frightened, saddened, disgusted, helpless, increasingly hopeless, and frustrated; a fraction of what the old, drug-addicted, likely mentally ill homeless man must have felt at all times as he fought to survive every day living on the streets.

I was deeply disturbed to my core because my brother was once a homeless drug addict who thank God got sober. There is no doubt in my mind my brother would’ve wound up dead or in prison had he not had a supportive family to catch him before he fell through the cracks and never crawled out.

(You can hear all about his incredible recovery on Dear Family, my podcast, with my brother as my very first guest.)

My heart broke for the old homeless man. Where was his family, his support system?

The light turned green and my foot moved from the brake to the gas pedal. Rows of tents covered the sidewalks on either side of me. Homeless people walked like zombies, talking to themselves, pushing carts, looking on the ground for something to scavenge.

I live in the land of make-believe, only this was a real, true-life, and frightening scene- a human spirit apocalypse.

Skid Row, a city within a currently booming downtown Los Angeles, is an in your face failure of social services, pay equity, and opportunity in every regard. Skid Row is a place I pray will never desensitize me to the atrocities of homelessness.

Less than a hundred feet from where the man shot up was an ambulance fire truck with spinning lights. Three strapping and healthy male first responders, in their tailored blue uniforms, stood over a woman with torn clothes and dirt on her exhausted and exasperated face. What must our paramedics, police officers, firefighters, and social workers witness on the city streets, where every day they encounter an increasing homeless population fighting to stay alive?

In the City of Angels, how does one save so many lost souls who’ve lost their dignity, their family, their safety nets, and their physical and mental health? One thing all of us can agree on is our taxpayer resources would be so much better spent on prevention and education.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Seventeen people fall into homelessness in the County of Los Angeles each and every day. I can not and will not forget every single one of them is human. I can not and will not forget they want what I want…safety, a good meal, a warm bed, to bathe, their dignity, love, happiness, friendships, family, peace, and good mental and physical health.

Waze took me to Studio City, a wealthy suburban town where million-dollar homes increase in value by the day. Before I could make a left from the offramp, a homeless woman walked by my car holding a cardboard sign that read, “I’m hungry. Anything can help.”

I’ve been told to not “feed the homeless,” as if they’re animals because it encourages them to not seek resources. I donate all of my family’s gently used books, shoes, clothing, home furnishings, and more to a women’s organization that assists homeless families…But her pleading and sad eyes pierced through me. She was someone’s daughter and maybe someone’s mother.

I reached into my purse and pulled out a lemon Lara bar to hand to her. She looked into my eyes; eyes brimming with tears because we made a human connection, and she thanked me. I could see the possibility and beauty within her.

I made a left and my car drove under the freeway overpass. Just like Skid Row, there were rows of tents on both sides of the sidewalks, sheltered from the blazing Valley sun. Less than a mile away were more tent cities along the Los Angeles River, and in my neighborhood parks, and even in front of the bustling shops and restaurants on Ventura Boulevard.

I pulled my car into my garage, shut the garage door remotely, and turned off my house alarm. I kicked off my sandals and hopped onto my couch, an invitation for my sweet rescue dog to jump up and curl next to me. I opened my laptop up to check my email. A warning of a potential Typhus outbreak was coming to our neighborhood and the message was being distributed via the neighborhood app I signed up to receive messages about crime and safety. A lively discussion broke out with finger-pointing about “panhandlers and vagrants” that turned political.

The heated neighborhood thread pointed out homelessness is not just a Skid Row health concern, but rather an increasingly worrisome public health concern spreading and getting worse. Neighbors were warned about the increasing rat population from all the garbage littered in and around the tent cities. Some said the mayor was to blame…and the propositions…and the emptying of the jails…and Trump’s targeted racism…and liberals being too liberal…and on and on.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

During the occasional so-called “sweeps,” which the city carries out daily, homeless people regularly lose belongings integral to their survival, like medicine and ID. As much as I want my streets cleaned, and as many times as I’ve filled out 311 reports using an app on my iPhone to get rid of the trash buildup and the stolen bikes near my home, I’m saddened to consider how the sweeps make it even more difficult for the homeless to get off the streets when they lose their tents. The sweeps force them to sleep out in the open, exposed to the elements. If the homeless lose key documents, like identification that is required to access housing and other assistance, they will fall harder and deeper.

LA is the land of many lost souls with a high percentage of LGBTQ runaways from families who don’t accept them. LA, with our more lenient drug laws and warmer climate. LA, with its promise of fame and fortune and where dreams come true, remains an elusive Hollywood myth, and not just because the rents are high.

I love LA and I’m always the first person to defend my city when people trash-talk it, but there’s no denying underneath the glitter is a thick layer of grime, worthy of shining a bright light on so we can all see clearly in order to clean it up. Homelessness is more than a food and housing issue. Homelessness is a mental health crisis.

Photo by Jonathan Rados on Unsplash

Los Angeles County’s homeless population is up 16 percent. But it’s not just LA: Orange County is up 42 percent; Alameda County, 43 percent; Kern County, 50 percent; and San Francisco, 17 percent.

This is a major problem, one I don’t have the answers to and one that can’t be solved overnight. Solving homelessness is going to take rent protection, so evictions end, and more low-cost housing. Homelessness needs the city, the county, the state, and the federal government to all work together. Homelessness is going to take mental health services and education. And homelessness is going to take all of us, We, the compassionate People, joining forces with local businesses.

In the meantime, we all can:

1. Volunteer

Volunteer Match

Downtown Women’s Center

Los Angeles Mission

Your Neighborhood Council

2. Donate Money

A small donation can go a long way at a homeless shelter.

3. Donate New and Used Items.

Shelters need more than money.

Amazon Wish List

Downtown Women’s Center

4. Sign up for the Homeless Count

United Way of Greater Los Angeles

Sign Up for a Location Near Your

5. Create Blessing Bags

  • Gloves (ones you can layer are good, so if something gets wet you can switch, waterproof are good)
  • Socks (this is possibly the most important thing, thermal or wool, not cheap socks. Socks are not available at the thrift store like most other clothes, but keeping your feet clean and healthy is important when they are your primary transportation)
  • Bandaids (big ones to cover blisters)
  • Deodorant
  • Emergen-C, Airborne, Chewable Multi-vitamins (If you aren’t eating or sleeping right you are more likely to get sick. Food is very accessible in this country, but often it is not the most nutritious.)
  • Lotion
  • Sunscreen
  • Tissues
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Wet wipes

6. Hire Homeless Individuals

7. Just say “hello”

Talk to a homeless person.

Skid Row Housing Trust

Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

There’s no denying California is in the midst of an epic human crisis that did not happen overnight. It’s also clear we need new ideas, new laws, better social services for addressing it, and more compassion. In the meantime, I will never, not ever, walk by someone sleeping on the streets and forget they are human and worthy of a home.

Host of “Dear Family,” the Podcast, Writer, Educator, and Mental Health Advocate https://writenowrachel.com/

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