How to Survive on the Streets of L.A.
There are an estimated 3.5 million homelessness people, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. There are over 80,000 in the greater Los Angeles area. Those numbers are sure to rise with the current state of the economy.
3.5 million people equates to roughly one percent of America's population. This means that out of any 100 people you meet, one of them is going to be homeless at some point during the year. This only includes the displaced that are utilizing services that allow organizations to track them.
These statistics are true even though America is the wealthiest nation on the planet. Therefore, I decided to conduct my own social experiment of sorts. I lived on the streets for three days and three nights with nothing other than the clothes on my back, a couple of notebooks, a sleeping bag and my camcorder. I did not take money,
identification, food or a phone.
There is an eerie silence as I leave my familiar, Venice Beach house at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 9. I am setting forth into the streets to try and forge my existence using only the tools we are born with: our hands, our will and our intelligence.
I put more thought into what I was going to wear than making an actual plan of what I was going to do. I don't think I'm vain, only American in my culture and upbringing that makes for a certain degree of image awareness in almost every decision I make. I thought my tattered jeans, worn out Chuck Taylor's and a shredded thermal topped with
an old baseball t-shirt is a wise choice
that will serve me well in comfort,
believability and durability.
I begin my journey on the west side of Los Angeles, because it offers me familiarity. I know I won't stay long but it will be a good place to start. I walk with purpose to the weight pen at Muscle Beach. It's free and offers corners of concrete that provide cover
for those without a permanent home to sleep and congregate in. I spend a few hours there talking to whoever will listen and listening to whoever will talk. My hunger drives me off the boardwalk. I can't bring myself to beg. I am not hungry enough yet.
My search leads me through some of the seediest alleys in Venice. I am drawn to their obscurity and their new found sense of security. I see two old men sitting on the stoop of an abandoned building. There is a shopping cart full of prized possessions in front of them. I cross the street and ask if they know of a place that gives food for free. The older white man jumps to his feet and proclaims, "Here!" He walks to an R.V.
parked in the road and pounds on the
door. "Marie, we have a hungry visitor!"
An African American woman in her mid-twenties exits the old, beat-up Winnebago with a plate of pancakes and half a sausage in hand. She gives it to me and I start eating. "We reuse the forks though, so make sure we get it back," she says. I cringe a bit, believing all the cautionary concerns my parents taught me about eating after others, but my hunger surpasses my fear.
I found that the poorest people are the most generous. They know the pain of hunger and human nature dictates we do the right thing to benefit each other.
I thank them and set out to catch a bus
that my new friends assured would take
me to a shelter for the evening. Six hours later, I sit on the corner of Westminster and Pacific with the habitually homeless waiting for the bus that will take me to the shelter for the night. The bus stop is at a corner lot containing a senior center and a
dog park. The contradiction of classes
could never be more apparent to me as I sit hungry and tired, waiting with the forgotten people of our civilization for a bus that will whisk us away from the world's sight, while people take their dogs out in clothes that cost more than most people make in a week.
As the 1950's style bus pulls up with "A Touch of Class Touring" blazoned in yellow against the bright orange body of the bus comes to a halt at the bus stop, a sea of homeless people begin coming from everywhere trying to reserve their spot in line. I wait patiently at a distance ensuring there is room for everyone before I take a seat.
I listen intently to the multiple conversations occurring while we are eastbound on Venice Blvd. Even though estimates by the National Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness suggest that mental illness affects 20 percent of the homeless population, my experience leads me to believe it is much higher, possibly over 70 percent. They just manage to slip through the cracks of assessment and will never be counted.
The ones that don't seem mentally ill tend to be addicts of some form or another.
Once we arrive at the shelter we are told to wait in the lobby until the security guard arrives to search us. In the line stood a mentally retarded 20-something with his mother, who was somewhere in the twilight of her life. Her entire existence was for his care. Wrinkles ran deep on her face from the
years of struggle and defeat. The young man yelled insistently at the woman working behind the barrier dividing us from the cots, until she had had enough and decided they were not welcome to stay the night.
I understood her reason, but my heart ached immensely as I watched them walk off into the cold night, afraid and angry. I wanted to tell them it would be alright, but I didn't want to be another liar to them. They
need help, not words. When the security guard arrived and the entry was opened, we were allowed to enter. I was isolated as the lone "newbie."
My information was entered into their database but never verified. The shelter consists of a small airplane hangar-like structure with a great room that houses everyone. There are cots lined up inches apart, sans mattresses. There are three tiny television sets on opposite corners of the building.
The first two hours are filled with addicts coming down from their high resulting in a room full of cold sweats and coughs.
After a dinner of collard greens, turkey patties and potatoes, all the same greenish tint, the crowd begins its segregation by cliques. Being the "newbie" I was approached by dealers of every drug imaginable trying to make some quick cash, hoping I was just
another addict that ended up losing it all.
I declined and even offered to punch one of the drug pushers in his mouth if he even looked at me funny. There are unspoken laws of homelessness that we don't deal with in
everyday life. There are no possessions to protect or advantages to be gained.
Respect is all they have to measure themselves against their peers. Since respect can never be earned through admiration of accomplishments, it is earned through the power of a punch and the fear inflicted. As long as you don't take attitude, you won't be given attitude. Show weakness and it will be exploited.
The shelter is not a place I would stay if I were homeless. I would rather be out on the streets or on the beach. I find safety in nature. There is also no one in the shelter that can offer me a job and if I am going to survive independently, I am going to need to provide for myself.
I awoke to the sounds of "My Cherie Amour" being pumped through the shelter's intercom. I was somehow energized even though the entire night was a series of small naps interrupted by the snoring of the man in the cot next to me, positioned only inches from
mine. The schoolroom-style clock read
5 a.m. Masses of people sprinted to the
restroom trying to be first in line for a
The security guard stopped the music and said, "Put your sheets in a bag, fold up your cots and get out!" over the loudspeaker. Rudeness is routine as the
people that didn't make the first round of
showers were already packing their cots
back into the large prison-style laundry
baskets and rolling them out to be put into a roll-on storage container.
I gathered my belongings and headed to the lobby area. "What time is the bus?" I asked.
"6:45," replied the man who kept me awake all night with his snoring. I was faced with an hour-and-a-half wait or a forty-five minute walk; I chose the latter for our time is our only passion of value. Walking without purpose is one of the most enjoyable pastimes people take for granted.
My plan was to start looking for work but first I wanted to do a quick workout to warm up for the day. I hit the pull-up bars and start pumping out sets. The beach was incredibly void of people. A young, blonde woman came into the workout pen and asked
if I knew where to get a fake Breitling
watch. I steered her to a place I know
that sells such items and she took it as
her cue to engage me in conversation.
I proceeded to tell her I was newly homeless. She gave me $20 to "help out" and I graciously accepted. The $20 changed my plans entirely. $20 equates to any 18 items I would want off of any fast food value menu
readily available anywhere in the United States. I embraced my good fortune and saw it as an opportunity to expand my boundaries. I want to go north and north I shall go.
I start walking up the boardwalk, passing Santa Monica and onto the Pacific Coast Highway towards Santa Barbara. I continued on the shoreline barefoot and content. I felt freedom with every step. I set a goal to walk to Malibu and eight hours after I began, I reached my destination.
I walked over 15 miles that day. My legs ached while my mind soared. I grabbed a bite to eat and then crossed back over to the shoreline. I tried to find a spot to avoid the cold, but there was no place safe from the chilling gusts of wind.
I headed up the hillside toward the Pacific Coast Highway. I saw three wanderers walking along the road with packs loaded full of equipment. "Can I come with you guys?" I asked from the darkness. They were startled
but instinctually agreed. Their backs were turned to me as they continued walking north; I noticed the two in front whispering back and forth to each other.
"Where are you guys heading?" I said.
Without looking back at me the guy leading replied, "Topanga Canyon. There's a campground there." "We just passed it." I replied. They all came to a stop and we
formed a circle to devise a plan. This
was the first time I could see their faces.
The one leading introduced himself as
Seanzion. His hair was long and starting
to dread from the accumulating dirt. He looked like Jesus Christ reincarnated and walking the streets in search of something he will never find. The person he was whispering to earlier was a beautiful young girl who introduced herself as Breeze. Her backpack seems to envelope her petite frame.
Her brown hair was pulled tightly into two pigtails jetting out from the sides of her head; she was shy and looks only at the ground when we converse. The third tells me his name is Tom. He was much older than the other two and in a state of constant concern.
"I'm a Kerouacian," he said. I smile, thinking I had met another like myself yearning for the freedoms of the road accompanied only by a pen and paper to chronicle my trailblazing. They briefly tell me of their journey from Wichita, Kansas and how they plan on being in Portland to panhandle until they can get a place and everything else they desire. We decided to walk back to Topanga Canyon, but on our arrival were faced with the blindness that darkness forces.
We walked up the canyon in search of the campground we were not certain existed. We slipped through a large hole in a chain link fence hugging the street and then headed deep into the mountain until we found a place to set up camp for the night. I was too cold to worry about getting arrested for trespassing and too tired to care.
As I made a fire, Seanzion told tales of their travels and detailed his dealings with any and all kinds of hallucinogenic drugs he had consumed and those he hopes to. It was such a heartfelt anti-antidrug speech I found myself wondering what it would be like to chase an elf through the forest, swinging from tree to tree like a monkey until a unicorn comes to carry me away forever. His
story soothed me to sleep. I see why the homeless stick together. Judgment is spared by those that share fate.
"What time is it?" I asked. Breeze looked at her mobile phone and let me know it's 7 a.m. They remembered they were supposed to meet another companion at 6:30 and Seanzion ran
to find him. We packed up our gear and
He wasn't there. We searched all over to no avail. They decide to wait for him but I wanted to find work. We say goodbye and I continued, alone. I walked into Malibu and saw a group of workers unloading an agricultural semi-trailer. I ran in the store and asked if I could help unload the trucks. The man told me, "sure" and although we didn't discuss a rate, I'll take what I get and be happy.
Nine hours later, there was nothing left to unload, unpack, organize or clean. I say my goodbyes and get thirty dollars for my effort. I grabbed some fast food and headed back down to Topanga State Beach to soak up some sun for the remainder of the day.
When the sun had set, I hitchhiked a ride from a semi-truck driver from Topanga to Santa Monica. I watched the thick diesel smoke blast its way out of the exhaust as he pulled away. I was back in the city. My pockets were full of money I didn't need and my heart was heavier than ever; it seems fitting in a city this size. I walked to Venice and grabbed a spot in an alley to catch some sleep.
Tomorrow, I would be going home. I have tried to push my life out of my mind and live in the moment, but I was looking forward to some sense of security. A good friend of mine that was homeless for over five years said to me before I took this trip, "Homelessness is a state of mind. I can sit around all day and do drugs or drink and think about what I could have or should have if only things were different, but the reality is if you want something different, you have to change it yourself. When I wanted to get off the streets, I looked at the people around me and how they got the things they have. It takes sacrifice. I know if I want something, I have to sacrifice
and devise a plan in my mind."
I never really grasped the gravity and clarity of his words until I experienced homelessness firsthand. There are certain circumstances where it is not the fault of the individual by mental and physical illness, childhood homelessness or old age, but life is what we make of it. I stayed in a shelter; I stayed on the streets and on the beach. I begged, bummed and worked to make money. There are plenty of programs
such as the Chrysalis House, Salvation Army, federal grants and countless other organizations that help those that want help get back on their feet.
Not everyone is destined to fit in our societal norms. The heart wants what the heart wants. The addictions and isms are all conquerable through the power of the will. Do what you can to help and all you can do to reserve judgment. There is no answer to homelessness just as there is no answer to emotions. It's in our minds.