In our busy world of endless commutes, driving by tent cities set up on sidewalks and under overpasses, do you ever wonder who those people are, where they came from and how they ended up on the lowest rung of our society’s ladder? Sure, some are drug addicts, crazy people, shiftless, lazy, not willing to work to make a living, and whatever else you think of as you drive past them. But not all of them are. Many are folks who have just run out of other options. Folks who create their own communities, as best they can, because they, just like us, crave human companionship, safety, and a “home”, just like the rest of us. Many are old and sick, many have tried and failed so many times, they don’t know what else they can do make their lives better. In dealing with the hand life has dealt them, many are much braver, stronger and more resilient than I could ever hope to be. I have gotten to know some of them and thought you might like to get to know them too…
Frank is 58, though he looks much older. He lives under an overpass. He’s a war vet and took a gunshot to his leg, which never healed properly, so walking is hard for him. He was a certified chef in Louisiana, married to the same woman for many years. Together they had eight children and 13 grandchildren. Nine years ago, his wife left him and his life spiraled out of control. He started using drugs, lost his job, and started dealing to pay the bills. He was arrested and spent a few years in prison on drug charges. When he got out, he had no job, no family he could go back to, and no where to go. He said he feels like “the loneliest man in the world”.
He grew up near Helms Bakery and went to Hamilton High, so he’s come back to an area that knows. He tries to stay in touch with his kids and grandkids. His sons have been successful, one is a parole officer, one is in the military, one is a biochemist and one is a physicist, but he won’t ask them for help, he says that’s “not what a father is supposed to do, kids shouldn’t take care of their parents”. He used to find old bikes, fix them up and sell them, but the LAPD and the Sanitation Department came by a few days ago and took all his tools and the bikes he was working on. They also took all his kids’ photos, his art supplies, his tent and blanket, and all the food he was saving up for the end of the month.
Frank does amazing charcoal sketches and would really like to have the photos and his art supplies back but has no way to get them out of “storage”. He’s been told the LAPD stores the stuff they take downtown. He has no way to get there and no way to transport the things back to his spot under the overpass. So, he shrugs and tries to focus on what he does have.
He and his community, a group of 12 or so, have made a place for themselves there. He makes sure everyone keeps their area neat and clean. They watch out for each other and try to keep themselves safe. He thinks the gunshot in his leg is infected but has no way to get to the Veteran’s hospital in Westwood. To leave his “home”, he has to find someone to watch his stuff while he’s gone, so he can’t be gone for very long. He lives on EBT and food stamps, a total of $398 a month. Since he can’t cook, he buys the cheapest nonperishable food he can find. Sometimes he will splurge on fast food, just so he can have a hot meal once in a while. He really misses being able to cook.
He doesn’t understand why the LAPD comes and takes their stuff away. He thought that if they were “good neighbors”, clean, neat and respectful, they would be left alone. He doesn’t understand what it is that people want him to do. He’s a senior citizen, too old and sick to be able to get a job, though he certainly has tried. The shelters are mostly downtown and work on a “first come first in” basis, so even if he could find a way to pack up his stuff and go downtown, there’s no guaranty he would get a bed.
He’s often thought of suicide but has decided he wants to live. The people in his community count on him to look after them, so many of them are in much worse shape than he is, so he feels like he needs to stay and help them get through the rough patches. He wonders why our government brings in refugees from other countries, gives them a place to live, and helps them find a job, but that same government just wants him and his friends to “go somewhere else”. Where do they want them to go? He doesn’t understand how the system works or what they expect him to do. He would really like a place to call home, one with a kitchen so he could cook again. But what he really, really wants is a job, so he could pay his own way. He just doesn’t know how to make that happen.
I had my dogs in the car when I went to see him, so he came over to say hi to them. They have a home, food to eat and someone who loves them. It doesn’t seem right that they have a much better life than Frank does. But Frank is cheerful and optimistic, nonetheless. We had to cut our talk short, one of his neighbors needed his help, so I left and told him I would be back soon.