By Brian Connolly
I’ve been supporting the rights of the un-housed as a political activist who dresses like John Lennon, pitching my tent overnight at different events, and then going back to my apartment. I’d made some mistakes in my life recently, though, and found myself un-housed. This is what it’s been like:
I ran up the sidewalk towards the St. Joseph homeless shelter in Venice, California. It was 6:45am – too late for orientation. Though the cops had awoken me with a beeping sound right out of “Star Wars” right before 6:00am, the cut-off for still sleeping on the sidewalk in LA, I was late. I had a copy of Treasure Island in my hand and a pack on my back. The book, of course, is filled with characters such as Captain Long John Silver, ruthless pirates and castaways such as Ben Gunn. St. Josephs is filled with castaways also: drug addicts, the mentally ill, the victims of violence and other traumas, and also poor souls who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who simply made a mistake or two. When the bankers took the TARP money and rewarded themselves for the crises that they’d created, they marginalized almost everyone in society, but here were the people towards the bottom. No bailouts here.
On the line in front of me was Gypsy — an old man with a palm tree tattoo on his cheek, almost like a pirate. He laid on the cement in front of me, his lips pursing in as if over false teeth, faded tattoos splotched across his arms. His right eye is a translucent white. In this world, the first thing you begin to learn is what you need to know in your first hour in prison. Not to make unnecessary eye contact with certain people. Large muscular aggressives will go off on you in a threatening way over little things. Over time you realize that it’s just their way of fronting, of protecting themselves. Just don’t press that trigger and they’ll ignore you. It’s other creatures in what I’ve come to call “The Underworld” whom you have to worry about much more.
The “shop talk” in a line before a homeless shelter is filled with subjects like the food stamp benefit going down $11 next month. How “The Shawshank Redemption” is a bunch of bullshit; it’s hard to kill yourself, especially by hanging. Del Taco just announced it’ll have $0.50 cent tacos all next month. After getting my name on a list and waiting for another hour to be called up to a computer, I headed over to Bread and Roses, the shelter’s feeding location, to eat. On the way there, on a corner in the slanting sun by the ’76 gas station was Gypsy with a cardboard sign, begging for change. He glanced up as I passed pushing my bike. His hand reached up and grabbed my wrist suddenly. Through slurred words he looked up through his translucent eye and cried out to me “I’m gonna kill myself. This life ain’t worth living. I got nothing to go on about!” It wasn’t melodrama. Sprawled across the curb before Whole Foods, I knew that he meant it, at least in his soul somewhere. I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably something weak like, “Hang in there.” I wheeled my bike forward, his grip giving way like a rope slipping from a wooden ship. I stopped after a few paces, remembering that I’d bought a three-part string cheese package from the $0.99 store. Remembering that the castaway in the book, Ben Gunn, only really missed cheese, I asked him if he wanted any. He said yes and took the cheese with a distant, but appreciative “Thank you.”
At night, I sleep under the stars by Gold’s Gym in Venice – and I’m not alone. There’s a scattering of different human beings, in sleeping bags, under patio umbrellas, some tents…few tents…it’s not the cops who care. It’s the other homeless people who believe that it’d be “putting on airs” who are the deterrent apparently. I use cardboard to cover my sleeping bag and to reduce the wetness of the dew in the morning. Also, it acts as camouflage—nothing of value under here… And protection — one night someone threw hard bread at us from a speeding car, shouting taunts against the homeless. There’s this guy on a blue bike with a distinct metallic squeak who cruises through the sleeping bodies on the sidewalk late at night, looking for anything to steal from us…cigarettes, shoes. An Occupier comrade of mine, Alex, caught him staring at a dog called Daisy, who accompanied us one night. She never barked, unaware that she might have had a new, possibly cruel, owner.
On another night, a thief crept up to me as I slept, reached over me silently and lifted my bike. I woke a moment later and saw that my bike was gone. Panic. Rise. Reality or dream? I charged down the street to where the thief was trying to put my Cannondale into a 30k SUV. I thundered at him, “That’s my bike, you motherfucker!” Viciously, wide-eyed, unswervingly. Screams in Spanish from the driver later translated to me as “Give it to him! Just give it to him!” The thief panicked and threw my bike back at me as a weapon, cutting my wrist in two spots. They sped away. The other un-housed figures near me still in their spots looked up sheepishly, but aware. As the swift ebb of violence passed, I apologized for waking them in a calm voice. Mutters of “Preying on the homeless,” etc., passed from person-to-person down the line of dark figures against a large green hedge.
Every night, no matter where I am in the city, I “migrate” back to the exact same spot. My head lines up to where the parking sign pole starts. To my right, a kid named Mickey has his spot, there every night for ten months since leaving Washington state. To my left, a huge fellow with a bald head who’ll kick anyone he finds in his spot to any other place on earth, no matter the time of night. That’s his spot. I began to understand why I always heard about violence erupting over spots on the sidewalk. It’s the only kind of psychological congruency left to someone who has no other physical spot to call his home.
And through all this, there are unmistakable acts of kindness. There is this rich blonde woman and a well-dressed brown-haired man in fine clothes who’ll jump out of their limo with cookies, one time with a beef stroganoff dish. There are young 20-somethings who call themselves The Burrito Project, who will lay hot bean and rice burritos and Mountain Spring water bottles by sleeping figures on the concrete. Baptist churches, the Hari Krishnas, Catholic Charities, and all sorts of volunteers in the shelters who seem to change every day, but who are still there every day. At Bread and Roses I was stunned at the quality of the food. I learned that the chef had just gone on “Chopped”—and won! He could make many times the money working at a fancy restaurant with his skills, but he doesn’t seemingly give a hoot. He shows up at Bread and Roses every day and cooks for us instead.
After eating, I circled back to St. Josephs. A piece of paper told me that they handed out free clothes at that time. There was Gypsy, staring out into the traffic of Lincoln Boulevard. I handed him some more cheese. Suddenly, right before the shelter door, an LAPD car pulled up. A cop got out and said to someone in the back seat, “This is it. In there.” A girl got out of the squad car, barefoot and covered in a grey blanket. It was the cops dropping someone off at a homeless shelter. An infamous homeless drop-off that the cops claim never really happen. When the girl got out, the cops sped away, not checking whether or not she’d entered. I walked up to her pushing my bike. I said, “The shelter is in there.” What I met when I came face-to-face with her was a shattered human being. She didn’t respond verbally. Her eyes were dilated as if from a permanent shock. She couldn’t have been more than in her late twenties. Her hair was very, very short, dark, but I could swear also grey. Severe mental illness? Schizophrenia? She wandered back and forth on the sidewalk a bit, oblivious to the case workers on the other side of the door the cops had pointed to, and Gypsy staring up through his one good eye, silent but ever present, peeling the string cheese strand-by-strand.
Intuiting that she wouldn’t answer me, I wheeled my bike to the back of St. Joseph’s. There was Russell, the new guard and very approachable. Did they want me to get involved? To mind my own business? I was “in their charge” to an extent. Did this happen every day? If this was a movie, this is the part where I would’ve charged in there and saved the day, connecting the downtrodden with the angels just an arm’s length from them. But this was real life and all this, though embellished a bit, really happened.
What I actually did after a moment was just wheel my bike down the alley, disappearing myself back into the underworld.
At the Santa Monica library, I entered with my pack to write all this down, only to be ejected by a guard. My pack had a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat — both illegal in the library — to keep out the homeless. They even put in a new $25 for a library card for non-residents rule in case that didn’t work. On the way back, I eat at OPCC. The guards were speaking amongst themselves in hushed whispers. Someone had been stabbed the day before, blood everywhere, but that’s not what had them freaked out. It was “who” got stabbed, someone known to them as the nicest, calmest guy out there who wouldn’t antagonize anyone; the un-nerving fact being that no one, even themselves, was immune to the sudden inflammation of violence that would catch like a spark and erupt like a flame.
Out of sight, out of mind. From the 1% down, society doesn’t want to see the homeless, even acknowledge that their own actions — or in-actions — could be part of the problem of the un-housed. OPCC, the Santa Monica shelter is located on a street only visible from the 10 Freeway if you’re looking to the right at an exact moment before reaching the beach. After I let other Occupy activists know my situation, they very kindly tried to help me, offering a place to shower, food, something to drink, but honestly these gestures aren’t as helpful as you’d think. All those things are easy to acquire if you’re resourceful in a place like Venice or Santa Monica. It’s the psychological chains that the homeless need help with: substance abuse, the lack of information and motivation to solve problems like how to find a job, and how to find a housing situation. Empowerment. This is how it’s done. Here’s the solution. You need an email address and a cellphone just to have one. Facts a caring mother or father tells their children over and over.
In the meantime, cheese may sustain…and acts of kindness. I’m still homeless. I’ll sleep under the stars in the same spot tonight listening to an electrical transponder on top of a telephone pole spark and sputter in the moist beach air. Tomorrow I’ll go to the shelter, eat at Bread and Roses…maybe have an extra package of string cheese if Gypsy is still “on board.” I never saw the girl with dilated eyes again, though those shattered eyes haunted my dreams last night as I tossed and turned in my cardboard-covered sleeping bag.
By Brian Connolly