When I first arrived in Southern California at the tail end of 1966, I was pleasantly surprised by how crisp and clean it looked. Coming from grungy red-brick Cleveland, coated with decades of industrial grime, I really felt I was making a new beginning.
Cut to today. The city is crawling with bums (excuse me, “the homeless”) who think nothing of spreading garbage all around. The trash cans are all filled to overflowing, and alleyways are festooned with human excrement.
It seems that every year there are more men living in tents and ratty looking old Winnebago RVs parked up and down the streets. There has been a bum encampment now for upwards of ten years right across the street from my apartment. When I go to the local Seven-Eleven, there are scruffy men asking for “spare change.”
There are also a few women in these encampments, but their appearance usually begins a new round of competition for their favors, marked with nights of cursing and violence.
I still love L.A., but am dismayed that politicians don’t seem to want to face the problems that confront them. On one side, they face opposition from woke liberals who think they should be left alone, and the majority of the population, which would rather see them housed somewhere else. Considering that most bums are not into following rules regarding alcohol and recreational drugs, or any kind of personal hygiene, the latter is not a viable option.
Times are tough when vagrancy is considered the norm.
I have been accused by some people of being mean to the homeless, typically by people whose experience of homelessness has been very different from what I have encountered. There are people who manage to get out of living on the streets. Usually, this applies to women, especially women with children. I write mostly about people who can more accurately be described as bums and their associated scags.
Does that sound mean? It should given my experience with garbage, poop, fights and screams in the middle of the night, vandalism, aggressive begging, theft, and stench. And this all is less than a hundred feet from my front door. Let us look at three levels of opposition to homeless encampments:
Approach with flamethrowers and baseball bats.
Apply political pressure to get them off the streets.
Refuse to engage with them in conversation.
I am at level 3. When approached by a bum, usually to request a cash donation, I talk to them only in Hungarian. Ever since running into a Hungarian beggar in Vancouver, BC, I do not swear at them in Hungarian. All I want is for them to walk away looking confused.
Is this mean and heartless? Not really. I do not think much of the bums who live across the street from me. I do not sneer at them or give them any indications of opposition. If they want to talk to me, I just insist that it be in Hungarian. And I do not work with politicians on the problem, because I think they have no idea of the nature of the problem. There are just too many widely varying opinions across the entire political spectrum. Mine is just one of them, and by no means the most heartless.
Things Have Changed in L.A.—And Not for the Better
When I first arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966, I saw a bright, clean city that looked bran spanking new compared to the dirty brick of Cleveland. That image has now changed: The streets of L.A. are crowded with tents, scruffy looking men (and women), and their garbage which spreads far and wide around the tents in which they sleep.
I guess it is inevitable when rents go sky high in an area which has a mild climate with only a few days of rain and real cold during the year. Some of the homeless are people like me who have been squeezed out of their homes and would like nothing so much as to return to them. But, alas, most of L.A.’s homeless are the mentally ill and druggies of various stripes, including the alcoholic.
Typical Downtown Street Scene
The homeless have taken over sidewalks and what we used to call tree lawns back east. On her walks in our relatively expensive neighborhood, Martine has come across used syringes from heroin addicts. Across the street from my apartment is a tent city consisting of between eight and twelve tents. During the hot weather, when our windows are open, we can hear profanity-laced arguments and occasionally even fisticuffs as the homeless settle scores.
Note that I have been calling all these people “the homeless.” Actually, most of them are more accurately termed bums, similar to the “sturdy beggars” of Elizabethan England. Politicians typically have not a clue as to how to return Los Angeles to its glory days. Building housing units and forcing bums to obey rules like not fighting or drinking or taking drugs won’t work. The bums regard it as an infringement of their liberties.
Lurking in the Shadows of a Great City…
Frankly, I don’t think that the bum problem will last forever. At some point, the residents of L.A. will rise up and demand real action. Only, God knows what that action eventually will be.
As the heat of summer has descended on Los Angeles, I have increasingly been spending more time at the air-conditioned Westfield Mall in Culver City. There are places to sit and read, plenty of perfectly acceptable restaurants, and—very important to me—not a large number of smelly bums. Oh, did I sound not too terribly Progressive with that last line? Perhaps it’s because I¹m not 100% Progressive.(Especially as there is a bum encampment across the street from my apartment.)
If you think I should be ever so much more understanding than I appear to be, I urge you to see a 1932 French film director by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux). A used bookseller played by Charles Granval rescues a tramp (played by the great Michel Simon) from drowning in the Seine. Out of a total lack of gratitude, Boudu opens a rare edition of Honoré de Balzac, spits in it, closes the book, and returns it to the shelf. If someone were to spit in one of my Balzacs, I would gladly perforate his spleen and any adjacent internal organs.
One interesting thing about sitting in a mall is the variety of people who pass by. It is incredible to me how many Americans are grossly overweight. Also, since the mall is located in Culver City, I am amazed by how many drop-dead gorgeous young African-American women there are. Also, at least during the day, people are unusually nice to one another.
Among the restaurants, there are some interesting Asian choices, such as Bibigo (Korean), Dot Saigon (Vietnamese), 101 Noodle Express (pan-Asian), and Panda Express (Gringo Chinese). If I wanted to go more upscale, there is an Oliver Garden and a Wokcano at the ground level.
Next week, the temperature is supposed to be particularly heinous (with temps going up as high as 108° F in the interior, probably higher given the unusual Southern California conservatism in predicting high heat).
There are several ways of talking about the homeless. For one thing, I do not think they can be all lumped into one category. Therefore, I rarely speak about “the homeless” as a whole. Some are temporarily without an address and have some reasonable hope of finding one, especially if they are a family. One does not usually encounter these transient homeless on the streets. More likely, one runs into a mostly male population of homeless that fit into one or more of the following categories:
The mentally ill, estimated by the City of Los Angeles to comprise some 40% of the total.
Veterans of the armed forces who were unable to make the transition to civilian life. As I live within a couple miles of a large Veterans Administration hospital, I see quite a few of these.
Hardcore bums who like living on the street and are unwilling to have any of their perceived rights and privileges abridged. Some of these are involved in drug dealing and theft.
There is a tent encampment right across the street from my apartment consisting of some ten hardcore bums. They usually do not bother the street residents unless to steal a bicycle or small grill, or to beg for cash. Since there are a number of charities that provide meals, I almost never give cash to a street person. Cash received by the hardcore homeless usually falls in the category of CBD money: in other words, for cigarettes, booze, and drugs.
I have seen a few hardcore female bums, mostly on the bus, and usually find them to be sad cases, frequently mentally ill and fiercely unapproachable. Martine saw one of them defecate on the sidewalk of our street in the open. Seeing Martine’s facial reaction, she called her a racist.
Given the variety of motives that moves this population, I shake my head in despair when journalists persist in talking about “the homeless” as if there were a single solution for all. There just isn’t.
Whether you call them by the term bums or the more forgiving “the homeless,” the streets of Southern California are filling up with raggedy men (and some women) who are living off the streets, They like to position themselves near markets and convenience stores and ask for the inevitable “spare change.” Across the street from where I live, there are several more-or-less permanent tents where several bums (yeah, these guys are properly called bums) spend the night, howling at the moon.
There are food distribution programs that cater to L.A.’s street people, but they still beg for spare change. My theory is that the money they get is strictly for CBD—cigarettes, booze, and drugs. At least one of the bums across the street is a drug dealer: He has two cars parked on the curb and is frequently seen talking on a burn cellphone.
I am somewhat torn. I like the idea of helping the true homeless—those who have some chance of getting out of their present dire situation—but I absolutely refuse to help bums. It’s like putting out a cockroach feeder. I support the Salvation Army and several other charities that help the homeless, but I would prefer that the bums move on elsewhere. I can hear them all night swearing loudly at each other and sometimes fighting in he street. Every once in a while, the LAPD stops and asks them to move on, but they cannot force them unless there is a clear violation of the law.
In nearby Santa Monica, bums are not allowed to set up tents and sleep on the pavement; but Los Angeles has always been a bit more forgiving. In the meantime, there are breakins to the apartment laundry rooms where the perpetrators are searching for quarters. A neighbor’s bicycle was stolen; and other small crimes of the typr that did not happen until the bum encampment was set up.