They weren’t as bad in Philadelphia.

When I lived in Center City Philadelphia, I was regularly exposed to the homeless. They were all over. There was one very floridly psychotic guy in particular who scared me the first time I saw him. It was nearing midnight in a deserted concourse at Market East, and he was lurching about telling a story that had a rather biblical poetry to it:

“Smashed in his knees with a two-by-four! Smashed in his knees with a sledge-HAMMER!” I knew immediately that it was a terrible place to have kneecaps.

Sledgehammer did nothing to prepare me for Los Angeles. Raging batshit psychosis and Old Testament violent ideation are no substitute for the filth and degradation of Skid Row. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever really set foot in Skid Row, since it has never smelled too bad where I’ve been, but I’ve seen the overflow. The overwhelming badness of the neighborhood inevitably diffuses west across Central or Broadway or whatever is nominally the boundary. It also diffuses north to Union Station, although it somehow pretty much skirts Little Tokyo. I’m guessing that there’s some unconstitutional enforcement at the behest of local business owners at play. The silence, as it were, is deafening.

Or maybe the bums just don’t like hipsters.

Skid Row, on the other hand, has too large and entrenched a homelessness problem for the business community to make go away. The advocacy groups are entrenched there, too, and they’ve successfully sued the LAPD to stop cops from disposing of piles of unsanitary personal possessions that the homeless are unable to launder, let alone properly store. And though as I mentioned I haven’t really been there, the whole neighborhood apparently reeks of piss and shit because the residents have nowhere to relieve themselves but the streets.

I should specify that Skid Row isn’t a row. It’s something like fifty square blocks on the east end of downtown. The local Chamber of Commerce types call it Central City-East, as if that fools anyone who doesn’t have an active Chamber membership. This is one instance in which everyone in the area is wise to the booster propaganda, and anyone who isn’t learns in a hurry on the first visit.

The Chamber of Commerce tools would like potential customers to think of “Central City-East” as an “up-and-coming neighborhood,” but really what they’d like is for the cops and the trash collectors to get rid of the shopping carts full of moldy blankets and sweaters. This objective is frustrated by the courts, which have held that the shopping carts are their owners’ de facto domiciles, and in a sense they are. Their owners have nothing else.

There’s some hard living in this town. In 2003, I saw a couple of guys sleeping on beds of eucalyptus leaves on the lawn in front of City Hall. The city subsequently fenced off much of its lawn acreage downtown, so there’s been less of that kind of thing. The private security goons at Union Station rarely take more than two minutes to give the bum’s rush to any dirtball sitting in the waiting area. At night, they repeatedly wake up even well-dressed passengers who are surrounded by new, expensive luggage to conduct ticket inspections; everyone suffers so that the homeless may be denied a plush leather chair in which to peaceably sleep. Likewise, there’s hardly a dedicated residential neighborhood in the city whose residents don’t call the cops on vagrants in a heartbeat, although in that case nutbar-dirtball-on-the-lawn is a fairly compelling reason for the bum’s rush.

The homeless are squeezed, so they extrude at the weakest points, and then they concentrate. The Metro system gets a few, although not as many as one would expect in a city where there are something like 23,000 homeless. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen an obviously homeless person riding on the Metro system. This March, however, I happened across a lady who was encamped for at least three straight days in a bus shelter in front of Union Station. I could smell her (at least, I think it was a woman) from twenty feet away.

Many of the commercial strips in and around LA get something approaching their fair share of the homeless. Neighborhood or municipal wealth has at most a muted effect. Inglewood and Lennox, two dodgy, seedy neighbors, have quite a few, but so does downtown Fullerton, which is well built and immaculately maintained. Fullerton’s most famous homeless resident, Kelly Thomas, got that way by getting dead at the hands of city cops, so wealth isn’t a reliable defense against police brutality, although it can help; the areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of the most troubled police agencies in the area, are overwhelmingly poor and rundown. The closest thing I’ve seen to a homeless-free commercial strip is the tourist trap Potemkin Village along Beach Boulevard in Buena Park. What the BPPD does to keep it that way, if anything, I can’t say; maybe the tourists there are just hardass teabaggers.

Maybe the most entertaining story I’ve heard about the homeless in LA came from a fellow passenger on the Metro 460 bus. This man said that he knew a 500-pound homeless guy who pretty much just lay on his side in front of a donut shop in downtown Norwalk, waiting for free food and conversation with his donors. Biggie used to hold court on a patio at the donut shop, but the owners got tired of him effectively squatting there, so they sealed off the patio; prior to his patio days, Biggie and his friend from the bus recognized each other from Biggie’s days living on the industrial part of Alondra Boulevard. It was a confusing tale, at once sick, poignant, heartwarming in a small-world way and in the sense of Biggie living a weirdly purpose-driven life, and just plain hilarious for those of us who are tasteless enough to be entertained by morbidly obese people who wait around for good Samaritans to bring them junk food. All right, I don’t watch television shows about these people (usually), so I’m not that bad, but still.

This essay has reached its low point, maybe. I can’t say for sure that there was a compelling reason for me to even mention Biggie. As far as I can tell, his experiences have practically nothing in common with those of the homeless I’ve personally seen around LA, so the paragraph that I devoted to him was basically fat people porn. In a way, though, Biggie’s relatively happy existence is a Point of Light (TM) in a region that needs thousands. (Where you at, George? This town’s lookin’ dark!) When a barely ambulatory fat guy getting donuts from casual acquaintances instead of codependent relatives is a regional best practice, you’ve got problems, and I reckon LA has a few.

Hollywood and, so I’ve heard, Santa Monica have large populations of sign-flying transient types. The ones I’ve seen in Hollywood are a lot like the dirtballs who migrate to Ashland every summer, but somewhat angrier and less carefree. Unlike so many seasonal Ashlanders, they don’t give off the appearance of being able to go home to Pleasanton or La Canada Flintridge if they get sick of roughing it for handouts. It’s hard to say, though; as Upton Sinclair discussed in The Jungle, there’s a lot of acting involved in being a successful panhandler. Costumes are an important component, and Hollywood’s white transients favor more or less the same kind of pseudomilitary get-ups that Ashland’s “traveling kids” wear. It isn’t so much stolen valor as stolen martial puffery, but mostly it’s a hipster version of humping pack around ‘Nam. (Shit, I once took my own GI rucksack to LA, so maybe I shouldn’t throw stones, but I’m pretty sure I was dressed in Dockers and aloha shirts for most of the trip, so I was on the right side of that hair-versus-square game. I think.)

These are not sympathetic homeless. They’re ablebodied with no outward signs of mental illness, and the white-guy-in-dreads thing doesn’t help. Still, there’s always a chance that social services back east bought them a one-way ticket and dropped them off at the Greyhound depot. That kind of thing happens pretty often, and the ticket destinations are almost always Los Angeles or one of the big Sans. The saints of the old El Camino Real missions can always be counted on to intercede on behalf of the poor, weary traveler through their eponymous county social services agencies, which is an indescribably more humane state of affairs than the old-school life that the Spanish missions imposed on the heathen Indians back when they were legit missions rather than picturesque tourist traps, but it’s still a pain in the ass for any San Diego social worker who thinks that Maricopa County ought to care for its own.

Indeed, it is the Republicans, the real Americans, who most enthusiastically dump the down-and-out on the Left Coast. The authorities in Phoenix have sent some across the Colorado, but more often the culprits are rural counties whose electorates are two thirds Republican. These same counties are, of course, consistently net drains on the federal treasury despite their efforts to ship their trash out of state, “self-reliance” being a code for white people in railroad land grant towns who are greatly butthurt by the existence of the lefty Angelenos whose taxes pay for John Thune’s pork barrel projects. Far be it from America’s good, moral farm subsidy beneficiaries, imbued as they are with small-town Christian family values, to care for their own local fuck-ups if a bus ticket and a few sack lunches can turn them into California’s problem.

In the grandest tradition of American federalism, different counties use different shipment strategies to conform to different community standards, by which I mean whatever official oppression the citizens tolerate from their badly overrated police departments in the absence of meaningful recruitment standards, such as California POST might impose. If the migration is overseen by bleeding hearts, probably social workers but maybe decent people who fell through the cracks into the local police academy, it could be a genuine case of presenting the poor with their options: “Look, man, Bumfuckland County, Texas is a hard land populated by a hard people, but Santa Clara County is the land of milk and honey! It’s like manna from Sacramento! A day, a night, and another day on the Dirty Dog, and when you get off the bus in San Jose, they’ll pass you the 3:20, no questions asked! Dude, it’s totally Biblical!” If bleeding hearts aren’t involved, it may well be a case of taking a befuddled schizophrenic to the depot with a sack full of ham sandwiches and telling him, “Okay. Get on that bus.” There’s also a third option, one that Mitt Romney might call self-deportation, in which the hard cases go west, young man, without any prompting. This is often a result of what we might call the Jesus-H-Christ-Winter-in-Fargo-Makes-My-Fucking-Nipples-Cut-Cteel Syndrome. Sure, Skid Row is all kinds of hellish, but the weather’s all right, and the LAPD isn’t as totally cruel to the homeless as most police agencies are. Consent decrees work wonders.

LA is still a terrible place to be homeless. In a very real way, it’s crueler than Philadelphia was when I lived there in 2007. Back then, at least, the Amtrak cops gave the homeless the bum’s rush, but the SEPTA and Philadelphia city cops let them spend the night in Market East. As homeless shelters went, it was all right; by midnight, pretty much everyone staying there was zonked, and the beat cops who came through on patrol every hour or two did so quietly. Respectfully. Philly gets a lot of press for its bad cops, and it has some awful specimens, but it has a lot of excellent cops, too. Many of the beat cops in Philadelphia are lazy people with good manners and keen moral compasses, which is exactly what you want in a beat cop.

LA doesn’t have an equivalent to Market East or Suburban. There is only one commuter rail hub, Union Station, which is best described as a Spanish mission version of Thirtieth Street Station that is infested with private security guards. (And with a dumbass end-of-the-line track layout, since it didn’t occur to anyone at the time that there might be a market for through passenger service. The solution to this problem will cost billions and take decades because–well, what the hell did you expect of California?) As I noted, the raison d’etre of these security guards is to administer the bum’s rush. Generally speaking, downtown Los Angeles has a paltry amount of genuinely public space and countless signs reserving restrooms for customers only. To prematurely give away the ending to this sad tale, which I already did in the title, if the end result of this policy had to be summed up in a word, that word would be “shit!”

It’s often argued that throwing money at the homelessness problem won’t fix it. Don’t believe that for a second. Perhaps that argument would be accurate if we were talking about a radical, complete fix to the problem, a world in which there is no more homelessness or drug addiction or violence or hunger, a world in which the Millennium has dawned and sin is no more. But we aren’t dealing with the eschatological; we’re dealing with the scatological. WordPress suggested that I correct the former to the latter, and that’s a reasonable suggestion. Perhaps the former must proceed the latter; perhaps there must be a shitstorm before the calm. Calm or no calm, beshitment is on the agenda for Los Angeles, just as filthy-ass puns are on the agenda for this blog.

We say that throwing money at the problem isn’t a solution because we don’t want to throw money at it. We didn’t have so many mentally ill homeless back when we threw money at the state hospitals. Institutionalization was no panacea, but some people need a measure of it, and some people need a lifetime of it. Nor is there any way in hell that we’d have remotely the homelessness problem that we currently have if we threw money at subsidized housing. Instead, we treat housing as a racket to benefit existing “homeowners” and realtors, those scumbags whose instruction we dutifully take by calling our houses “homes.” We don’t have the courage to repeat what Milton Street said after he was arrested at a Cherry Hill 7-Eleven: “Home is where I lay down my head.”

What the homeless need is (that word again) a home. Some of them need a lot more than that, but if the primary problem is not having a roof over one’s head and a toilet to shit in, couldn’t that be readily fixed with a studio apartment? Of course it could.

They’ll lay down their heads somewhere, and they’ll shit somewhere, just like you and I would. Most of us wouldn’t shit our pants on a staircase in Metro Center, but then again, most likely no one is barring us from using the toilet.

So if you come across that poor guy quivering in fear and embarrassment because the entire Blue Line ridership can smell him, you earned it. We all did. Karma’s a bitch. Let us give thanks to the gods of bowel continence that we don’t smell our fair share of it.

Advertisements