“D.C.’s” hands are dirty.
They weren’t always, but for the past three decades he hasn’t had much access to regular hot water. Recently he was waiting for a bus on Western Avenue near Gage Avenue in Los Angeles, when I pulled up. I glanced to my right and saw him sitting alone, sheltered from a light rain.
“Hey, man! What’s happening? How ya doin’?”
D.C. said he was headed to downtown Los Angeles. He had some business at the county building. “Hop in,” I said. “I’m going part of that way … I’ll drop you off.”
We proceeded east, eventually into our old neighborhood where we took Central Avenue north. There’s history on that thoroughfare. And there’s despair. We couldn’t help but turn the conversation from the Lakers’ tough times to the mere shell of what was once a thriving, inviting neighborhood. As we drove, we passed some of our old haunts—the best burger joint, the best taco stand, where we bought the latest hit record(s), even where all the guys got their first Afro haircut—then we looked forlornly at one another, as if to say: “Where’d the time go?” and “What happened to the brothers and sisters?”
‘What happened’ to the brothers and sisters?
A lot has happened since we were kids. We were neighbors from grade school through high school. I found it alarming and frightening to see someone you’ve known all your life fall on such hard times.
D.C. is homeless. He usually has a shopping basket filled with bric-a-brac and little necessities he needs to survive. He had a sleeping bag, but sold it. He had a warm parka, but he sold it. He had a family, but he … well, “sold” them. He sold their love and admiration for a “hit.”
D.C. became too unreliable. His personality was too addictive. His demons far too destructive. D.C. came from good stock, but along the way he lost his way. Now he travels practically each block in South L.A. looking for cans, plastic bottles, a little gardening, handiwork, etc … anything to compile five or 10 bucks to see him through the day.
South L.A. is not D.C.’s singular domain. He had a brief stay in Palmdale—for about a month three years ago—and said that the homeless population there is beginning to rival the big city.
“It’s real cold at night out there, and the few shelters are packed … you can’t sleep outside ’cause you’ll freeze to death,” he said. “Deborah (his late sister) had a place out there, and they thought the change would do me good … to get out of South Central … away from the dope man. I couldn’t stay out there in the country.”
Across Avenue M, the City of Lancaster has been waging a fight with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) for several years. Although some 13 percent of the county’s homeless population is now in the Antelope Valley, officials at Lancaster City Hall said in 2014 that only 2.1 percent of the LAHSA budget has been directed to their city. That’s far too small, says Lancaster Vice Mayor Marvin Crist.
“Over the past few years, LAHSA has cut our funding by 10 percent,” Crist said. “Meanwhile, our region has experienced a nearly 400 percent increase in our homeless population.”
“You heard Buggs died, right?,” D.C. asked. “They say he died right along here … they found him before daybreak stone dead.” Buggs was another classmate/teammate who, like D.C.’s older brother, died on the streets. These two men were among a dozen or so acquaintances who got ensnared in the crack epidemic that swept through America’s inner cities. D.C. was one of them, too. We reflected a bit on exactly how so many Black men and women found themselves strung-out and homeless. Those who are alive must forage through trash, panhandle or find shelter amid roaming dogs, cats and rats.
‘That’s life down on 5th Street’
D.C. tried the missions downtown. They were too confining. The people in charge, he said, were too demanding. “The people down on Skid Row ain’t kids … they’re grown men and women. I’d rather make my own way than to have some White dude tell me what to do. Plus, the cops jump on people down there for almost anything. You sit or stand too long somewhere, and they’re on you. You got folks who talk to themselves. Yeah, they’re nuts … and that’s enough for the cops to beat ’em down. You have your stuff with you; you know nobody has anything, but the cops come along and throw your stuff all over the ground lookin’ for dope. Then they order you to clean it up and get the ‘F’ out. That’s life down on 5th Street.”
Today D.C. remains under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. But his teen years were filled with karate practice, making it all the way to brown belt. And then he got kicked in the head at a dojo (a martial arts training session). He’s been classified as “51/50” (police code for an involuntary psychiatric hold) since then. He’s under order by the California Department of Corrections to take medication, but he doesn’t always comply. “I have to take psych meds, because if I don’t and they find out, I’ll be in trouble. They have a way of finding out.”
‘If you look crazy, they’re on you … fast’
D.C. knows all about law enforcement. He’s been a “guest of the county” several times. And when he does end up at Men’s Central Jail, he knows to keep his mouth shut. “I don’t say a damn thing down there. Nothin’ to nobody.” He can’t. His three brothers (two retired) have each served with the FBI (special agent), LAPD (SWAT) and the youngest is in his 30th year with the Sheriff’s Department (detective). He said that homeless persons are treated horribly once locked up. They’re derided, degraded, insulted and beaten regularly. Racial insults are delivered by White, Black and Latino deputies alike. “You’d best keep your mouth shut else you get a bad beat down,” D.C. said. “It’s no joke down there … and if they think you might be a little crazy, then they’re on you fast.”
Nearly half of all homeless men and women in Los Angeles County are African American. The Weingart Center, for instance, has 576 residential beds and a little more than half are occupied by African Americans. Much of the same is true at the Union Rescue, Los Angeles, Midnight and Fred Jordan missions. Poverty and homelessness are said to be among the most pernicious plagues on the African American community, and mental illness has been discovered by medical experts to be among the root causes of why so many Black Angelinos find themselves destitute and wandering the streets … seemingly living at the mercy of society.
L.A. leads nation in homelessness
Administrators at the Union Rescue Mission estimated that each city block along Skid Row (less than one square mile on 5th Street extending west from San Pedro Street) is considered home to about 40 people. They estimate that about 2,000 people live there, most of whom are African American.
A study conducted in 2009 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that a lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment were the most commonly cited causes of homelessness. African Americans, the report revealed, represented the highest percentages of any of the criteria, particularly if they were single persons. Homeless Black persons reportedly ranked the highest in substance abuse, those unable to secure affordable housing and those individuals suffering from mental illness.
The report concluded that “… chronic and pervasive poverty, racism, mental illness, substance abuse and family dysfunction” are said to be “major contributing factors” to Black homelessness.
In late June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti reconsidered his support of controversial legislation targeting homeless encampments mostly along Skid Row. While not stopping the measures from becoming law, Garcetti decided to block enforcement until the city council “softens” some provisions.
“I strongly support the enactment of laws that enable the city to ensure that public areas are clean and safe,” Garcetti said, adding that he believes that the proposed ordinances “… do not adequately achieve the proper balance” between keeping the streets clean and protecting the rights of people “who have no other choice but to live on them.”
Controversial city council ordinance
Gary Blasi, a retired professor of law at UCLA, said the new ordinances will ultimately do more harm to the homeless population than they do in providing a more gentrified neighborhood downtown.
“When a homeless person is cited and doesn’t pay the fine, it goes to a warrant and he or she faces arrest down the road,” said Blasi, a homeless advocate who helps lead a partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that seeks to end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles. “These people are already struggling—many suffering from mental illness—and when violators face the loss of nearly everything they own and then you add on criminal prosecution, jail, fines … they simply cannot pay with money they do not have.” Blasi also said the proposed ordinances are particularly “galling” because “… Los Angeles has done less than most major cities to end homelessness.”
D.C. commented about all the changes taking place along Skid Row, “You can’t toss people from here to there,” he said. “People will always fall through the cracks; they’ll be in your face everyday. How far is it from 3rd and Main to Hancock Park? You can throw them out, but people will keep on walkin’ … to any part of town they want. And know this: The people on the street see the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department, CHP—all of them—as one of the biggest ‘gangs’ in the city. They prey on us folks day and night. It’s no joke out here.”
I dropped D.C. off downtown. I said goodbye, slipped him $5 and bumped fists with him.
My old friend’s hands are dirty.
Human waste By William Covington OW Contributor
The cityscape looks normal to the average commuter passing 87th Street and Western Avenue, traveling southbound. However, if you are one of the individuals that happens to make a left turn on 87th, you will see yellow and red banners advertising a pawn shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a furniture store. But, if your eyes were unfortunate enough to drift downwards, you will probably see skid-mark stains from human excrement. This is the first sign of an ever-increasing homelessness problem that has set up camp in the alley behind those businesses.
The issue has gotten more pronounced over the course of the last eight years, and the swarms of flies are always indicative of a fresh pile.
This part of the Vermont and Western corridor has a unique history. The alley does not get a lot of traffic due to the iron gates that now close it off from the main streets. As a result, the homeless have taken to it because of a certain level of “privacy” to do their business.
David Habid studied biology in his native land of Eritrea at the University of Asmara. He remembers a method his professor used to determine population density of small mammals in a geographical location. First, you had to determine the area or habitat and mark it; second, identify the mammalian excrement or pellets pertaining to that mammal; third, clean the entire location; fourth, continue to remove the pellets and compare with the mammal’s daily expected output. By using simple division you could determine an estimated population.
Since leaving his country and migrating to the United States 11 years ago, he has worked for a cab company and dedicates the remainder of his day working for the Medhanialem Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church. One of his duties is to clean the alley behind the church, which serves as a makeshift parking lot. Habid says he has first-hand proof that the homeless population has increased due to the increase in the piles of excrement.
He’s seen them, some regulars, and some new faces—all African American—who arrive after 11 a.m. and disappear at night, leaving their waste behind.
Former homeless assistant director of People Helping People, Anthony Johnson believes that by looking at the logistics of the neighborhood one can point out reasons for the influx.
“Homeless shelters’ mission is to provide housing between the hours 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m.,” he explained. “With several shelters clearing out at the same time, typically providing coffee—a natural diuretic—to its patrons, you can see where the problem arises.
“The issue is, no one is providing public restrooms. Park restrooms are often locked after hours, leaving the homeless with little to no options,” said Habid.
Why is this cause for concern?
According to the World Health Organization, wet human faeces may contain a range of disease-causing organisms, including viruses, bacteria and eggs or larvae of parasites. The microorganisms contained in human faeces may enter the body through contaminated food, water, eating and cooking utensils and by contact with contaminated objects. Diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid are spread in this way and are major causes of sickness and death in disasters and emergencies. Some fly species (and cockroaches) are attracted to or breed in faeces. A high density of fliess will increase the risk of transmission of trachoma and Shigella dysentery. Intestinal worm infections (hookworm, whipworm and others) are transmitted through contact with soil contaminated with faeces and may spread rapidly where open defecation occurs and people are barefoot.
These infections will contribute to anemia and malnutrition, and therefore also render people more susceptible to other diseases.