■ By Drew L. Wilson / Contributed
Yang Lin sits with perfect posture at a local restaurant eating a lunch someone has purchased for him. He is homeless, Taiwanese, 20 years old, looks 12, and weighs about 80 pounds. He tells me he has walked for three weeks away from Los Angeles where he was homeless for three years after his parents were allegedly murdered. He has finally landed on the streets of Hemet. His hands oddly hover above the table just an inch or so as he chews his food. He knows he is not used to being in such an environment. It’s as if he doesn’t want to touch the clean table but does not feel comfortable resting his hands very far away from his food. Someone may grab it.
A local businessman shouts a Mandarin greeting as he enters the restaurant. Lin quickly stands to what looks like military attention when he hears the familiar tongue and sees the businessman standing a few feet away. This may be his rescue. It may also be the fellow who can see through his story if he happens to be running some homeless con.
One of 70,000
Lin is just one of the 70,000 homeless people recently counted in Southern California. The inexpensive-to-live-in town of Hemet is seeing some of these people arrive daily. Rumors of where they are coming from abound. All signs say more are coming.
Some citizens are quick to point out that a lot of “those,” people want to be there, on the street. That they have chosen to live the life of drugs, a drifter, a gypsy, a Bohemian–that they’ve always got more than one hustle going to make it on the streets–that they’re addicts, criminals and thieves who leave their syringes and excrement in the parks. And it’s all true. But the overwhelming majority of these people are victims of mental illness. Somewhere around 20 percent are veterans. A lot are children, and 100 percent of them are human beings. Most need a doctor but nobody is stepping up to pay for that. We used to stick them in mental hospitals where nobody had to look at them, but those institutions have gone away with “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” which is now the atmosphere in a lot of our streets. The public is fed up.
But the thousands of individuals who emerged from those hospitals in the past, to lead a productive and beautiful life, are worth every penny society dropped on them. If those individuals had been battling whatever demon they had to fight back in that hospital, they might have a chance; but in today’s society, the battle is fought on angry streets, alone, with the added weight of having to carry one’s entire life packed on the wheels of a shopping cart. The cheapest poison and easiest way to escape is under 10 bucks and will keep you high all day. If you don’t have a cell phone along with the Internet, most jobs are out of reach. You can’t sleep anywhere. Looks like rain is coming.
A Contrast in Lifestyles
And now in Los Angeles, neighborhoods with million dollar views look down on tent towns of the have-nots that resemble a scene out of “The Grapes of Wrath.” And just like then, there’s not a lot of work picking fruit around here.
Whether they choose to be there or not, it is a major problem. And antiquated ways of dealing with these people, like kicking them down the road to become somebody else’s problem, is a major failure and businesses are being affected. And when major money problems for businesses and real estate occur, it means heavyweight Los Angeles politicians are becoming involved. They are coming from both sides of the aisle because both sides still have humanitarians.
Following his promise to get homeless people off the street quickly, Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin is calling on the city to elevate a strategy of “shared housing”–just one new strategy among many that is a fast, but most importantly, proven way of getting people off the street. Shared housing matches people who have a job, but can’t afford a place to live, with others who are in the same boat together as roommates. It is for a segment of homeless people who have proven successes and just need a little more help to finally make it. Bonin was, for a brief time, a homeless addict himself and holds a unique perspective.
“I really am, to my core, disturbed at the portrait which is painted of homelessness in Los Angeles,” said Bonin at a recent press conference. “Shared housing is a fast, nimble and cost-effective solution for many of those who need immediate housing.”
Just Need a Place to Rest
Jim, a shaggy street person living in Hemet, summed up what a lot of people living on the streets have told me.
“We just need a place to rest,” he says after pausing from digging through a trash can to answer my question. “Everyone has a philosophy of how to help the homeless. Everyone can give advice to a bum. And a lot of people feel obligated to tell you what to do to get off the street. I appreciate the advice, but I’ve lived on the streets for 40 years. I’m a nomad. I need to migrate. I have to.”
He continues his work, snagging plastic bottles, removing the lids and quickly smashing them and shoving them in a sack. The motion of his hands while working looks as smooth and precise as a factory worker who’s been on the assembly line for years.
“A lot of people are migratory whether they realize it or not,” said Jim. “A million years of conditioning is hard to change. I just need a place to sleep and clean up from time to time.” He produces five situations for sleeping in the wrong place. “And in Hemet, nobody will tell you where you can sleep without getting into trouble.”
Their fault, our fault, society’s fault, or nobody’s fault–there is a problem in Hemet and it smells like homelessness.
How should we deal with it?