While parking my car behind the hospital on 7th Street, I noticed an older man sitting on the curb with his belongings spilling onto the street. The man said hello and we began to talk; he had been living there for two weeks. I asked how he ended up here, and he started to cry. He told me about his wife dying in his arms. He was 72 years old and had low vision, maybe blind. His stories were clear but repetitive and, at times, completely inappropriate. He kept saying he wanted to get back to Los Angeles. I asked if he wanted shelter; he said yes. I told him I knew there were beds available in the shelters on Beacon Street.
While I have worked in social services for over 25 years, I am not a frontline outreach worker. I know people in Los Angeles are told to call 211 for services if they are experiencing homelessness. This man did not have a phone, so I called for him. I could not get through after multiple attempts. I then called a local shelter and asked for help. I was told they could not do anything because I had to fill out a form somewhere online first. How was a man who is homeless and disabled supposed to navigate this system?
Another local woman, Linda Drake-Cotrufo, had a similar experience with this gentleman. She was taking her children to the doctor and parked by him. She heard the same stories as I did and was worried because of his age and sores on his leg. He shared with her that he was going to the bathroom in the bushes by her children’s doctor’s office. She realized that the windows in the exam rooms faced these bushes. If a child looked out, they would see this man using the bathroom. This was not a good situation for anybody.
“I called 211, and they were useless. They told me the man needed to get himself to a public bus to get to a shelter, they had no transportation,” she recalls. “How can a senior, who is hard of vision, with no phone, get himself and his belongings to a bus?”
Frustrated, she contacted the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and was told that they could not help because they did not have any transportation for him. “I asked LAHSA what they were doing with all the tax dollars they collected. There must be so much money with all the items people bought during the pandemic, like toilet paper. Where is all the money?” she asked.
I got in touch with an outreach worker from the local shelter. She visited the man the next day, and he agreed to go to a shelter. The shelter had no way to transport him, so they arranged to use a van from another agency a few hours later. When they got there, he said he did not want to go to the shelter, and he was done talking.
This is not uncommon — some people who are experiencing homelessness do not want to abide by the rules of shelters, or they may resist treatment if they are mentally ill. Others have heard stories of shelters being unsafe, and many are shelter resistant. In the meantime, the man was surrounded by rotting food and things brought by people who believed they were helping him. People were also giving him money that he was waving around. I was afraid he was going to be robbed and suggested he keep his money in his pocket. The trash that piled up around him affected the businesses nearby. Nobody knew what to do. A few days later, the man disappeared.
To advocate for change, consider these situations when you vote, and pressure elected officials for improvements to a broken system. Support local nonprofits that serve the homeless by donating or volunteering. Most shelters are not government-funded and rely on the community to support them. Not everybody wants help, but if they do, let’s make it easier for them to get the services they need. spt