Many of us can’t imagine being homeless. It’s dangerously common to think of unhoused people as being in a separate category from the rest of us, leading lives we could never lead. But all it takes is an “unraveling” before our lives “fall apart.”
Those are the terms two people I spoke with last month used to describe their descent into homelessness. As Angelenos confront the enormous problem of homelessness, we should always remember how easy it can be to move from one category to another, from housed to unhoused.
The numbers show it isn’t just possible, but constant: At last count, 69,144 people in Los Angeles County were living without permanent shelter. I spoke with three of those unhoused residents of the Westside — Patrick, Shane and Crystal — in February and March. They agreed to share their stories with The Times on the condition that their last names not be used. — Robert Karron
My name is Patrick, and I’m 54 years old. I was born in Escondido; I went to high school there. I wish I’d been more focused in school. I wish I knew then what I know now. My family life wasn’t great — my parents argued, and my father was an alcoholic. They split up when I was 15. (My father ended up drinking himself to death at 55, about the age I am now.) I was depressed, being in that environment, so I started drinking too. I did that for the last three years of high school, so it’s a blur, though I liked history. I read history books even now.
I read fiction too. I read all the time. I get books from those boxes people have in their yards — Little Libraries. I also buy them from Barnes & Noble. The last book I read was a Jack Reacher novel. I’ve probably read thousands of books — that’s when my addictive personality’s working for me. When I read some authors, it’s like getting a letter from an old friend. Stephen King is my favorite. “The Stand” is his best. A lot of people say King is too detailed, that he spends too much time describing things. But I think he draws you into the story that way.
High school is also a blur because I was busy. I started working full-time when I was 15. I was living with my mom, but she didn’t have money. If I wanted anything — a car, clothes — I had to get it. For a while I was a cook. Then I started working at a gas station. I worked there for two years, every day, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. I loved working. I was extremely responsible, a good worker. That’s another time my addictive personality was working for me.
After high school I went into the Air Force. I loved basic training. I was working on the SR-71, the original Blackbird spy plane. I was learning about fuel systems. But I was only in the Air Force for a year. I was stationed in Northern California, at Beale Air Force Base, and I kept driving to Reno, 2½ hours away, and getting into trouble. One time I smoked pot, which was illegal then. I was afraid of getting caught, so I went AWOL. I eventually went back, and they locked me up for three months. Then they kicked me out. I wish they hadn’t sent me to Beale. I’d wanted to go overseas, to Okinawa. I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble there. I was supposed to go, but at the last second they switched it.
After the Air Force, I had lots of jobs, good jobs, career-type jobs. I was putting in heating and air systems, and managing a warehouse for Microstar. At one point I was moving furniture cross country. Then I met a girl, and we had a kid together, a son. When I was with the moving company, I kept missing Christmas and his birthday. So I quit.
She went to my high school but I didn’t know her then. It was good for a while. Then — it got bad. We were young. She got jealous, and I wasn’t prepared for that. One night I got drunk, and I fell asleep on the couch. She came home, started kicking me. I got up and pushed her into the door, told her to leave me alone. She left, then came back with the police. They said they had to arrest me. I was only in jail a few weeks, but when I got out she had a restraining order against me; I couldn’t stay in the house. After that, everything kind of fell apart.
I loved working. I was extremely responsible, a good worker. That’s another time my addictive personality was working for me.
I started using. I was an addict for a while. I should never have started. I’m not the right kind of person for it. I have an addictive personality — I tend to do everything in the extreme. If I find something I like to eat, I’ll eat it over and over until I can’t stand it anymore. If you have an addictive personality, like I do, you need to stay away from the dangerous addictions. I didn’t know that when I started. It landed me in jail a few times. For a while I was either in jail, in a program or using. I’ve probably been in 20 different programs. Everyone told me I needed to quit, but I didn’t listen. I only quit when I saw it myself. One day, in Venice, I saw this guy, high, mouthing off to other people. I looked at him and thought, I can’t stand him! Then I realized — I was the same. I quit that week.
These days, I live in a tent, two miles from here. I’ve been there a while; I move to another location when they tell me to. For a few years I was down that road, off the 90 Freeway. They’re trying to get me a room, where I’ll stay until they find me an apartment. A woman from LAHSA is arranging it. Once I’m housed, I’d like to work, ideally doing something like gardening or landscaping. I’m just waiting for that to happen. If I’m not here, on this corner [a freeway offramp in Playa Vista], asking for money, I’m in the tent with my cat, Lucky; she means everything to me. She gives me purpose.
My son? He’s doing well. He’s an assistant manager at a Petco in Nevada. He knows where I am — he knows everything about me; I keep no secrets from him. But he can’t help me now because his mom is also homeless and she’s sleeping on his couch. I have a granddaughter I haven’t met yet.
My name is Shane, and I’m 52 years old. I grew up in Venice and Mar Vista. I went to Mark Twain Middle School, to Venice High. I rode BMX bikes. We made tracks on the empty lots. I went surfing at the beach. Eventually I got kicked out of Venice High for reasons I’d rather not talk about. I finished high school at a continuation school — Hamilton High. I graduated, but it took me an extra year. I liked Hamilton. Classes were shorter and I was able to work on my own.
I lived at home with my parents. My family life was pretty cool. There was always something happening — but I think every family has that. After graduating, I wanted to be independent, so I moved out; I got an apartment and a job repairing cars. I was a certified Nissan technician — a decent job. When I wasn’t there, I worked at a supermarket — Lucky’s. I stayed with Lucky’s for a while, but then in 2000 I started working in the motion picture industry. I was a studio grip. I was able to make it into the union in 2004. I worked that job until 2015. That’s when my wife got into a car accident. She ended up passing away. Things kind of unraveled after that.
We’d been together 20 years — the accident happened eight weeks before our 20th wedding anniversary. I met her in the neighborhood; we were neighborhood kids. She was absolutely gorgeous. Funny, amazing — hands down, the best. I feel blessed to have had that in my life. Cherilyn. For the first two years I was thinking about her all the time — and the anger that came with it. Somebody clipped her car, and she slammed into a wall. She had a lacerated artery — but it wasn’t visible; the doctors didn’t find it until after she’d had a stroke. By then it was too late. She was there seven days. I ended up walking out of that place by myself.
We had a daughter, who’s now 27. She called to tell me about the accident: “Mom’s been in an accident.” The last thing I thought was that she could be dead. I thought, OK, a car accident — maybe a fractured wrist or something of that nature, something she could recover from.
I had a job for a while in the community. On Lincoln Boulevard, by the 90 offramp, there used to be an RV rental place. There were 50 RVs that a gentleman rented. I worked for him, and I lived on the property. I was there three years. Then he closed the business. From there I just went to the street. I’ve been at this spot for three years. Until recently, I was on the sidewalk, in a tent, but I just got this RV. It’s a gift from a friend.
That’s when my wife got into a car accident. She ended up passing away. Things kind of unraveled after that.
I’m still in touch with my daughter. I speak with her every day. She used to be in Santa Monica, but she recently got a place in Inglewood. I helped her on the financial end. I sold some items I’d collected, and I gave her the money. Sometimes I’ll do that; I’ll post something to see if someone’s interested. I’d rather not put them up for sale, but sometimes you do what you have to. It’s comic books, baseball cards, basketball cards, a plethora of items like that — some quite valuable. A lot of them were handed down to me. I want my daughter to live her own life, not to have to think about me, but it doesn’t always work that way. She’s concerned about her dad. She comes by here sometimes, but I don’t encourage it.
How do I spend my time? I used to clean up a lot, trying to keep this area nice, the way you’d want to see it at your home. But I’m older now; that’s gotten difficult. People come by, and we hang out, talk about whatever topic it might be. Politics? I’ve kind of let that one go. If you really look into what’s going on in this world it’s extremely sad. We talk about projects. Someone always has a project. They’re working on their bikes or their scooter. It’s kind of weird how everyone around here rides a scooter or a bike. I don’t repair cars anymore; I don’t have tools. The grip job? I could call my union, ask them if I could reinstate myself. I’d have to write them a letter requesting a reinstatement. Is that something I’d want to do? I don’t know. I gave a lot of my life to that business. Sometimes I regret working those long hours, because, at the end of the day, it was less time with my wife. But I was providing — and that’s what you do. That’s a father’s, or a man’s, or a husband’s purpose. I’d love to have an apartment, or maybe just a truck, or a car. I don’t want to be here in 10 years. I fell off when my wife passed away. I’m picking up the pieces now. I’m ready to move on.
My name is Crystal, and I’m 52 years old. I grew up in Orange County. My parents split up when I was 4; when I was 9 we moved in with my stepdad. I never got used to being with him. I was used to being with my mom and younger brother, just the three of us. They had three more kids, so then it was five, and I was the oldest. I always had the sense that he was taking my mom away. He provided for us, he offered to adopt us, but I was never comfortable. At 15 I told my mom I wanted to live with my dad’s family. My grandmother came to get me; I started living with her in another part of Orange County, Brea. My dad lived down the street with his grandparents (my great-grandparents). (He was always jumping from job to job.) It took him four months to get me enrolled in the new school, and by the time I got there I was so far behind I ended up leaving. I enrolled at a continuation school, and I got a job.
I don’t remember much about school. I hated math; I liked English. I like to write. Even now, if I see a poem or a quote I like, I’ll write it down. I didn’t like history because you had to memorize dates — that’s hard for me. PE wasn’t bad, as long as it wasn’t first thing in the morning. It’s cold. I’d rather be inside.
At the continuation school they give you a week’s worth of work; you do it and turn it in. I was working at Taco Bell, and I did the work on my breaks and when I got home. It was tough, but I did it. It got harder when, at 17, I got pregnant. By 18 I was juggling school and work and being a mom. Then I had another kid. I got the degree, but it took a while. I have two girls; they’re in their 30s now, in Oregon, with their dad and his mom — their grandmother. I met their dad at the mall. He was working at a pet store, and I like cats. We were together five years. I talk to my girls a few times a week. They’ve offered to take me in, but I want them to have their own lives. One lives with her dad and his mom — she’s taking care of her grandmother now, who has dementia. The other one lives with her boyfriend and another roommate; she’s working and taking college classes online.
After I split from the girls’ dad I was renting rooms, but sometimes I wouldn’t have money and I’d be unhoused. I’ve had lots of jobs: I was a warehouse supervisor, a cashier at a gas station, and I delivered parts to mechanic shops. I like working as long as I’m outside, but I haven’t worked in a while. I have too many health issues. I have diabetes; I can’t stand up for long. Thanks to MediCal I don’t pay for my medication, though for a year they made me pay a copay. Then that went away — I don’t know why. I also have some mental health issues — but I’d rather not talk about that. I’ve taken medications for it, but my body gets used to them; then I have to switch to another one. Nothing works.
I was in Orange County until May. I was renting a room with my husband, Jerry. In May we decided to move to Arizona, to Bullhead City, to be close to his family and to see what happened to the house he was supposed to inherit. (His dad has the same name he does, and he took the house.) Right before we left, though, our friends in L.A. asked us to visit, so we stopped here. It was only supposed to be for a weekend. We realized then that we didn’t have the money for the move. They stopped my Social Security last February, and my food stamps are only $20 a month. Jerry gets more, and he also works as a mechanic, but it’s still not much. We’ve been here since.
By 18 I was juggling school and work and being a mom. Then I had another kid. I got the degree, but it took a while.
We have that truck, and we have this tent. We sleep in both. I like the tent more, because there’s more room. Though, in the tent, my dog likes to sleep at my feet, and he hogs the bed. His name is Cam; he keeps me busy. He’s a good boy. He doesn’t let anyone near us. I walk around all day thinking about how to get out of this situation and why the agencies always give us the runaround, saying they’ll do this and this, but they don’t come through. For example, one program, they sent us to a motel in downtown L.A., but then they wanted to kick us out — and put us on skid row. I said, “Are you kidding me?” So they sent us to another motel. We were there four months, until we were kicked out of that one. What happened was, I was in and out of the hospital for my diabetes. My sugar is always in the high numbers. The rule at the motel was that you can only be out for 48 hours; then you have to come back. We were out, with me at the hospital; then Jerry’s truck broke down. He called to tell them we might not make it by 10, but whoever took the call never recorded it, or let the supervisor know. They packed up our stuff and exited us. That’s what I mean by runaround.
Right now we’re dealing with a new organization called the Circle, and with LAHSA. The Circle comes around once a week, LAHSA about three times a week. They give us food. I’m trying to get my Social Security back. I have a letter to present to them.
Robert Karron teaches English at Santa Monica College.