Kathryn Payne Olson
© Copyright 2020 by Kathryn Payne Olson
A baby is born with a need to be loved - and never outgrows it. Frank A. Clark
I’m in LA because my 13-year-old son is a critically ill patient at Children’s Hospital. CHLA is positioned right in the middle of Los Angeles and I am confronted with the homeless crisis every time I walk out the door. From some of the hospital windows, the famous Hollywood sign shines brightly. The Church of Scientology is within walking distance and the Sunset Strip is only a couple of miles away. Between these tourist attractions, homeless people are scattered. I carefully step over and walk around them as they sleep through the day. They lay among piles of garbage or in pitch tents in the middle of the sidewalk. Sometimes they stroll along with grocery baskets full of their personal belongings. Under certain overpasses, they hang a curtain where they live communally. These “communes” are always surrounded by heaps of garbage. It seems they sleep all day, which makes me presume they come to life at night. When it’s dark, they’re not disdained and discarded. The civilized and refined are nourished and clean as we sleep peacefully in our beds with crisp, clean linens. Maybe like the little mice who live behind my refrigerator, these homeless, these human beings finally feel free to come out when the enemy is sleeping. While locals are hustling and bustling in their Teslas and tourists are taking pictures of the eccentric locals and gawking at the beautiful people, it’s the faceless, nameless, homeless that stand out to me. I’m almost consumed by them.
I’ve had the urge and desire for quite some time but it was not until yesterday that I stepped out of my comfort zone and did something about it. I trusted my instinct and walked deliberately, slowly to a homeless person and introduced myself. I felt sloppy and unrehearsed. I left kicking myself for not asking certain questions. I also felt awesome and this is why.
Charles. That’s his name. He was standing in front of a grocery cart filled with all the possessions he has in the world. The conversation went like this:
“Hi. Can I ask you a question?”
seemed surprised I would speak to him and replied as if I was so
obtuse not to notice his cart and disheveled appearance.
“Yes” he answered respectfully.
I asked directly if he was, in fact, homeless. In the same disposition he replied, “Yes.” I told him I was researching homelessness and hoping to write something or do something that would spread awareness. I asked if he would be willing to talk to me. He agreed. He was African American, 52 years old and other than his slightly grungy clothing, looked like anyone else. I told him I’m 51, pretty much the same age, a mother and a daughter. I asked him to tell me about his family. He shared that both his parents had passed away but openly stated his mother loved him very much. He continued that he had one sister who he saw at family reunions but it was hard to keep in touch because he didn’t have a cell phone. He explained that he had only been homeless four months. I asked how he became homeless. He rambled about taxes and the government but not overtly blaming anyone or any institution. I asked if he thought that his state of homelessless was short or long term. He quickly replied, “Oh, this is temporary. I plan to sell these things in my cart, pay my taxes and get a job.” I asked what kind of work and he rambled incoherently. I asked if drugs led to his current situation and he explained that was not the case. He said that when someone is on the street, they will do just about anything to ease the pain and he had tried it all. My eyes kept finding their way back to the headless Barbie he had in his cart. No one is ever going to buy a headless Barbie, yet he had hope they might. I asked if he frequented the area, told him I could never offer him money but if I saw him again, I would offer food, water, conversation and/or support. I reminded him that he’s as valuable to humanity as me or anyone else and I hoped he believed and would remember that. As we parted, he extended his hand for a shake. Even though I knew my child was immune-compromised and knew I was headed back to his bubble in ICU, I said without hesitation, “I would prefer a hug.” He hugged me. I could feel him receiving the human connection that had probably become foreign over time. I felt so good because of something I had learned 40 years ago in Sunday school, “Love isn’t love until you give it away.”
August 20, 2019
I remembered something I saw on the way to the hospital today. It was awful. A homeless “looking” pile, with a man and a woman collapsed on top of each other in a heap just outside the door of an Urgent Care center. I was driving in unfamiliar traffic and couldn’t stop. The contortion of the man’s body was what alarmed me. It wasn’t right and I felt he might already be dead. It appeared maybe the couple realized they had overdosed and tried to get help but fell a few feet short. I was aghast at the cars that were driving by as if it was nothing. Maybe they didn’t see it. Maybe they didn’t care. I drove a few more blocks, pulled over and contacted the clinic to ask them to check on them. I tried to track my drive back and find them but was unsuccessful. I felt the need to get to my own child at the hospital.
February 10, 2020-
During the four months my child was in ICU, I managed to “interview” only about eight homeless people. I could tell you several more stories but I’m not going to for the same reason I stopped my interviews. The stories all seemed to have the same theme; All but one I talked to seemed to be delusional, paranoid or mentally ill.
I don’t know the solution for homelessness. If there was a home for them, would they stay? Some might say the homeless in LA are an eyesore. For me, it was/is a “heart sore.” I never stopped putting food or water next to them when I passed. Whenever I found myself with leftover food or even an extra pack of crackers, I always took it with me to and from the hospital. There never failed to be someone to give it to.
Six months later, I’m back home in Alexandria, Virginia where I rarely see the homeless. They are “out of sight and out of mind,” but I know they are still there in LA where the weather is more conducive to being homeless.
Here in Alexandria, there is always Wayne who lives in the lobby of Harris Teeter (my local grocery store). He’s there every day and so am I; I guess I shop like a European. I’ve learned not to ask him how he’s doing. It always results in, “Awful. I don’t have nuthin’ to do, nowhere to go, no friends, I don’t have no fun,” and he rambles on until I find the opening to say I have to go. I’ve been buying him a kid’s meal from Subway (his preference) for two years. I’ve been giving him money I need for other things and buying him groceries for the same two years. Honestly, maybe it makes me feel better about myself. It wasn’t until recently, my friend Angela who works at Harris Teeter told me “Wayne makes a decent living off the regulars here and every time you give him cash, he heads straight for the lotto machine.” After that, I don’t feel so bad about pretending not to see him on my daily visits. If we do make eye contact, I concede and offer to buy him something from the hot bar. He always says, “Thank you. You're lovely.” I told Angela, “I can’t afford to play the lotto myself, yet I’ve been paying for him to play it for the last two years!” We laughed.
Now, here I sit in my cozy house with my dog snoring at my feet and my children, now healthy, sleeping in their beds under their fluffy duvets. Every one of the homeless people out there sleeping in garbage was somebody’s child at one point and I feel for their mothers who may not know where they are.
I don’t know what to do.
Apparently no one else has the solution either because the homeless epidemic is getting worse. I ask myself, “What ARE you going to do?” “What can you do?” I suppose I could have purchased the headless Barbie. But seriously, the first step, I’m certain, is to spread awareness. I can send them goodwill energy and I can help the few homeless people I see locally. I can SEE them. I can look them in the eyes and say “Hello,” and I do. Sometimes they smile back at me with the appreciation of being acknowledged. I’m not going to stop seeing them and remembering they were someone’s once someone’s precious baby . I am no less and no more.