One homeless voice is heard at LAPD meeting on crackdown

They're tired of side-stepping panhandlers outside the market and letting transients sully their well-kept parks. They're worried about rising crime, fueled by jumps in home burglaries and car break-ins.

That's what drew dozens of Chatsworth residents last week to the LAPD's Neighborhood Watch meeting headlined "The Homeless: A Growing Problem."

Officers blamed the crime surge on transients — reprobates and drug addicts whom cops are trying to round up or run off. In the meantime, they warned, don't keep your garage door open or leave anything in your car.

When they asked for questions, hands shot up: Is it still safe to hike in Stoney Point Park? Are home alarm systems deterrent enough? Can we block off our streets and hire security guards?

The final question came from a tattooed young man with dirt-caked sneakers and grimy hands. "My name is Dylan and I'm homeless," he said. "On nights when I have nowhere to go, where is it OK to sleep?"

I watched two women in the row in front of him reach out and pull their purses closer. The officer with the microphone reminded him that there are plenty of shelters downtown on skid row.

Dylan Fowler, 26, knows that he's part of the problem his suburban neighbors are trying to fix. He's lived on the streets, off and on, for years.

He realizes that locals consider him a nuisance. But Chatsworth is his hometown too.

"I empathize with the people around here," he told me. "I know my dad worked very, very hard for a long time to be able to afford to raise a family here. I can understand the whole thing about being an eyesore.

"But it feels unfair sometimes to be judged constantly. Personally it's just, it's kind of tragic. There are people out there to be afraid of. But I'm not one of them."


After the meeting, I stuck around and talked with Dylan for a while. He's about the same age as my daughters, and went to preschool at the park where they played soccer and basketball.

I found him thoughtful and preternaturally polite. "I make a point to hold doors open for people and make small talk with anybody I pass," he explained. "I'm hoping that just generally people will see me around and know I'm not a problem."

It's important to him that people know he's not a bad guy.

On Sunday, I took him to lunch at a neighborhood deli. He savored a bagel and vegetable omelet as if they were delicacies.

And he talked about the forces that shaped his life.

It sounded to me like he'd spent years feeling that he must be a bad guy.

"I was always a problem child," he began. "I got expelled for the first time in fourth grade." He was the class clown, always causing a ruckus, tipping over desks and tormenting teachers.

By the time he was 14, he'd been suspended so often for fighting that "they ran out of schools to send me to," he said. He landed in a Texas program for teens with emotional problems and left there two years later with a diagnosis of depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder.

Back in Chatsworth, he became a loner.

He tried other schools geared toward troubled kids, but they didn't work out. "I realized I had no idea how to deal with normal people," he said. When he turned 18, his parents told him "it was time to get out on my own and figure things out."

He worked odd jobs and rented an apartment with a girlfriend. Then he found out that his mental health issues qualified him for federal disability payments of $850 a month.

Those checks allow many homeless people to eke out a subsistence living. But Dylan said they handicapped him: "It totally makes you lazy. It's not enough to live on.... And you can't take a job or your benefits will end."

But what really handicapped him was heroin.

At 22, he was introduced to the drug by an acquaintance. "He told us we were smoking hash," Dylan said. "Pretty much everyone I knew in the whole Valley got caught up in that problem.

"I was struggling with it for a really long time. That has a lot to do with why I ended up on the street."


Dylan's story is one that many homeless people could tell: emotional problems, school failures and social dysfunction lead to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

"I had a good childhood," Dylan insisted. "But once the whole schooling thing started changing, that's where everything got tough."

He's bounced around a lot in the last four years. "But I'm at a good point now, at 26," he said.

He's spent a little time in rehab and done stints in sober-living homes. He's learned to roll with his moods, control his temper and walk away from trouble.

Heroin, he said, numbed the pain he felt when people didn't want him around. When he's sober he's thankful for all the people who've been willing to help at a neighborhood church, where he helps with chores and yardwork and attends weekly Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

He's found a place to sleep outdoors that's cramped but safe and clean. He has a bike, a backpack, a cellphone and a Netflix subscription. He's trying to save for an apartment and would like to enroll in Pierce College this fall.

Still, it's too soon to make this some kind of redemption trope. Living on the streets may have taken an indelible toll.

A few months ago, Dylan found a room for rent on Craigslist that he could afford. He moved in, but left after a few nights. He couldn't sleep inside; it felt hot and claustrophobic and "really crazy," he said.

"Is this some kind of deep psychologically rooted thing? It really shocked me," he said. "I'm going to have to train myself to go back to being a normal person."

Or accept that sleeping outside, in the open air, under the stars is a wonderful thing, when it's a choice not a necessity.

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times