He inspires both faith and fear: Supporters see him as a savior, critics as a calculating opportunist. A complicated and sometimes contradictory man, his has been a life driven by far-flung dreams ---- dreams that have mostly have escaped his grasp. But it was on a night two years ago that Ted Hayes ---- under the glare of television lights ---- was dragged screaming from a sit-in for the homeless. In the time since ---- with political savvy and an oratorical flair ---- he has made himself the symbol of homelessness in L.A.
Half his lifetime ago, when he was a brash and angry young man marking time in tiny Aberdeen, Md., Ted Hayes figured out his fate.
He would make it big as a disc jockey, conquer the entertainment business and march headlong into the world of politics.
In 1988, if his scenario held, he would be elected the first black President of the United States.
“I’m not too far off,” he said the other day, wrapped in blankets against a bitter wind that ripped through remnants of the Los Angeles homeless encampment he called Tent City II. “Looking back now, I’m not too far off.”
In reality, Ted Hayes’ life has turned out far differently than he had supposed. It is a life of wandering and welfare, of dreams that kept evading his grasp.
Until, that is, a night two years ago, when the lights of television caught him screaming to the Lord as county marshals dragged him from a homeless sit-in. His past failures vanished in the glare.
Since then, with a savvy awareness of the wants of media and a gut-level talent for turning the heat on politicians, Hayes, 35, has made himself the symbol of homelessness in Los Angeles, a modern Moses for the city’s scattered tribes.
His haunting presence--huge hypnotic eyes, gaunt face and head wrapped in a Biblical headdress--peers regularly from television screens and politicians credit him with searing the homeless issue into Los Angeles’ conscience.
At the same time, however, he has aroused the quiet fury of others serving the homeless, veteran activists who have watched the theatrical approach of this relative newcomer come to dominate the public’s perception of the homeless.
To his supporters, Hayes is a virtual saint, a kind-hearted man who left his family to live in the streets with the miserable, using his golden oratory to bind their tattered lives and give them the greatest of gifts: hope.
To his critics, Hayes is an opportunist, using the visual impact of homelessness to gain what he could not otherwise get: attention. They criticize his goals as simplistic and unattainable. They question whether he actually has a following among the homeless--when the cameras depart--and, if so, whether he can control a group composed at least in part of the mentally ill.
Even a friend warns that he is following the path not of Moses, but of another religious leader: Jim Jones of Guyana infamy.
Such fears are not quelled by Hayes’ latest idea, “phase three” of his ambitious plan to free the homeless from the burdens of a society Hayes believes has wronged them.
In the typically lofty, religiously tinged description he favors, Hayes calls it the Exodus Genesis Resettlement Plan. In plain language, what he proposes is a new community, populated by thousands of the homeless and their allies, to take root in a remote corner of Los Angeles County.
It will not be, he vows, like Jonestown.
Ted Hayes was on the phone, spreading the word a few hours after the Los Angeles City Council completed a week of unprecedented movement on behalf of the homeless by opening an abandoned print shop in Little Tokyo to house more than 200 unfortunates.
He bubbled with plans. That night, he and his followers would start lobbying for toilets and portable showers to spruce up the place. There would be music. They were on their way!
Earlier that week, he had inspected a 520-acre plot in Saugus meant for the Exodus Genesis community. Someone else ended up buying it, but his euphoria persisted.
Lost amid his glee was the fact that the city never turned the print shop over to Hayes and his troupe, known collectively as “Justiceville.” In fact, Hayes seemed startled when reminded that the shelter was to be run by the city for all of the homeless, not just his associates.
“It’s Justiceville,” he said. “The way I understood it, it was Ted Hayes and Justiceville.”
Theodore Roosevelt Hayes may not have been born with a resolute sense of self, but somewhere along the line it caught up with him.
A complicated and sometimes contradictory man, he professes to love his family yet has left his wife and four children in their Riverside duplex and is content to visit them only on weekends. He publicly objects to welfare but acknowledges that his own family has repeatedly relied on it. He calls himself a conservative yet equates the soldiers of the American Revolution with Middle East terrorists.
Ever present is his sense of impending martyrdom.
“I don’t believe that my kind of mentality will be allowed to walk the streets freely. Either they’re going to find some reason to slander me, bad press me . . . or put me away for subverting the security of the United States, something like that. I’ll end up in a concentration camp or a jail, or deported, asked to leave the country, or forced underground.
“I’m an American dissident, like the Soviet dissidents. . . . I’m afraid of being tortured some day behind the scenes where nobody can see it, where there’s no evidence of torture.”
For all of his dramatic flair, though, Hayes also offers compassion to some of the men and women trapped in squalor, comforting a befuddled elderly man or encouraging young men to take pride in their appearance. At Hayes’ instruction, follower Susie Faafua reads a newspaper each morning to broaden her slang-dependent vocabulary.
“He’s a kindhearted person,” the 19-year-old said. “He will not put down people. . . . He doesn’t condemn.”
He can summon to his lips the eloquent phrasing of a preacher or a 1960s-inflected hip patois. He can also be maddeningly vague, reluctant to pin himself down to specifics.
Hayes has long described himself as a minister, for example, but when asked about his religious training, he says he now has decided he isn’t a minister.
“I’m not even a Christian for that matter, in the traditional sense,” he said by way of explanation. “Otherwise, I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, I’m Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Krishna, tribal. . . . I’m all of them.”
He was born in Columbus, Ga., in March, 1951. He and his four brothers and a sister followed their Army sergeant father and their mother to military posts around the country before landing in Aberdeen, a town of 13,000 outside Baltimore.
Hayes’ parents were civil rights activists, he says, and the anger he inherited from them fuels him.
“I’ve never forgotten the suffering,” he said. “I lived with Jim Crow. I remember having to sit upstairs in the balcony where blacks had to sit.”
He had a brief flirtation with the Black Power movement, which he dropped out of, in part, he said, because he was “becoming pretty hateful toward white people.”
Besides, he had other plans. After graduating from high school, he took radio broadcasting courses in Washington. In 1970, he made the first of several trips to California to find his fortune.
A few months later he was back in the East, having found not fame but religion. He studied the Bible, proclaimed himself a minister and headed out on a rambling religious circuit.
He traveled through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New England preaching in small churches or in the streets, whichever provided an audience. “I used to do things like chain myself to crosses and walk through towns with a bunch of other people to protest injustices against the Indians,” he said.
Along the way he met and married Arlene, his wife of 14 years. A relationship that he kiddingly calls “dinosaur-ish” in its longevity, it has survived despite his absences and the stress that arises from differences between Hayes, who is black, and his white wife.
Hayes returned to California twice more in search of work, and in 1981 he moved his wife and four children to Riverside.
Between Ted Hayes and recognition lay several business disasters.
He started his own roofing company; it failed. He opened a car detailing business; it failed. Finally he tried his hand at a break-dancing business; it, too, failed. The family survived on welfare, family donations and the income from Arlene Hayes’ substitute teaching.
Hayes blames the business reversals on his own inattention.
“Part of my mind has always been on the plight of my people, black people and poor people, black, white, brown, red or yellow, Africans,” he said. “If I concentrated on money making I’d make money, a lot of it. But I’ve always felt that whatever I do in life, if I cannot include my people, the suffering people in it, I don’t want to do anything.”
He found his cause at Christmas, 1984, as he watched a television report about Tent City, a two-week gathering of homeless people in downtown Los Angeles.
“It just came to me, hey, I believe, from the Lord: You talk too much. Why don’t you do something, you think you know so much?”
He arrived at Tent City with a guitar and a Bible, intent on staying a few days and singing a few songs. But when the encampment was shut down, he joined a dozen others who protested its demise at a Board of Supervisors meeting. All were arrested, and the fellowship that developed thrust Hayes onto the stage he has since occupied.
Justiceville was its hastily concocted, romanticized name; a crowded shantytown was its reality.
After Tent City closed Jan. 2, 1985, about 60 of its congregants met on the edge of Skid Row. In a former children’s playground, they set up shacks with material scavenged from the streets. Their story spread through newspaper, television and radio interviews. At the center of the action, with his sympathetic demeanor and a stunning ability to hustle up goods as diverse as telephones and toilets, was Ted Hayes.
Hayes says he won the following of Justiceville’s residents by serving them; even today he calls himself the “servant-director” of the homeless.
“I was impressed upon to serve my brothers and sisters, but to serve them without condemnation, without thinking ‘These lazy no-good-for-nothing bums, drug addicts, alcoholics.’ I can’t think no thought like that.
“When the press came around, when they began to recognize here’s this little shantytown that seems to be organized. . . . Naturally everybody deferred in the camp to me.
”. . . Then when the television people came around, that cemented it.”
The beginnings of Justiceville also marked the start of animosity between some veteran homeless workers and Hayes. Homeless activists were reluctant at the time to criticize Hayes, hoping that he could force substantive change and fearful that internal warfare would obscure their goals.
Now, however, they describe Justiceville as a haven for violent drug abusers.
“It was like a hellhole,” said John Dillon, director of the nearby Chrysalis Center, which dispenses food, clothing, shelter and job information to Skid Row residents. About one month before Justiceville was shut down by police, Dillon visited the commune.
“Drugs were everywhere. Everyone was strung out,” Dillon recalled. “All of a sudden a guy goes into convulsions, seizures.”
Paramedics were called. But before they arrived, Hayes ordered two Justiceville residents to carry the convulsing man out of the shantytown.
Dillon said Hayes got rid of the man so reporters due at a press conference would not see him.
Hayes confirmed Dillon’s account--after berating Skid Row workers for criticizing him.
Not everyone abhorred the shantytown. Some say it created a substitute family for street people who previously were isolated.
“It gave them a feeling of belonging--that’s where Ted’s leadership came in,” said Dr. Rodger K. Farr of the county Department of Mental Health, a psychiatrist who has studied the homeless. “It’s like a church. What’s outside isn’t important. . . . It’s what’s inside.”
With Justiceville’s closure in May, 1985, Hayes took homelessness on the road. Camping out in downtown hideaways, he and his lieutenants have run Justiceville out of their briefcases, occasionally borrowing office space. At the same time, he has kept his name and organization in the public eye with regularly scheduled media events. In return, he has been routinely described as the leader of Los Angeles’ homeless.
Between public events, though, the group’s membership dwindles. By late last year, Hayes’ dedicated followers numbered fewer than half a dozen--far less than the scores that turn out for his press events.
Hayes describes the group as “tribal” in organization. On questions simple and complex, however, participants regularly defer to Hayes.
Recently, the organization swelled because of Tent City II, a duplicate of the gathering that had attracted Hayes. Beginning before Christmas and continuing through Jan. 7 this year, daily attention was focused on the assembly, intentionally quartered across the street from City Hall.
Tent City II proved a telling example to those who contend that Hayes craftily uses newspapers and television stations to carry his message. Hayes capitalized on Christmas sentiment in his appeal for assistance. Money for liability insurance, a circus tent, clothing and blankets poured in from touched citizens.
“Ted is extremely bright and has an uncanny sense of the media,” said a supporter, Legal Aid attorney Gary Blasi. “This last Tent City--what happened was largely a function of the media. The tents, the insurance, the money, everything made possible was a process of the media. Self-fulfilling. Ted said there was going to be a tent city. Ted created the vacuum.”
And the public, drawn in by the publicity, filled it.
Blasi and other supporters say Hayes has been able to turn media attention into hope, pride and public support for the homeless. Hayes lists that as his shining accomplishment.
His critics, however, contend that publicity creates only temporary solutions, not lasting gains.
“A poor person isn’t fed because someone has vision. He can’t be housed because someone has vision,” one activist said.
Hayes comes under fire for opposing permanent housing, which many activists believe is essential for those on Skid Row. Similarly, his belief that the homeless can be organized into a cohesive and rational group is derided by some who have spent years working with Skid Row residents.
“What’s organized chaos? Chaos! Chaos with a purpose is scary,” said the Chrysalis Center’s Dillon.
Critics also suggest that in pursuit of elusive goals, Hayes ignores the real needs of his followers. Dillon once offered shelter and clothing to a bedraggled young Hayes follower. She turned him down.
The follower, Susie Faafua, admits that she rejected the offer so she could stay on the streets with Hayes and her Justiceville compatriots.
“I didn’t want to be separated from the group,” she said. But she denied suggestions that the group has come to resemble a cult. “We don’t have ceremonies, prayers,” she said. “How can it be a cult?”
A friend of Hayes thinks otherwise.
Denise Williamson, chairwoman of the People of Color Homeless Coalition, said she has warned Hayes that his ego is overshadowing his goals.
“I think it’s turning into a Jim Jones situation,” she said, referring to the religious leader who governed the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. “Most people don’t realize that before Guyana, Jim Jones was involved in civil rights. He got power-happy and decided civil rights wasn’t the issue, the issue was Jim Jones. A lot of people feel that way about Ted.”
Hayes said he has considered the analogy and dismissed it.
“I’ve had to deal with my ego and use my personality as much as possible. That causes me concern,” he said. “Anybody in my position should be concerned that they could go off at some point.”
Some homeless activists express fear that Hayes can, wittingly or not, incite some of the unstable homeless.
One veteran activist said his life has been threatened several times by a mentally disturbed follower of Hayes, apparently angered at the activist’s refusal to work with Hayes.
“You’ve got people in desperate situations,” the activist said. Hayes “talks about the pending revolution. . . . It’s like ‘The reasonable thing to do is revolt and destroy, but we’re going to try to be above that.’ He appeals to people’s emotions instead of their minds. He is great at it.”
Hayes insists that he and his movement are nonviolent. But he does not rule out the use of force to accomplish specific goals.
“We may have to march. We may have to take over a building,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
He preaches pacifism and understanding and yet, when he comes under criticism, he can explode into a tirade against those he considers his foes.
“We’ve given people hope!” he thundered recently.
“You know what some people keep putting me in? The category of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King . . . They associate me in that company!”
Tent City II doubled the size of Hayes’ organization to about 30 people. Now he is focusing their efforts on a three-phase plan.
Topping the agenda is the “Urban Regenerational Village.” The village, to be placed downtown, would provide the homeless with resting places and sanitary facilities.
Next would be phase two--an unnamed gathering of geodesic domes or tents where social service agencies could assist the homeless. Then phase three--the Exodus Genesis Resettlement Center, the planned city for up to 10,000 homeless, to be located somewhere on the outskirts of civilization.
Residents would support themselves with farming and crafts. Professionals “who are basically fed up with mainstream America” could volunteer and live there as well, Hayes said.
Outside Hayes’ circle of supporters, however, the chances of success seem remote. Hayes is vague about how he could foot the bill for the project; his fund-raising corporation--Home for the Homeless-- has gathered only $5,000 in donations since mid-1985, and it spent that on Justiceville’s public displays.
The chance that politicians would turn over land or money seem similarly slim.
“I think he has a kind of a dream,” said Councilman Ernani Bernardi, one of the city’s biggest proponents of homeless aid. “I have to be a little more practical.”
Hayes says he will stay in Los Angeles until his goals are addressed. Still, there are hints of wanderlust. Earlier this year, he considered running for City Council, yet now he denies that he ever planned a serious campaign.
“It would take too much energy,” he said. Then he grinned. “I mean, it would be fun. Think about it; you know, I would get a chance to bait these guys and nail them down.”
If he does achieve his goals, it will be without the support of most homeless groups. Many veteran activists, angered by what they say is Hayes’ bullying demand for control, refuse to work with him.
That does not bother Hayes in the least. He is content to move ahead, followed by his band of loyalists, tossing occasional barbs at the opposition.
“If they want to help us, fine. If they don’t want to, that’s all right,” he said.
“They would trade places with me at the drop of a hat.”