Hiding Out on Skid Row--Many Don't Want to Be Found

Times Staff Writer

When her birthday came and went without the phone call, Linda knew things weren't right.

"Every year he would call to sing 'Happy Birthday.' He was always very consistent," Linda said. "This was the first year he didn't call."

It was also, Linda was to learn, the first year that her father became one of the estimated 33,000 homeless living on the streets of Los Angeles County.

Linda and her sister had walked the streets of Skid Row, calling his name, staring at the faces, lifting the blankets and drooped hats of the sidewalk denizens, looking for their father.

Finally, Linda, which is not her real name, volunteered to work on the food line at the Union Rescue Mission on Thanksgiving, hoping that her father would be among the hundreds lining up for the free holiday meal.

"My sister thought I was a little bit touched," Linda said. The chances that her father would walk through the door were remote, and Skid Row is not the most appealing place to spend Thanksgiving.

"The first 100 people came through and I looked at everyone, every single one. Do you know how many short, bald men there are down here?

"I turned away for just a moment, and there he was. It was a shock for me . . . but my dad was traumatized. I walked over and hugged him."

After the tears and the laughter, her father joined the other men to eat. And then something even more unexpected happened.

"I turned around, and he had left," Linda said. To her relief, he returned a few hours later.

The problem of homelessness is complicated by the fact that many street dwellers have no families to rejoin, or families that they want to rejoin, or families they think would take them back, according to mission operators and others who work with the Skid Row population.

The odds of finding a loved one among the homeless are about as good as "winning the lottery," said John Dickson, director of development at the Union Rescue Mission.

And almost as unlikely is that a family member would care enough to search for someone who has drifted into the faceless world of the homeless, according to operators of Skid Row social services.

"If a person is lost, it's probably because they don't want to be found," said Janet Larkly of the Weingart Center, a multipurpose center serving the Skid Row community. "They're not interested in telling the family that they're on Skid Row."

"Not only have they lost family contact, but they have exhausted family contact," said Molly Lowry of the Los Angeles Men's Place, a day center for mentally ill homeless men. "The family can't handle them anymore so they end up on the street."

Drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and the shame of failure drive many into the ranks of the street people and keeps them there.

"They feel that they have failed at responsibility, and they don't want any more," said the Rev. Mark Holsinger of the Los Angeles Mission. "Especially the young fellows. They've stolen from their family, wife or their job . . . wasted every opportunity. Their families don't want them around."

Not all of the homeless fit into these categories. And many clearly would like to get off the street as soon as possible. But those who work closest with Skid Row's street people say that upward of two-thirds of the homeless suffer from mental illness or drug or alcohol addictions or were raised in abusive, dysfunctional family environments that make getting off the street difficult to impossible.

Linda's father worked for a telephone company for 28 years before losing his job because of an drinking problem. "He said he drank his way right out of job. That's how he put it," Linda said.

"He thought that because he drank he had nowhere else to go. He thought he was a problem, a burden to us. . . . I don't think he realized how it feels to not know where your parents are," she said.

"Not knowing is the worst. . . . Every time I heard of someone with frozen toes, I thought of my dad. Or when someone was found beaten up or dead, I thought of Dad. Sometimes I wished he was dead, just so I would know."

The Salvation Army runs one of the largest private missing persons bureaus in the world. In the Los Angeles office, Gerry Hood said that of the more than 700 requests for help she received last year, fewer than 50 were for homeless.

Of the 700, Hood said she located about 500 missing persons. But of the 50 suspected of living on the street, perhaps just five or six were found. And Hood said she really remembered only one clearly.

Often, when she finds one of the missing homeless, the effort is for naught. "A lot of these guys want to be lost," Hood said. "So we will tell the family that they don't want to make contact at this time."

Often a found family's reaction is the same.

Lowry of the Los Angeles Men's Place said, "Once we gain (a client's) trust, we try to see if there is an aunt, uncle or sister that we can contact. But even that doesn't happen very frequently."

Recalling one such contact, Lowry said, "I have had the displeasure of calling about one long-lost son . . . and was told, 'Don't ever give him our number; don't ever tell him where we live.'

"A lot of anger is focused at the family."

On several occasions, she said, "we've had the whole family turn out--parents, brothers and uncles--for a nice visit. But (the homeless person) had no desire to go home with them."

Many of the street people have made a new life for themselves, she said, however difficult and bleak it is. And so, they see no reason to return home.

Linda said she expected to find a skinny, gray caricature of her father. But what she found after her father was gone for more than 18 months was that "he looked the same, even chubby. He said that when you are on the street, you can stay clean. He took a shower (at the Union Rescue Mission) every day. 'If you are dirty, it's because you choose to be,' he would say. You can get a shower, clean clothes, food. . . . Everything you need is provided."

Her dad would make money filling out relief papers for the other guys on the street, Linda said. "He spent a lot of time at Los Angeles Mall doing crossword puzzles. . . . He said he was going to stay down here until he turned 62 and could collect Social Security."

Maxine Johnston, director of the Weingart Center, recalled a recent visit from the mayor of Gaborone, Botswana, who was on a tour of Los Angeles and asked to see how the homeless problem was being handled in America. Mayor Paul M. Rantoa was concerned with the issue since his city was suffering with about 75 homeless people.

"They (the homeless) come to the city with naive enthusiasm that they will find a job, that they will fit right in. And that, of course, is not the case," Johnston recalled the mayor as saying. The solution, he had found, "was to send them back to their families," Johnston said.

But it is not that easy in America. There are larger cities and larger numbers of homeless. The biggest difference, Johnston said, is the nature of the family in the respective societies.

Johnston said the breakdown of the nuclear family is at the heart of the homeless issue here. "The nuclear family is not a part of the American system anymore," she said. "Family-less says more than homeless--lacking not only shelter, but family support and structure."

What made Linda's reunion with her father so startling was the fact that she began the search in the first place.

After initially fleeing, her father returned to the mission on Thanksgiving and agreed to go home with the family.

"Three times he came back (to the street). He would stay with us on weekends and stay here during the week. He said, 'I have to go back.' "

Linda said that each time he left "I gave him $1 bus fare. . . . He said, 'Why enable me (to drink).' I said, 'I'm giving you bus fare. If you care to spend it in the wrong way, that's your business.' "

Finally, Linda convinced her father that she needed him to stay at home to look after her sick child. "He feels useful again," she said.

"Now we're holding onto him for dear life. He won't ever come back. There's no reason for it. . . . I have his picture, and I told him I'll plaster it everywhere. He'll never be able to hide again," she said. "I'm so glad he's home."

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