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Pieces of a Family

I have pinned on the wall next to me a lined piece of notebook paper on which is printed, “I love you mom.”

It is written in black crayon in the careful hand of a child who might be 7 or 8 years old.

On the back, in the same black crayon, is a picture of a house in rough outline with doors and windows. It stands almost bleakly alone, without life, without warmth, without surroundings.

The piece of paper is special to me.

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I found it one day at the northern end of the Long Beach Freeway, in a lot once occupied by a group of homeless people.

It was lying amidst the debris of what had been their encampment. Only pieces of their existence remained: a barbecue grill, a paper cup, a few cans, a ragged shirt . . . and that note.

A woman who works at Modern Maturity magazine told me about them. She wasn’t sure how long they had been there and didn’t know if they were actually a family, or simply people thrown together by necessity.

She just knew she saw them all the time living among some trees where the freeway ends at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. I went searching.

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I’m not sure what compelled me to look. L.A.'s Shelter Partnership estimates there are up to 80,000 homeless people in the county.

Like everyone else, I’ve gotten used to seeing them around. As long as they aren’t intruding on your life, you tend to ignore them. They’re like passing traffic, or leaves carried on a stray wind.

When I got to the place where the freeway family had been, no one was there. I searched both sides and then concentrated on the open area off Highbury Avenue, where the encampment had existed.

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A few of the neighbors remembered seeing homeless people around the concrete-sided L.A. River, but couldn’t tell me anything about them. Students from Cal State L.A. living at the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house let me scan the area from their back yard, but I found nothing.

The day was hot and smoggy, and I wasn’t about to spend a lot of time chasing shadows. But then, as I was walking toward the car, a homeless man emerged from a group of eucalyptus trees.

I swear I’d searched the area and hadn’t seen anyone, but there he was, a guy in his late 40s, dirty, bearded and wearing clothes as old as rainfall.

He was probably mentally retarded and was vague about almost everything, but he did point out the exact spot where the family had been. He’d been there a couple of nights too, until they’d all been told to move on, he didn’t know by whom. They were always being told to move. Who told them wasn’t important.

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The last I saw him, he was walking south along the 710, going nowhere.

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The hand-printed note--"I love you mom"--was in plain sight near the barbecue grill. I’m pretty sure of the person’s age who wrote it, and who drew the picture of a house on the back. I have grandchildren who are 7 and 8, and it looks like something one of them might have done.

I stood there for a long time just looking at the note, drawn slowly into it, increasingly unaware of the heat and smog. The din of freeway traffic muted to a distant hum, like flies at a picnic table.

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I could picture a little girl sitting in the terrible loneliness of the vacant lot, carefully printing the words, and just as meticulously drawing the picture of a home that may have existed in a corner of her memory.

Was there actually a mother she was writing the note to, or was the mother just the phantom figure of a child’s longing? Had there once been a home, or had all of her young life been spent wandering and dreaming?

The house she drew was a house without her in it, a place beyond the horizons of her reach, cold and distant and empty. It was like one of the homes that surrounded the vacant lot, viewed through despair.

This is not a good time for the homeless. A growing hostility toward their existence is forcing them out of sight. It’s because, I think, we see the homelessness in ourselves, the utter, devastating failure of spirit to soar with the rest, and we can’t bear the introspection.

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I live now with the vision of the child who wrote the note. I always will. There are 5,600 homeless families in L.A. County. Eleven thousand of those family members are children.

One of them may be a little girl whose warmth and loneliness claw at the heart. If so, I hope she’s loved as she loves, because sometimes--in the emptiness of a world filled with sadness--love is all we have left.


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