Opening our eyes to the plight of the homeless

Plywood boards cover the windows and doors of the abandoned Chinese Buffet in Inglewood. Each rectangle reads like a sign announcing “Plague!” or “Recession!”

Most drivers on Manchester Boulevard simply speed past. But Rodolfo Salinas and his colleagues slowed down one morning this week to look. They saw a few vehicles, including an RV, parked in the restaurant’s lot.

Pulling in to look more closely, they spotted a mattress and bits of clothing hidden behind the restaurant. And inside the RV, they saw a dog. No, two dogs.

“Hello!” Salinas called out. “Anyone need a lunch? Some socks?”

A moment later, the small community of hidden souls stirred to life. A man stuck his head out from behind the fence and took a sandwich. Then the door to the RV opened, and another man emerged. He said his name was Gary and that he’d been living in the RV with his wife and two dogs for about a year.

“Used to live over by Crenshaw,” he told Salinas, an outreach worker with the Hollywood-based nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH. “Had a job detailing cars at a carwash.”

I spent a day with Salinas and his team this week, driving through Inglewood and Westchester in search of homeless people underneath the flight path of jets roaring into LAX.

We found men and women living in many kinds of places — huddled in the alley behind a real estate office, encamped in the narrow spaces between industrial buildings, under a bridge on Lincoln Boulevard overlooking the yellow wildflowers of the Ballona Creek wetlands.

It’s a tragedy that’s taking place every day, in nearly every L.A. neighborhood, seemingly just outside our field of vision.

Salinas and his co-workers taught me to see what has always been there in front of me.

Like most Angelenos, I’ve learned to avert my eyes from the signs of transience and suffering. But at an auto parts store on Hawthorne Boulevard, Salinas and his partners told me to look up and study a corner of the parking lot.

Against a gray retaining wall, I saw a little mountain of nylon, wool and plastic. Salinas called out a greeting and the mountain stirred. A balding, caramel-colored head poked out.

“I just got out of the hospital,” Lafayette, 64, told us. He’d been treated for a bladder infection, he said, and his wrist was covered with the plastic bracelets of many a hospital admission. “I only stayed one day and got kicked out.”

Lafayette was sleeping in a padded chair salvaged from a car or van, next to the aluminum walker he uses on his daily wanderings. “We’ve watched him deteriorate,” said Stephanie Pashby, a PATH outreach worker who’s been coming to Inglewood for two years.

Lafayette is dying in public. He’s one of the frailer members of a population that today includes not just the addicted and the mentally ill but also an increasing number of people driven from their jobs and homes by the economic crisis.

We can’t even say, with certainty, how big this population is.

Earlier this month, census workers fanned out across the city in a three-day effort to count the homeless. When the final tally comes in, it will include Lafayette and many other “chronically homeless” people known to outreach workers who made sure they filled out census forms.

But the residents of Manchester Boulevard’s Chinese Buffet probably weren’t counted, because homeless outreach workers discovered their encampment only this week.

Salinas estimates that the census reached fewer than half of those actually living on Inglewood’s streets. “It hurts me to say that, because I was part of the effort to count people,” he said.

Despite a well-funded census campaign, reaching everyone in such a fluid community is nearly impossible, Salinas said. “People are working very hard to hide themselves.”

The homeless quickly learn to find neglected, forgotten and unpleasant places, little patches of real estate where they’ll be left alone. Thanks to the economic crisis, the city has more of these places than ever before.

“We won’t go in there,” Salinas told me as we stood outside a cluster of condemned properties off Prairie Avenue, a menacing landscape of crumbling apartments and bungalows that he said is home to about 20 people.

But there were also signs of life in more open and well-traveled spots, including the back of a busy restaurant parking lot on Century Boulevard. “Over there, by the trees,” said outreach worker Herman Osorio, pointing.

After a while, it seemed I was seeing people living everywhere.

“I’ve lived a hard life,” Helen, 63, told us as she stood in an alley with her husband, Larry. As we left in search of others, she said: “I hate to imagine anyone worse off than we are.”

We found encampments nestled against the concrete walls of the 405 Freeway, where people put up mirrors to help them spot intruders.

In a shallow muddy culvert beneath an overpass, we encountered a woman with a wild mop of blond hair. “She’s tweaking on crystal,” Pashby said of the mother of three.

Hidden in every encampment is a family story.

Outreach worker Osorio, 27, told me how many years ago he met his homeless father for the first time. He was a boy of about 8 then, being raised by a single mom in Hollywood. “Where’s my dad?” Osorio asked her. She took him to see an alcoholic panhandling on a Santa Monica Boulevard sidewalk just a few blocks away.

Osorio discovered that his father, like many homeless people, stayed close to the place where he had once lived with his family. After his father got himself sober and off the streets, they talked. “He’d go to the park and watch me play baseball, and I never knew it,” Osorio said.

I’m going to start thinking of the homeless that way, as members of my family — often unseen but always present, waiting to be found and maybe even helped, if I just take the time to see them.