As volunteers fanned out across Los Angeles County last week to count homeless people, I knew of one homeless person in particular who had just days before escaped being counted on the streets.
I met James Lonon as he sat on a concrete bench on the corner of 22nd Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica in mid-November of last year — about a month before he turned 56. He was neatly dressed, a small cart of belongings at his side and a crisp brown bag set up at his feet for offerings of cash from passers-by. He smiled warmly as I approached. I pulled a dollar out of my handbag and as I held it, ready to deposit it in his bag, I asked if he had a place to go that evening. I write about homelessness. I was curious.
“You mean, do I have a home to go to? No, I don’t,” he said.
On the corner, he was adept at making money and acquaintances. He had enough of an infrastructure -- cellphone, email address, a storage unit -- to ground him even on the street.
Well, I meant, would he be going to a shelter. But I was struck by how lucid he sounded, how rational he seemed. Sure, he was homeless. But by comparison, earlier that morning, I had passed a woman a block away sitting on the sidewalk conducting a loud and energetic conversation with herself, oblivious to people walking by.
We began chatting. He had been homeless a year, he told me, after his unemployment benefits ran out. In 2014, he lost a nine-year job as a clerk at a big retailer. He had a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Long Beach, he said.
On the street corner, he was adept at making money and acquaintances. He didn’t want to go to a shelter (most homeless people do not) and he had already been through a nonprofit program, he said, that offered a regimented group living arrangement. He didn’t want that either.
And he had enough of an infrastructure — a basic cellphone, an email address, a storage unit — to ground him even as he lived on the streets.
“All the people out here in Santa Monica — it would seem like they would have an empty room that they would offer to someone,” he said. He had enough cash to pay $200 a month for a room, he explained. “It’s just a waiting game — waiting for the right person who will respond to that type of request.”
I highly doubted any person was going to walk by and offer him a room for any amount of money. I didn’t know whether his story was credible or not.
Someone did. Namely, Marsha Temple and her colleagues at the nonprofit Integrated Recovery Network. Today, Lonon has a room of his own in a six-bedroom apartment just west of USC that functions as transitional housing. Next week, he starts a part-time job.
This is just the beginning of Lonon’s new journey. Watching him take this on, I suspect, will reveal as much about him as it does about the system of government and nonprofit agencies that are trying to help homeless people.
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