Op-Ed: Voices from the homeless community along Venice Boulevard

The corner of Venice and Lincoln boulevards
The corner of Venice and Lincoln boulevards, where one of the homeless people interviewed for this piece, Dwayne, had been staying. The author interviewed Dwayne at the location twice, but on later visits, he and his possessions were gone.
(Robert Karron)
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When we talk about the homeless population, we tend to focus on people who are mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But many of the 40,000 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles — 33% to 71%, depending on whose numbers you use — are neither. They are simply not able to afford places to live in Los Angeles, where rents for apartments average $2,500 a month.

Below are edited accounts from a series of interviews with three people who have recently been living along Venice Boulevard, on the Westside of Los Angeles. I met them while walking and driving in Venice, where I live, and all agreed to share their stories with the Los Angeles Times.

The narratives of these three men belie many stereotypes about the homeless population and should keep any policy debate grounded in reality: Unhoused individuals are not a blight to be removed; they are people who need help. They have problems, but they are not the problem.

— Robert Karron

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Paul Alvarez (Venice and Grand View boulevards)

I’m 59 years old. I was born in Santa Monica, and I went to John Muir Elementary, John Adams Middle School, and then to Samohi [Santa Monica High School]. My favorite subject was math. When I was in the fourth grade, I was tutoring sixth-grade kids in math — fractions, algebra. But I wasn’t only good at math; I was also good at art. One day, in the fifth grade, we had to make hand puppets, and we were all given the same materials, so my puppet looked like everyone else’s. I asked to be excused, took some scissors with me, went to the bathroom, cut some of my own hair off, and, when I came back to the class, I glued the hair onto my puppet. Everyone loved it. The librarian, Mrs. Hanskey, loved it so much that she put it on display in the library. It stayed there for the rest of the year.

In high school I was on the wrestling team and the football team. I played defensive end. I liked sports because I was able to get rid of a lot of aggression.

Paul Alvarez has been staying on Venice Boulevard.
Paul Alvarez, who used to work in construction before a spider bit his eye, which led to his homelessness. He recently has been staying in a tent at Venice and Grand View boulevards.
(Nadene Pita)

After I graduated, I got a job working for my father, driving trucks and hauling gravel for freeway construction. It was his business; it was called Tony’s Transportation. I made $20 an hour. I liked it. I’d started working for him when I was 12. I actually got my driver’s license when I was 14. They let me have it because I told them that I needed to drive, to support my family.

During this time, I had two girlfriends. They were both nice, but they were night and day. Linda — we were just together for too long, six years. We were in each other’s space, all the time, so we’d get into arguments. Like, when I’d come home, sometimes I’d slam the door. She would complain. Then we’d argue about it. It never got physical; if it looked like it was going to get that way, I’d leave, drive around town. Then I’d come back — and probably slam the door again. … She had two daughters, and they loved me. One time, their teacher called from school and told me the girls were using my last name. It wasn’t their last name — they had their father’s last name — but they wanted to use mine.

Then there was Valerie. She was down to Earth, and we did lots of fun things. Movies, restaurants, bike rides. We were going to get married. I asked her dad for permission, and he said yes. I got the ring; it had one big diamond and two small diamonds. But we never got married. A few years ago she was killed by a drunk driver outside my house. She was coming to see me. I heard the crash. I went out and saw her shoes; the crash knocked them off. I knew it was her, from the shoes. My mother has that ring.

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“I have a girlfriend — April — and I have to support her. She lives with me, in the tent. ... And we just got a little dog — Scrappy.”

— Paul Alvarez

I’m not an addict, and I don’t drink. My only addiction is this [points to a can of Coke] — or coffee. When I was 17, I was drinking all the time, and I got into a car accident. I was in a coma for 37 days. I had brain swelling. They put ice under my body, and on top of it, to get the temperature down. I didn’t drink after that.

After my father died, 16 years ago, I started framing houses. I built the foundation and the walls, and I made $24.50 an hour. I liked the work.

I used to live up the street, on Inglewood. I lived there for about 4½ years, before the incident.

One night a brown recluse spider bit me in my eye when I was asleep. I didn’t feel it, but I woke up, and my eye was swollen. I went to the doctor and they sent me to UCLA, where I was in bed for a month. When I got out, I owed them $15,000. Since I hadn’t paid my rent, my landlord had kicked me out. That’s when I became homeless.

I used to sleep in my car, but it was recently totaled, so now I sleep in a tent, near the post office parking lot. I sleep from about 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. At 3, I wake up and start looking for cans to bring to the recycling center. After I’ve collected all I can carry in my shopping cart, I walk them to the recycling plant, on Venice and Fairfax [about four miles away]. I get about $40 for each haul. After that, I take the bus back to the post office, where I sit; I have a sign that says: “Little help please. Thank you. God bless.”

I shower every other day, at the public showers on Sepulveda, or at the public showers by the beach. I brush my teeth every day.

My mother lives in Mar Vista, but in an assisted-living facility, and she’s 95. I can’t ask her for anything. I have two sisters in Santa Monica and Culver City; one’s married and the other isn’t; they know I’m here, but they don’t want anything to do with me. I have a son, with Valerie. He lives in Venice, and he works two jobs. He comes to visit, but he can’t help out. He has bills of his own.

People are generally nice to me when they walk by. At first, when I started sitting here, they’d give me mean looks, but, after a while, they either ignored me or they were polite. The people who work in the post office are nice to me; they say hello. I don’t know their names, but I recognize them, and they’re all nice to me.

My goal is to save for a place to live, and start looking for a job. But I have expenses, you see. I have a girlfriend — April — and I have to support her. She lives with me, in the tent. She has a car, a 2004 Ford Explorer; it needs gas. And we just got a little dog — Scrappy. He needs dog food.

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I got this chair in the alley [points to the chair he’s sitting on]. There’s so much free stuff in the alley, it’s unbelievable.

Dwayne (Venice and Lincoln boulevards)

I’m 64 years old. I was born in Minnesota and grew up in Minnetonka. I used to ski. I like deep powder.

I’ve been homeless for 21 years. It started when I was in Minnesota. I owned a landscaping company. I liked it. It’s creative. You decide where everything goes. At one point I called it Landmen, then I called it Rainbow. The name’s not important. What’s important is people stopped hiring me to landscape. I went bankrupt. To start the business I’d bought all this equipment. I had a Bobcat [tractor], a dump truck and a snowplow. I owed money on all of them, so, when I went bankrupt, I had to sell them.

I couldn’t keep up with my house payments. I had this great house that I’d actually built with logs; this was in Maple Lake. I’d constructed it myself, with a crane. Sold that, too. I barely had enough to survive.

“It’s like there are two versions of life — the homeless version and the not-homeless version. People don’t understand. They can’t.”

— Dwayne

In Minnesota, you can’t live in your car. I was 45. I have three brothers and a sister, but, over the years, we talked less and less, until we weren’t talking anymore. And they had their own families. I couldn’t ask them for help. I figured I’d drive south. It’s warmer, the further south you go.

This is my life now. With no money, it gets old. My life — it shut off. It’s hard to explain it. It’s like there are two versions of life — the homeless version and the not-homeless version. People don’t understand. They can’t. You’re either taking from other people or you’re not. A lot of people live the mixed version.

I get money from the government. I get food stamps, and I get Social Security. I live on that. I’m OK with that. They could give me more — how about a place to shower, or to “unload”? Or more money. The government still thinks it’s 1950. Or a place to sit — somewhere in the shade? They don’t give me that, but they give me food stamps.

But — follow me — rich girls in Hollywood get money from people, too — their dads. Everything is given. Everything. You have something? Someone gave it to you. Think about it. It comes from somewhere.

Some homeless people won’t take money from the government. I’ve never understood that. I don’t understand people who live in the extremes. It has to be all one way, or all the other way, with them. There’s no middle ground. Some people are just like that. That’s why there’s war, because a lot of people are like that. Some people either want to kiss you or kill you; there’s no middle ground for them.

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I was married for a bit. I met her at a bar called the Minnetonka Mist. I knew her before — and, after I saw her, well, that was that. I’d rather not say her name. If I talk about it, I have to think about it. She worked at a photography studio. Maybe she still works there. We did what married people do. We got along the way married people get along — then it ended. I haven’t been with anyone since. At this point, I’m not into kissing. That part of me has shut off. It could be turned on, but, well, it’d take a lot. But that’s what happens. Relationships put you in the extremes. That’s just how relationships go. It’s not just me. People don’t get along for some reason; then they do. And then they don’t again. They want to kiss each other for a while, but then they want to kill each other. It’s one or the other of the extremes.

We’re all connected. I’m here talking to you, so I’m a part of you. And you’re a part of me, because you’re talking to me. It’s all in the mind. No one is really alone. But that’s at the friend level. At the friend level, everyone’s equal. That changes when you get into a relationship. That’s when you get into the extremes. At the friend level, all our minds are the same. It’s even in the street name — MINDanao [Mindanao — a street in Marina del Rey]. The mind — it’s everywhere. It takes us all. We’re all in it, together. It’s like it’s planned out. It’s built in.

I got this bike for $40. Sometimes I ride it up Venice Boulevard. The other day I rode downtown, to the Midnight Mission, and had lunch. I like to keep moving. A few years ago I rode all the way down to Mexico. It’s not that hard. I like riding. I don’t have anything else to do.

For a few years I had this great spot in Marina del Rey, under a tree. That shade was nice. But then they booted me out. Now I’m in the sun all day. It’s another case of the extremes. It’s either too cold or too hot here. At night it’s too cold. Some mornings I wake up and I’m blowing smoke. They say the Earth’s getting warmer, but I think it’s getting colder. The last few years, I wake up, and I’m blowing smoke. That never used to happen; it was never that cold.

Do I smoke? Yes, a pack every four days. American Spirits. It’s enough to kill a normal human, but not me. I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs, though I smoke pot whenever I can. You have to do the things that make you feel good.

In the mornings, I go to McDonald’s, to get the two-for-$4.50 — two Egg McMuffins for $4.50. I watch TV there — “Ellen.” Yes, I know she’s ending it. Oh, well. I listen to the radio all day, so I know what’s happening. It’s background noise. I used to have a radio that took AA’s, but I lost it. Now I have this one; it takes Cs. I’m guessing they’ll last one week. Two C batteries cost the same as eight AA’s, and the eight AA’s lasted a week, so, since they’re the same price, I’m guessing they’ll last the same amount of time. The battery company must have designed them like that.

Blue (Venice Boulevard, near Electric Avenue)

I’m 54, and I grew up in Venice. Been here all my life. I went to elementary school and middle school here — but I got in fights and I was kicked out. They put me in a white school, Emerson Junior High. I’d get into it with the white boys. One time I broke someone’s nose. Another time I broke someone’s head. I was in a gang then, and what I can say is that I was generally in the process of doing stupid shit. So they kicked me out.

Gangs then were different than gangs now. It was about being somebody, being a man. They were modeled off the Black Panthers. You wanted to take care of your family, your neighborhood. You were protecting what’s yours. It’s what you’d these days call a “turf war,” but back then we didn’t call it that. You were just protecting your neighborhood from outside forces, from people who came into it and wanted to change it. We wouldn’t let them do that. No one could tell us how to run our neighborhood — not even the police. If white people came into our neighborhood, we’d rough them up; they wouldn’t want to come back. It wasn’t what I expected, to be honest. I expected a group of people I could depend on, but it was violent. I’m a loving person. I care about all people.

My gang was the Venice Shore Line Crips. I’m still with them. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. I don’t do anything with them now, because I’m older. The young people do that. But I’m still a Crip. I’ll always be a Crip.

Blue, on Venice Boulevard near Electric Avenue
Blue, a father of five, says he thinks about his children every day. He has been estranged from them for years.
(Nadene Pita)
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We owned a house; it was my grandmother’s. My mother could have tried to hold onto it but she didn’t want to; it would have been too hard to pay the loans back and, besides, it had lots of memories she didn’t want to be around. So she went to Vegas. She asked me if I wanted to come with her, but I told her no. I love everything about Venice. The weather, the people, the atmosphere. People say it’s changed, but I’ll tell you something: Just because it’s changed doesn’t mean I’ve changed.

They put me in a school for people who’ve been kicked out of other schools: L.A. Trade Tech. It was just six people in a room. We were all gang members. The teachers weren’t so bad. One teacher looked like an actor. We harassed him — “You look like that actor on TV!” We were just clowning around, but he was a good teacher. I stayed until the 10th grade; then I went to regular high school.

I left regular high school my last year. I just didn’t understand what life would bring me. I thought life wasn’t about going to school. Chemistry, math — what did that have to do with my life? So I walked out, I left.

I got into drugs, cocaine and crack. This was the ’80s. I was addicted. I hated it. I felt like the drug took my whole being. One day my cousin told me to quit, but I just couldn’t. I picked up a mirror and I smashed it; I cut my wrist. It looked like I’d tried to kill myself. I thought: ‘You may as well bleed out. That’s the only way to quit.’ They put me in a mental hospital after that. They wanted me to stay for three days. I stayed 24 hours. I was in a straitjacket. Then I quit.

I’ve been on the street for four years. I’ve been at this spot on and off for that time. I sleep in that doghouse [points to a doghouse, 3 feet by 6 feet]. Most of the time, it’s safe. Sometimes, it’s not. The other day, a woman — she could have been a college student; she looked like a college student — stabbed me, twice. She was wearing a blue backpack, and on the backpack it said “Wizard School.” She said that’s where she went to school, and that, at the school, they taught her how to spot easy targets to stab. Turns out I was an easy target.

“I left regular high school my last year. ... I thought life wasn’t about going to school. Chemistry, math — what did that have to do with my life?”

— Blue

I’ve been married twice. The first time was for a year. I didn’t like her much, but I felt obligated to step up. The second one was for longer, and I had four kids. I have five kids total. Four boys and a girl. The oldest must be 21. They live in Lancaster, with their mothers. I had to leave the family. They didn’t understand what I was going through, not having a job. I didn’t want to be that kind of person around them. I needed to leave. I think about my kids every day. I went to see them after I was let out of prison — this was for drug-related offenses — and my daughter looked at me and said, “I don’t need you, and I don’t need your money.” She was 10. They thought I was the same person, but I’d let go of my anger. They couldn’t see that. I never went back.

I don’t take help from the government. I don’t take food stamps, and I won’t take Social Security. I don’t need that. I’m a Crip. A Crip stands on his own. The problem is that when the government gives you money, they tell you what to do. Get this job, go there, do that. No. I do odd jobs for people in the neighborhood. I can fix anything. I can fix a refrigerator, a stereo. You give me something to fix, and I’ll fix it.

My favorite job, when I was younger, was lineman — climbing telephone poles, replacing wire. I liked that. It’s nice up there. You’re away from everything. Free. See this bracelet? [Points to a metal chain-link bracelet.] It’s to remind me of slavery. I’ll do anything that’s outside, where you’re free. I won’t sit at a desk. If I could run a business from outside, I’d do that.

Robert Karron, who conducted these interviews in April, May and June, teaches English at Santa Monica College.