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Op-Ed: Profiles of people living in homeless encampments. It’s rarely what you’d expect

Tents, bikes, a scooter, a chair and an American flag outside a library
The encampment outside Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library in Venice has grown to about 60 tents.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Los Angeles is a community of communities: cities, neighborhoods, cultures. Some of the newest arise from clusters of tents and makeshift shelters sprouting up under freeway overpasses, along beach boardwalks and in public parks. One, near the Venice branch of the public library, has grown this spring from 10 tents to around 60. It was there where I spoke with three people in April and May who agreed to share their stories with the Los Angeles Times on the condition that their full names not be used. This is the fourth time in the last year that I’ve collected interviews with unhoused people in Venice. I set out to learn the unique circumstances and complexities of some of the individuals I met on my walks — which are also reflected in the communities they form. — Robert Karron

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David

My name is David, and I’m 58 years old. I was born in Inglewood, and I went to high school in Rolling Hills. It’s nice up there — country life, with trees and horses. I was living with my mom then, after my parents got divorced. My father was in Northern California, selling race cars. He had a store in Mountain View, which was really famous.

As a freshman at Rolling Hills, I played varsity baseball. At Long Beach City College I also played. Then I moved up north, with my dad, to try out for the Oakland A’s. There was a scrimmage game — all the scouts were there. I was catcher, and this guy came for home. I scooped the ball up and tagged him, but he plowed me over. Dislocated both of my knees. Somehow I also threw to first, to get a second guy out. The scouts were like, “He’s hired.” I did six months of therapy, but it didn’t work.

David
“If I had to do it again,” says David, “I wouldn’t have moved to Texas because things there started taking a turn for the worse.”
(Robert Karron)

I remember one time I went to a party with the other A’s, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson — “the Bashing Team.” I was called “Crusher” then. They actually offered me a job as a bullpen catcher (catching for pitchers when they warm up), but I said no. I was young — only 21. Also, I’d just fallen for Michelle, the most beautiful girl in the world, and she was moving to Oregon.

I still remember seeing her for the first time — all in lace, with white gloves: a mix between Stevie Nicks and Madonna. I did 13 years with her (I know, sounds like jail time); we have a beautiful daughter now. She’s 28, a photographer, and she has three kids. I haven’t seen her in a while.

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In Oregon, I fought fires for the forestry department, and I was also a logger. I was a “hook tender” and “choker setter.” I’d drop the choker down, and pass it out to the crew, who’d wrap the logs with it. Then I’d grab the hook, lace up the eye of the choker, clear the area, and call the boom, to lift it up and take it to the landing. That was one tough job.

It’s nice. Venice Beach is beautiful, an “open spirit” kind of a place.

— David

After Michelle, I met my second wife, Kristy, in rehab. We had another beautiful daughter, who’s 18 now. Eventually, we moved to upstate New York, where her family’s from, and I got a job with the railroad. I spent 18 years there, until they transferred me to Texas. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have moved to Texas because things there started taking a turn for the worse. My wife had to go back to rehab — and, thank God, eventually she made it back home, because she’d got mixed up with some bad people there. I left my job to take care of her. When she got better, she left me. That was seven months ago.

It’s been hell for me to get back on my feet, but I’m starting to come around. The first five months were the worst of my life. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I couldn’t just go back to my job because I was “off the switchboard.” I’ll get back on it eventually; I’m just not ready yet. I’m slowly working my way back, trying to get this phase out of my system so when I see my friends again they’re not like: “What happened?” Also, I’m taking stock: What’s going on with David? I’m almost there. I’m paying my union dues, so I don’t lose my pension.

How do I get money to pay the dues? I build electric bikes and choppers. I get parts from different places. One bike takes about five days to make, and they sell for $50 to $300. A chopper sells for $500 to $3,000. I mainly sell them on the Boardwalk, but sometimes I’ll go downtown or to MacArthur Park, sell them there.

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My neighbors and I in Venice see the suffering among unhoused members of our community. Many need addiction treatment and mental health care.

I’ve been living in this community for four months. It’s nice. Venice Beach is beautiful, an “open spirit” kind of a place. Sometimes I feel sorry for the residents, though. They put up with a lot. Some people here should be in mental institutions. The locals don’t see that. They just see the mess.

If you live in this community, you see a bigger picture than what people see when they just look in, from the outside. I help people out when I can. I want to give back. I took psychology courses in college, and it’s pretty clear a lot of people around here need help. I’ve taken seven women to the rape crisis center, and I’m looking forward to cleaning this place up and making it look nicer than it did before — in appreciation for letting me stay here.

Three men surrounded by tents kick around a soccer ball
Whenever people cluster, like the unhoused individuals outside the library in Venice, the rhythms of a community tend to emerge.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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Coconut

I go by “Coconut,” and I’ll be 56 this month (I’m a Gemini). I’ve been in this community since January. Before that I was on the Grateful Dead tour. I’ve been following them for 30 years. They’re called “Dead and Company” now. Four years ago John Mayer replaced Jerry Garcia … sorry, I get choked up when I think about him. I met Garcia at a bar once, and we had a conversation, one on one, for 20 minutes. Turns out, he’s just like anybody else. What a guy.

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Anyway, I’ll join them again in June, when they start up again. I like the people who follow them because they treat me as a person — not by the color of my skin. It’s like, “If you’re kind, come on.” I’d say it’s been 85% the same people for the last 30 years. Yes, they take a lot of acid. I don’t take as much as I used to — but, then again, I don’t dance as much as I used to. They have a saying: “If you remember the show, you weren’t there.”

Coconut
“I met [Jerry] Garcia at a bar once, and we had a conversation, one on one, for 20 minutes,” says Coconut. “Turns out, he’s just like anybody else. What a guy.”
(Robert Karron)

My favorite song? All of them. I first heard them on KMET. They played “Casey Jones” a lot. I first saw them at the ’83 US Festival. I went for Metal Day, but someone gave me a ticket for the next day. I saw these crazy white people, with dreadlocks. I was like, “I’ve been around white people, but where’d you guys come from?” I jumped on the tour when they were in Vegas, in ’92, with the Steve Miller Band. Grilled cheese sandwiches kept me alive for 10 years.

I’m originally from South Central, but when I turned 8, I became that Black kid whose parents move him to the all-white neighborhood, La Habra. They didn’t want me to be a gang-banger. Instead, I turned into a stoner in Orange County. I fought with the white kids for six years, though eventually I did make friends. One cat befriended me in the seventh grade — the perfect surfer white boy. He took me to backyard parties where one time we saw Van Halen — before David Lee Roth, when they were just called Rat Salad.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d be here still. I wouldn’t change it for nothing.

— Coconut

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One benefit of being in Orange County is you’re close to Disneyland. One day I saw some high school kids jump the fence, on the corner of Ball and Harbor. I followed. From then on, from 12 to 16, if I was bored, I went to Disneyland.

As a kid I played Pop Warner football — nose guard and tailback, two totally different positions. I was big enough to be nose guard but fast enough to be tailback. I don’t know of anyone else who’s played those two positions. For four years they kept giving me the number 81, which is crazy because that stands for Hell’s Angels, and the guy who started the Grateful Dead — Pigpen — was himself a Hell’s Angel.

My parents are still around. They just celebrated their 60th anniversary. I didn’t go, because I hadn’t gotten my second shot yet. I actually had COVID before I got my shots. After I recovered I kept trying to convince people of things that weren’t real. I knew the things weren’t real, but I wanted to convince them anyway. Like, one time I tried to convince my friends that another friend of ours lived in an apartment complex — but I knew she didn’t live there. One time I tried to convince a cashier I was putting a 50 in his hand, but I knew there was no 50. I did that for a month — then the urge went away.

Houston has cut homelessness over the last decade by more than half. The big takeaway for L.A.: Strategic clarity and execution lead to success.

I also have two older sisters who live in Hawaii. They manage property there. They’re nice. They gave me this phone, and they send me money through Western Union. They’ve been in Hawaii for 10 years, but they still haven’t asked me to visit. I’m kind of hurt about that. (Sometimes I think they’re paying me to stay away.) My family doesn’t know I’m here. They think I’m in a house. I haven’t told them because I don’t want to put them through that.

I have five kids — three in their 30s and two under 15, a boy and a girl. I’m trying to find the younger two. Their mom took them after she lied to me. I know there’s three sides to every story — yours, theirs and the truth — but one day she said she was taking them to school, and I haven’t seen them since. I spent $5,000 on a private investigator. Even he couldn’t find them. One of the older ones found me when she was 27, but she doesn’t talk to me now. She judged me.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d be here still. I wouldn’t change it for nothing. It’s a beautiful, wonderful, f— up life. One time someone knocked on my door, and it was the ex-boyfriend of my sister, who’s now a chauffeur. He was driving Slash, and they had four hours to kill. He’d heard I’d talked to Jerry Garcia, so he wanted to meet me. I spent two hours in my living room with Slash. Let me tell you something: It’s all about the music.

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A row of tents with a chair, a bike, a wheelchair and an American flag
“I’m looking forward to cleaning this place up and making it look nicer than it did before,” David says. “In appreciation for letting me stay here.”
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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Jacob

My name is Jacob, and I’m 29. I never lived outside of Denver, until last year. Why did I come here? Twenty-eight years of winter. I no longer had a desire to deal with that. I also thought there’d be employment. In Denver I worked at the airport, as a passenger assistant. I worked at Petco. I had cashier jobs, too. Then I worked for a temp agency — and when I looked at agencies in Los Angeles, there were plenty. So, on my 29th birthday, I went west. I only had a few hundred dollars. But I learned that the temp agencies here didn’t work the same way. It was harder to get into that field.

High school was complicated for me because I had a shoulder injury. I had trouble doing things, and I couldn’t focus on schoolwork. I was always in pain. But before then I was at the top of my class. I come from a big family — five brothers and sisters. Most of them went to college, and they thought I was using my shoulder as an excuse not to do anything, but it wasn’t like that. If not for the injury, I would have a college degree. I read a lot. By the time I was in middle school I’d read Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, Narnia and Eragon — and in high school I read Michael Crichton, H.G. Wells and Shakespeare (“The Tempest” is pretty interesting).

Jacob
“I’m building up my world,” says Jacob. “You know the games ‘Minecraft’ and ‘The Sims’? It’s like that, but in the real world.”
(Robert Karron)

I have a different life-threatening health issue now. I was in a street brawl six months ago. It left me with a head injury. I should have died. I have fragments of my jaw moving around in there. After that, I focused on the simple things. I’m trying to get my health correct, and I’m building up my world. You know the games “Minecraft” and “The Sims”? It’s like that, but in the real world.

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After high school I wanted to take a break and figure out why I might want to continue with my education. If I’m going to dedicate my life to something, I want to know if it will help me with my future. I learned about other ways of living. I’d been sheltered. I began to understand there were different paths to take. Straight into the workforce? Start a business? My mom said, Well, you’re 18, an adult. She basically threw me to the wolves. I got a van and lived in it. I was trying to find routes that weren’t well traveled.

People like generalizations because it’s easy to create go-to behavior when you already know how to treat someone through stereotypes.

— Jacob

I’d been influenced by television and pop culture. I wanted to unlearn that. I also wanted to unlearn values adults taught me. Like: It’s OK to be rude to subordinates. That took a while to unlearn. Another value adults taught me was toxic masculinity. Any value that generalizes people is toxic. There’s toxic femininity, too. People like generalizations because it’s easy to create go-to behavior when you already know how to treat someone through stereotypes.

As I “unlearned” these values, I realized, in businesses, there’s structures of power, and, for you to make a living — and not be homeless — you have to adhere to those, and they aren’t always ethically correct. For the most part, they’re not that bad, but as you get deeper into the game you realize most people disregard ethics in favor of traditional, learned behaviors.

It’s not just in businesses. It’s everything. Like sex. What matters? Society says there’s a “homosexual” way or a “heterosexual” way. A “masculine” way or a “feminine” way. Women don’t approach men. Men do the footwork to make the relationship happen. The woman — passive — accepts it. But if you’re a passive man? People lose respect for you. If you don’t conform to types, people lose respect.

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Moving homeless individuals out of parks and large encampments, and into temporary housing is a first step of what may be a long and complicated process. The ultimate and most difficult goal here is to get people into permanent housing.

Me, personally? I’m a classic American gentleman, with a touch of international swag on top. I’m mixed — white and Black. There’s never too much of one side in me.

The mix extends to how I live. I’m flexible. I can live poor or richly. Now I’m living poorly, but, were circumstances to change, I could live richly. I don’t have a family, so I’m free. Most adults are poor because they started a family early. They became captive to their circumstances, by not having the ingredients first. I’d like to have a family at some point (I want there to be a legacy), but I’m not going to start one until I have the ingredients to the recipe.

The goal is family but not in traditional ways. Traditional families don’t care about honesty. They brush things under the rug. The hardest part is being honest with people about how you feel. That’s how you make real connections. Have I made real connections that aren’t toxic? Very few — and sometimes it seems a hopeless task. It’s so much easier for people to fall back on negative ways that worked in the past.

In terms of starting a family or making real connections — what’s my next move? I was in one place 28 years. I don’t want to do that again. But if the Rams win the Super Bowl again? I’ll feel like I need to stay and try my luck here. You want to stay where the winners are.

Robert Karron teaches English at Santa Monica College.

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Three men recount their family ties, their romances, how they came to live on the street and how they make ends meet.

Three men, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, represent a growing population among L.A. County’s unhoused.

Three unhoused women who live in Venice say they have learned to protect themselves, in body and spirit.

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