My job sends me to downtown LA a few days a week. Last week I stepped out of the parking garage to walk to my office. There was a man sitting on a concrete bench behind a stack of books, the top one open showing neat underlining on both pages.
I took all this in as I speed-walked to get to my building. I saw an intensity that drew my curiosity and I wondered what he was reading.
“Nice set of books,” I said as walked past.
His head jerked up and pivoted toward me, as he shouted, ‘CAN’T HELP YOU.”
Realization dawned as I kept my forward pace. That intensity I intuited was not just from the power of the books—there was a mental instability in this man. His shouts continued behind me directed toward the air. I couldn’t make out the words he shouted, but I got his message.
The homeless problem haunts the crowded streets of downtown. As I go the last couple miles from the freeway to the office, I pass tents and the structures that are starting to fortify their homeless impermanence towards greater stability. People mill about with their folding chairs and carts.
Yes, they are at home in their homeless encampment. And yet, just like the man with the books, there is an unstable intensity in most of them. One morning I saw three different people lying on the concrete sidewalk shouting or moaning loudly. A block later, a man shuffled across the street in the crouch known to the fentanyl addicted.
20 years ago I worked up the street in the courthouse side of downtown. My co-workers and I would tell share stories of the one homeless guy who told the same story of being a student out of money to get a bus ride home. We took the bus ourselves and knew his request was for more than the cost of a ride and a transfer.
“He should come up with a different story. We’ve all heard his same story several times…Come on!”
This story seems vintage quaint as I pass the homeless tent shanty towns in my clean clothes and stable routines. I wish I could help these men and women in their obvious distress and yet it is not all obvious what I can do. The Fentanyl crouch reminds me that even my previous (and infrequent) habit of handing out some bills to these people could mean an overdosing death sentence.
Isn’t wisdom supposed to come with age? I hear people with strategies for solutions. One thing I know is that whatever solution is implemented has to be met with investment from the individuals it is supposed to help. I am not sure how much investment these played-out people have to give. The current strategies in this metropolis are not satisfying. I would like to help them towards a better personal situation. It’s hard to keep my eyes open, but it is the very least I think I can do.
I’ll have to keep looking for a way to help, from my tiny seat in the world.