To kill the frightening time between sundown and dawn, a 46-year-old woman rides a bus along Wilshire Boulevard between Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles. If anybody strikes up a friendly conversation, she's likely to explain where to get the best--and cheapest--cup of coffee in town. She knows a place in Glendale where a cup is 25 cents and you can sit for hours.
(Her fears were heightened this month when four street people died from exposure and police arrested a 26-year-old man in connection with the stabbing deaths of five homeless men.)
In San Pedro, two single-parent families count themselves lucky to have rooms for the night. But the shelter is temporary and the next day will bring another round of calls to food banks and other agencies in a never-ending chain of survival chores.
These are some of the ways the homeless people of Los Angeles spend their time--in addition to more publicized acts such as sleeping in City Hall, which became a temporary shelter last week.
But who are the homeless, people who seem to come from nowhere in such large numbers? Why have they reached this tragic point in their lives? How do they cope? Interviews with homeless families and individuals in the city and county provide some answers.
Kate Livingston, former telephone sales clerk
Livingston and her 15-year-old son, Christopher, spent their first homeless night in a restaurant. "I kept telling them I was waiting for my husband who was in an all-night poker game," she recalled. At first light, muttering insults against all unpunctual men, the 46-year-old divorced woman and her son pushed out into the unknown.
They have been homeless for about a year, Livingston said. Until she was laid off her $1,250-a-month job taking telephone orders at an electronics firm, the two lived in a $550-a-month, one-bedroom apartment in Culver City. She now receives $249 a month in welfare.
Before they moved to the Harbor Interfaith Shelter in San Pedro seven weeks ago, Livingston said she and her son had lived most of the year at a Santa Monica shelter, where she was an unpaid worker. She never imagined that she would be homeless.
"I was going to have it made," she said. "Two-point-five children, a house, the typical American dream." Her first emotion when she became homeless was "panic. That was the main feeling. Self-disgust. Helpless but not hopeless. . . . When you close your apartment door and hand in your keys, it hits you immediately."
Now Livingston said she feels she has become invisible. "I think it's sad that people are not even accepting that we exist. I'm educated (she has two years of college) and if it can happen to me it can happen to anybody. They (those with homes) see without seeing. I think I was the same way before. I'd watch television and see stories about homelessness and I'd dismiss them as an isolated case."
Paul Robinson, activist, unemployed desk clerk
A Chicago native, Robinson, 33, said he has been in Los Angeles about 4 1/2 years and has been homeless for about a year. He was one of two persons arrested and briefly jailed along with homeless organizer Ted Hayes when Tent City, a homeless protest camp in downtown Los Angeles, was disbanded after the New Year's holiday.
Robinson figures he is homeless because "I kind of choose to stay out here to some degree but to some degree I've been forced out here." Explaining that he quit his job as a hotel desk clerk "out of frustration really," he added, "I was frustrated because I used my income on wine. I wasn't going nowhere. It seemed like I never could have money working at that job, so I took to the streets."
Since hitting the bricks, Robinson said he has come to see homelessness as a political issue. "It wasn't a political issue when I became homeless," he said. "I didn't know how political homelessness is. I figure since I am homeless I might as well do something about it."
Geneva Reese, artist, and her daughter, Eve, 13
The Reeses, who live in a van, left Phoenix a little more than a year ago. Since then, Geneva Reese said, she has been trying to sell her art in the Southern California area--without much success. Over the New Year's holiday, the mother and daughter migrated from Orange County to Pasadena. Reese blamed hassles with the police and a generally unfriendly atmosphere for the departure. But she also said such problems probably are inevitable anywhere.
"When my daughter was born, the dream of my life was to fix up a RV (recreational vehicle) or a van or a camper or something and tour the country, doing art work as I went and just seeing parts of this country I've never had a chance to see," Reese said. "At that time a lot of people were doing things like that and it was accepted. Now people aren't travelers anymore if they're touring the country. If they don't have a lot of money, they're transients. It's become a new dirty word."