Richard Hagen will be returning soon to his regular job as a security guard, following an unusual vacation. For six days and five nights, Hagen played homeless.
Incognito for much of the time, Hagen joined a band of about 20 to 40 homeless men and women on a march through Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and other parts of the Westside.
He said he wanted to see what it was like to be homeless. What he received was a lesson about life as an outcast.
When a person is homeless, Hagen said, society "doesn't know what to do with you anymore. People just shut the door in your face. When I have kids . . . I'll tell my kids to get up and work or they could become homeless and society will turn you off."
The march, dubbed "Trek for Justice," is being staged through the more affluent Westside sections of the city to draw attention to the plight of the homeless, leaders said. Hagen parted company with the group after Venice.
Normally, Hagen, 26, earns $5 an hour as a nighttime guard for a security company that posts him at cemeteries, bars or warehouses.
His decision to join the homeless march was more happenstance than the result of longstanding interest in the cause. With no money for a more elaborate vacation, Hagen decided to "take a chance" and join the march.
"I couldn't afford Hawaii," he said. "I heard them (march leaders) on the radio, and I always wanted to go hiking, so I decided to hike with them. I never had so much fun. It's like traveling . . . an adventure."
The experience helped Hagen overcome some of the misgivings he, like many people, had about the homeless, while it confirmed other perceptions.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Hagen said he used to be afraid of venturing downtown when he was a child because of the Skid Row transients.
Now he has seen that, while some of the homeless do abuse drugs and alcohol, some don't. Although march organizers banned drinking and drug use, Hagen said he saw some of the participants sneak off to buy alcohol.
"I felt welcomed. They want support; they got it," Hagen said. "I'm giving them support the best way I can. It's support to walk with them. I listen to everything they say. Some are willing to work. I wish I could help them."
Interviewed near the Venice Pavilion where the homeless camped out one night last week, Hagen indicated that he did not have plans to become an activist for the homeless. But he said the experience could be used to show others that "some homeless are OK. Some deserve a chance."
Hagen said a few of the marchers eventually caught on that he was not exactly one of them. They were curious, he said, but not resentful.
He said he bought his own food so as not to take away from those really in need, and he camped out with the group every night but one, when it got cold and he went to a nearby motel.
He passed the time by talking with other marchers and hearing their stories.
Hagen did a little Christmas shopping along the way--a T-shirt that touted Santa Monica, earrings bought from a street peddler--but said he found the Westside expensive.
Nevertheless, he praised the marchers' determined foray into Los Angeles' affluent communities.
"You gotta get the word to the rich people," he said. "They'll help out."