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Stranger At The Door : Down-and-Out Visitors Pose Dilemma of How Far to Extend a Helping Hand

NEWCOMERS ON THE BLOCK: The Gentrification of a Neighborhood. One in an occasional, first-person series on one couple's unsettling experience of searching for a house and then moving to a gentrifying neighborhood in Northwest Pasadena.

June 04, 1989|BERKLEY HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

One evening soon after we moved into our new house, my wife, who was letting the cat in, heard a woman's voice call in the darkness: "Can you help me? I need money."

Startled and frightened, Milbre came inside and locked the door. Then she told me of her dilemma; she wanted to help but felt unsafe.

"We can't be good Samaritans at night," I said. By day, maybe. But not at night.

As soon as I said those words, I felt uneasy. But I had read stories in the local newspaper about hucksters in Altadena knocking on doors and saying they were homeless--when they weren't. I knew about L.A.'s yuppie panhandlers, a couple who conned people in supermarket parking lots out of $5 to $100 with various versions of the same hard-luck story.

Then we heard a rapping on the door.

OK Not to Answer

We didn't answer. It was OK to shut the door, I told Milbre. And it's OK to not answer, I said.

We still were uncertain about the extent of crime in the neighborhood and how safe we were. We had not yet installed a home burglar alarm and we still wondered why almost everyone in the neighborhood seemed to have guard dogs that barked at night.

When we first visited the street, a woman told us about a homeless man sleeping in the deep back yards, some of them thick with trees and shrubs along the property lines.

We rarely encounter homeless people or transients on our street, save for a man who fills his shopping cart with aluminum cans he finds on garbage day. But we do see down-and-out people on nearby streets and in the neighborhood park.

And the subject of homelessness surfaces more in Southern California than in our former home of New England, where the colder winters take their toll. City halls, parks and libraries from Los Angeles to Pasadena to Monterey Park, play reluctant hosts to the homeless, sunburned in summer and chilled in winter.

Still, this is the first time I've lived in a house where strangers come to the door, saying they have no home and they want work.

Milbre compares it to Depression days when housewives, from their back doorsteps, fed tramps and hoboes in exchange for work.

She made this comparison when she called me at work one morning to explain what had happened as she was unloading groceries in the driveway. A man had walked onto the lawn. I'll call him Lee. He introduced himself politely in a Southern accent and told her his story.

He had just arrived in town and needed work. He had no home and his wife and their young daughter were living in the 1970 Chrysler station wagon they had just driven here from Dallas.

Milbre told him she only had a dollar.

Lee wanted work, he said, not a handout. He was having a hard time persuading anyone to hire him, he said, partly because he has only one eye. His left eye had been removed after he injured it as a child. She told him to come back later that day.

When she told me, I was angry at first.

I'm wary of strangers on the street. Partly because of a vivid memory of a holdup attempt in a very nice neighborhood of single-family houses in Birmingham, Ala. Two years ago. Ten o'clock at night. I'm walking on the street with a friend. Four young men pull up in a car. Two point pistols. They shout for me to stop. I don't. They say they will shoot. They don't.

While Milbre waited for Lee to return, she called the people at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena who work with the homeless. What homeless people say about themselves is often legitimate, yet some stories don't check out, the church workers said. The most important thing, they said, is not to feel like you are jeopardizing your safety in helping. The ones who cause trouble or who are on drugs won't want to work anyway, she was told, and there is help available for the others.

Lee did return later that day and Milbre gave him All Saints' phone number. She also told him we would pay him to cut our grass, if he returned on the weekend when she and I would both be home.

When he came back and I first met him, it only took a few minutes for me to sense that we would have no problems.

Later I discovered how hungry he was. He had found several whole oranges I had discarded in a pile of grass cuttings. He peeled them and ate them.

Bought a Bag of Oranges

One day, I bought him a lunch. And on one of her trips to the grocery storeMilbre bought a bag of oranges for him and his family.

Since then we have worked many times in the yard together and talked. Whether all the facts of his story are precisely true, I do not know, nor do I care. I do know that since February he has cut yards, raked leaves and washed cars at houses throughout Northwest Pasadena.

Nonetheless, the fact that he is black, poor and homeless, and I am white, well-off and a homeowner, has sometimes resulted in interactions that have been unsettling for both of us. Once we argued about the wages I was paying him. He said he was worth more. I agreed but said I couldn't afford to pay more. But I did anyway.

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