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Homeless Traveler has to Downsized His Dream

Cities: Police in Florida put the homeless man on a bus to Los Angeles. After two weeks in town he says he's staying, even though it's not what he expected.

May 27, 1996|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles hasn't turned out quite the way James Riggs had hoped.

"I thought I'd find some peace and be comfortable and get a camper and just relax," said Riggs, a homeless man who was put on an L.A.-bound bus by Jacksonville, Fla., police earlier this month.

Taken in by a Los Angeles organization for the mentally ill homeless, Riggs is comfortable and safe. But instead of reading the Bible in a camper, he spends his days in a grim stretch of downtown's skid row, where about the only thing not in decay is the gleaming razor wire.

Still, he has no desire to return to Jacksonville, where he says it was hard for him to escape talk of drugs, which he long ago abandoned. The people who doze on the couches at LAMP, the homeless agency, have not bothered him with such chatter.

LAMP got involved after homeless advocates in Jacksonville contacted their Los Angeles counterparts, alerting them that Riggs was on his way, courtesy of a few Jacksonville police officers.

The officers, who said they were just helping the 48-year-old Vietnam veteran get where he wanted to go, used their own money to buy Riggs a cross-country ticket and put him and his wheelchair on a bus for California.

LAMP officials met him at the downtown Greyhound station May 10. At first, said executive director Yvonne Williams, Riggs said he didn't need help and would just stay on the street.

"I was pretty sure sleeping in the street here wasn't the same as sleeping in the street in Jacksonville," Williams said. Riggs wound up returning with her to LAMP's San Julian Street drop-in facility, where he has remained.

Although the Jacksonville clergy and homeless advocates who had helped Riggs for years thought police had done a shameless deed by shipping him out, Riggs said he wanted to leave. The Indiana native had never been to California, and he has no friends or relatives here. But he had always heard that it was easy to live here.

"It's a decent place, comfortable and warm," Riggs says of the drop-in center, where he spends his days sitting in his wheelchair, a blanket over his weak legs and a couple of pieces of foam tucked behind his bad back. He eats and sleeps there, still in his wheelchair. He says he learned to sleep in a sitting position in Vietnam.

Along with the camper, one thing he wishes for is white. The Lord, he says, told him to wear white, the symbol of purity. A minister sewed a white outfit for him in Jacksonville, but he left that behind. The T-shirt he wore on a recent day was more gray than anything and his slacks were beige.

He recites biblical verses with ease--to the regret of some of the other LAMP guests, as the agency calls them. "They look at me and say, 'You and Jesus,' " related Riggs, who with his kindly smile and long gray beard looks the part of a holy man.

The others don't seem to realize, he added, that "without Jesus, they're in trouble."

Williams said Riggs can stay at LAMP as long he likes. "He's very pleasant. He fits right in. Nothing ruffles him."

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