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INSIDE STORY

Specters On The Street

September 17, 2000|WALTER MOSLEY

Statistics gathered by the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an L.A.-based nonprofit research and service organization, reveal the scope of the problem: In Los Angeles County, 153 agencies operate 331 homeless shelters with 13,632 beds. Still, about 84,000 county residents have nowhere to call home on any given night. * But statistics, of course, don't explain what daily life is like for the older men and women who, by choice or circumstance, live in the streets for days, weeks, months or years. In addition to the predators who target the old and weak, they face indifference, indignities and the common health problems of aging. Times staff photographer Genaro Molina spent much of last year documenting the lives of the elderly homeless in L.A. Novelist Walter Mosley, the author of 11 books, has featured homeless L.A. ex-convict Socrates Fortlow in two of his books. The people in these photographs, they remind us, are not now and never were statistics.

*

When I first saw Genaro Molina's photographs, I experienced a range of emotions. I was moved by the suffering and community of these mostly elder citizens who are without resources and property. I felt anger that the richest country in the history of the world is unable to accommodate those of us who suffer. To some degree I experienced pride in the dignity that the human race strives to maintain no matter the degree of adversity.

But most profoundly I felt guilt at my own failure in addressing this monumental shame.

As I paged through these photographs, my emotions led me down a road I've traveled before. On that road I experienced anger and righteous outrage while condemning those who allow this disgrace to continue. The anger felt right but didn't offer much that is tangible; it didn't show me the way to end the marginalization of our elderly, our poor and our dispossessed.

All this came together for me in a memory.

*

I MET A WOMAN WHO WAS SINGING THE PRAISES of New York City, where I now live. "I hear that they have a very good mayor there," she said. When I asked her what exactly it was that she had heard, she replied, "He got rid of the homeless."

I hear it everywhere; at supermarkets in Santa Monica, at political cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., among suburban commuters and their children considering a return to the city. Cleaned up the homeless, removed the homeless, took care of the homeless problem. Mayors, police chiefs and vigilante-like city councils around the nation going after the so-called homeless like so many Earp brothers at the OK Corral. I say so-called because I think the term homeless, like Oakie in its day, places a stigma on an unfortunate group of people and diminishes them.

In New York, they targeted these already hard-pressed survivors by arresting them for misdemeanors such as urinating in public or drunkenness. Once arrested, fingerprints were taken and records checked, and many were incarcerated for outstanding warrants or crimes they might have previously committed. This project was celebrated by those who fear the specter of poverty and misery camping on our doorstep.

At the same time, Grand Central Station and the Port Authority were getting face-lifts that included removing the squatters from the waiting rooms and the underground tunnels; the parks were spruced up and signs appeared in subway cars admonishing those who might consider giving money to anyone asking for a handout. Panhandling is illegal, the signs read. Give to the appropriate charity if you wish to help the unfortunate.

Our dispossessed population is further criminalized by a sensational and callous media, when indigent men and women are suspected of attacks against the normals on the streets. It's not a single individual who commits the crime, it's a whole class of unfortunate citizens.

All of this went through my mind when the woman, who was very nice, was complimenting New York's particular war on poverty. I thought many things but didn't say them because most people become defensive when a large social problem is presented as part of their responsibility. This becomes apparent when you see their animosity about the so-called homeless. They're feared, seen as threats, as eyesores, as lazy good-for-nothings who would rather lounge around in their jury-rigged shelters than get a real job at Vons.

No one seems to understand about the poverty of young mothers (often just children themselves). No one seems to understand the effects of schizophrenia, psychosis, Alzheimer's disease or the consequences of a simple nervous breakdown or a bout with depression.

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