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SANDY BANKS

Man on the streets captured a community

Eddie Dotson, who built his home under a freeway overpass near USC, became a local curiosity. He also represents a culture that we don't quite know what to do with.

June 27, 2009|SANDY BANKS

Nataline Viray-Fung spent weeks last winter admiring the unconventional artistic displays that kept popping up on the sidewalk along her route to USC -- the geometric sculpture of paper cups, the totem poles of bent hubcaps, the stack of child-sized pink chairs adorned with deflated soccer balls.

They were the oddball inventions of a homeless man, who Viray-Fung came to consider a buddy. "I felt compelled to meet him," she said, because "whoever has enough sense of themselves to create art when they are homeless is someone worth knowing."

Viray-Fung knows a bit about homelessness, and what it can do to the spirit.

Today, the 32-year-old is a USC law school graduate, studying for the bar exam. But a few years back, she was a resident of Chicago, with no money and no address.

She spent weeks sleeping in her car or crashing on friends' sofas. "It was the most stressful thing I've ever lived through," she said. "The trauma of ending up with no home, not knowing where you're going to sleep.

"I was a mess. . . . I don't think anybody knew what to do about me."

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The "artist" Viray-Fung befriended was Eddie Dotson, a homeless man I first wrote about in February when his elaborately furnished sidewalk shelter captured my attention. My columns made their way to his family in Austin, they reunited and he recently moved back to his hometown, where he lives in his daughter's condominium.

I've realized -- from readers' e-mails since -- that long before I wrote about him, Eddie and his shelter at the 110 Freeway exit ramp had become a local curiosity, among football fans on their way to USC games, students and local workers.

I heard from dozens of readers who grew accustomed to seeing him on their daily commutes -- vanpoolers who told me they "could not wait to leave work to see what he had added to his home that day," and carpooling mothers who welcomed the opportunity to talk to their young passengers about poverty, compassion and gratitude.

Edna Arteaga fielded her children's comments as she pulled off the freeway on their way to school each morning. "My son would say that this man had more furniture than we did, and we would laugh at how we lived in a house and we had less than him," she said. "And I would tell myself how ironic life was."

Some people, like Viray-Fung, went further. She visited Eddie almost every week, taking food and fussing over his puppy. He was a settling force, she said, as they talked about her law school studies. "I was always so anxious," she told me. "And he was always so calm."

Many found themselves bonded in unexpected ways to the homeless stranger, with the spotless shelter.

"My small SMALL thing was to share a bit with Eddie," said Nina McMullen, who passed him each day on her way to work at USC. She would occasionally stop, say hello and slip him a little money. "No one could have been more gracious," she said.

When her daughter-in-law came to town to visit, she put Eddie's shelter on her list of tourist stops. But his home had been hauled away by the city before she arrived. "I just broke down and cried," she said.

But his plight also brought into sharp relief our discomfort with the spreading plague of homelessness. Around the corner from Eddie's former dwelling, a woman crawls through a hole in a chain-link fence to sleep under the freeway each night. A few blocks away, a couple have set up housekeeping in a jerry-built shack on a cul-de-sac.

And passersby have noticed them too.

The people "seem nice enough," wrote a man who lives nearby. "But I'm not sure it's the right idea for me to try to befriend them."

He never got to know Eddie either, he said, though he often passed him on his daily run. "Honestly, I always kind of wanted to talk to him. But I thought that if I did that, it would send a message that it was OK to be homeless.

"I feel a lot of pity for Eddie and these other people because they have never asked people for anything and seem like they just want to be left alone to live. But are their encampments OK? I'm not sure."

Neither am I. Because -- as Viray-Fung learned when she had nowhere to live -- no one knows quite what to do about them.

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More than 73,000 people make their home on Los Angeles County streets. Most live anonymously, surviving by their wits, with the help of community agencies and the generosity of ordinary people.

All too often when we hear about them, it's because someone has been shot or set on fire or beaten to death or stabbed.

It's bleak terrain for a journalist, brightened only occasionally by tales of people who beat the odds:

The Harvard-bound student who willed her own success, lugging books through a childhood of homeless shelters. The former drug addict who sleeps in his car but has brought Little League baseball to dozens of children in Compton. The Juilliard-trained musician trapped on the streets by schizophrenia whose story helped loosen the stigma of mental illness.

But Jefferson High grad Khadijah Williams might not be at Harvard if a family in Rancho Palos Verdes hadn't taken her in. Tim Lewis needed a Compton paramedic to help him organize the baseball league at Sibrie Park. And Nathaniel Ayers wouldn't be "The Soloist" without Steve Lopez and the professionals at skid row's LAMP.

We can put a face on homelessness. But you have to be willing to look at it.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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