FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

In the Zone of the Homeless

by MICHAEL DOLINER

I am living in the middle of the produce district in Los Angeles. Every morning trucks beeping and backing up wake me, especially the trucks dragging away the full dumpster and sliding in the empty one. Nearby are the toy, flower, and fabric districts. Also, spread among them, is what can only be called the homelessness district. From Olympic over to Fifth street, from Towne to Wall, large numbers of the homeless, their shopping carts piled with whatnot, shuffle about or simply collapse on the street. They are, apparently, completely docile.

All of the homeless are not, of course, gathered in this area. They are everywhere, but this seems to be a district in which they collect. It is something like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. That zone, produced by the runoff from the Mississippi River, is hypoxic, without oxygen. Without oxygen no higher forms of life can survive. Likewise, here in Homelessville, businesses die. Customers, their oxygen, shun the mere sight of the homeless. Most of the zone consists of dead storefronts or blank-walled warehouses.

Naturally, the police cruise the zone. Almost always, along fifth street, one or even two cruisers sit at the curb. Beside them a couple of officers usually scold a homeless man or two. I wonder what, given their passivity, the homeless guys might have done? In any case the police seem only to talk to them, for what else can they do? Drag them in? Fine them? I have seen no real violence. It all seems rather routine. Clearly, a modus vivendi has developed.

In these districts a minor ironic reversal of privilege prevails. The homeless stagger about in the street, often down the center of the street with impunity. California has a no-jaywalking law the police gleefully enforce. The fine is $200. But the homeless are immune. Where are they going to get $200? Give them a summons and they are likely to use it for toilet paper. And what is the city going to do about it? Jail them? They might prefer it to the street. Recently, while in the fabric district just above an area particularly dense with the homeless, my friend, Liam, warned me that although the homeless were wandering about in the street it was not safe for me to do so. I looked like I could pay the fine, and the police would single me out among the jaywalkers.

The homeless in this area are mostly black men, but with a large number of white men and black and white women. Many look surprisingly young, though no less worn out for that. A sea of shame drowns them all. Their faces are dark, inaccessible. Most are lost in a stupor long days of nothing-to-do no doubt quickly produces. A surprising number seem crippled, walking with a limp and even dragging one foot. Unique odd gaits identify them at a distance. Madness darkens many faces. Most turn away from me; only a few ask me for money. One warns me that I will get a ticket if I park there, then asks for a dollar. I give, but have to stop giving. There are suddenly too many. I feel I should talk to them, but about what? To them I am nothing but a possible hand out. There is really nothing to talk about. Between them and me is a huge gulf that I, and everyone on my side, fear to fall into.. There is no way back for them. They are doomed and they know it. I have to avoid a pile of human shit on the sidewalk.

Among themselves they seem to talk quite freely. To some extent, the madness melts away. Naturally, a community of sorts has developed. Friendships, alliances, are made. Somehow, with mutual help, each one is scraping by, managing to drag his existence through another day. I wonder why they go on, but who am I to declare their lives worthless? No doubt the human ties they form are far from only practical. I can’t help thinking of William Kennedy’s novel, Ironweed. Perhaps the ties between these people are deeper and richer than those of the more fortunate. Why not call it love? But there are many beyond the reach of even the other untouchables. One astonishing figure grabs my attention. It is impossible to tell the sex of this tiny being. Barely as tall as its shopping cart, with a large hat pulled down so low that I can only guess that it has a head, it plods along blindly, steadily, slowly pushing the cart. Indifferent to traffic signals and traffic itself, it makes a progress, like a queen, through the district.

Though I have only been here for a few days, I know, as does everyone, that this district, like an untreated infection, is bound to grow. Around Fifth street, above Wall, Maple Street bustles with the traffic of the fabric district. For now this largely Hispanic District seems to be holding the line, with only a few of the homeless here and there. But what is going to stop the homeless from spilling out into this district, first one by one, and then en masse? The police can arrest them, but that only costs the city money. Being homeless, penniless, and no doubt without papers, they escape the city’s instruments of control. Shame perhaps contains them, but the growth of their numbers will push them out. Perhaps the store owners themselves will beat them back, but it will be like trying to hold back the tide.

At some point, I can imagine, the police might do something drastic, like shipping large numbers of the homeless somewhere. But where? Some other district? Who would accept them? What would keep them there? Concentration camps? Concentration camps with guards, food supplies and food workers, sanitation facilities, barracks? All that would cost money. Where will it come from? I can only assume that, with the problem already so big, these alternatives have already been considered and dismissed. What then? The remaining alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

For now, it is clear, no one is doing anything. It is inconceivable that Los Angeles, a notoriously brutal city, would find some means for rehabilitating these people, even if that were possible, which it isn’t. The problem requires intervention long before someone becomes homeless. Perhaps better education might help, but public education is deteriorating here as it is everywhere else. And many of the homeless are veterans, harboring who knows what nightmares that incapacitate them. Their problem is not lack of education. These people are superfluous and indigestible in the city’s belly. The district is an untreatable infection, a cyst. So the rest of the city simply moves around it. But there is no denial. Mention the homeless to anyone and you are sure to hear a demand that something be done, no one can say what. Life goes on even if beneath the surface a feeling of helplessness flickers now and then into mind. Everyone knows the problem will not go away, but will grow inexorably and with the next economic shock, drastically.

Los Angeles is vast, and few of its Beverly Hillbillies wander into this district. For them it is somebody else’s problem or no problem at all. The barbarians are inside the gates, but nobody wants to acknowledge it. They do not descend, like Attila the Hun, in a ferocious charge on horseback, but stagger forward like zombies in Night of the Living Dead, trundling their shopping carts before them. It’s a no-brainer that, as the economy falters still more, their numbers will grow. So the present homeless are the avant-garde, as revolutionaries and artists like to call them. They herald the future, a future that belongs to them, a new dying tribe on the verge of conquering a dying world.

Michael Doliner is a writer. His can be reached through his blog Swinging the Possum .


Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
Steve Horn
What Do a Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66
Brian Saady
Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising
Luke Meyer
The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing
Binoy Kampmark
Adolf, The Donald and History
Robert Koehler
The Great American Awakening
Murray Dobbin
Canadians at Odds With Their Government on Israel
Fariborz Saremi
A Whole New World?
Joyce Nelson
Japan’s Abe, Trump & Illegal Leaks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump 1, Tillerson 0
Yves Engler
Is This Hate Speech?
Dan Bacher
Trump Administration Exempts Three CA Oil Fields From Water Protection Rule at Jerry Brown’s Request
Richard Klin
Solid Gold
Melissa Garriga
Anti-Abortion and Anti-Fascist Movements: More in Common Than Meets the Eye
Thomas Knapp
The Absurd Consequences of a “Right to Privacy”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail