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 .