Poverty and homelessness are intrinsic to Los Angeles culture

Listen to this article

Poverty is intrinsic to Los Angeles. The gentrified heart of downtown impulses a contrast of high rise apartments and homelessness, which spills from fluid boundaries of the historic Skid Row area. Once populated predominately by veterans due to the wealth of accessible social services, the demographics of the homeless population changed after Viet Nam and became more congruent with today’s scene: mostly non-white transients, many suffering from debilitating diseases and mental illnesses.

With limited indoor spaces to frequent, many homeless individuals spend their waking hours in the Central Library less than a mile and a half from Skid Row on 5th Street. I popped in one afternoon seeking to peruse the fiction shelves and potentially accomplish a few sentences on the page.

The Los Angeles Central Library, (Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)
The Los Angeles Central Library,
(Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)

After walking around for a while, I selected a couple short story collections and headed out to find a comfortable place to sit. When rounding a corner, a title on top of a high stack of books caught my eye. Someone was researching Irish literature. A notebook and a mess of rubber banded pens sat close by.

Genuinely interested, I hovered a few moments hoping the culprit would soon return so I could inquire about the readings. Seconds later, a man passed hurriedly. Carrying a book and walking towards the table, he sat down, grabbed a pen and began skimming pages. I took a few steps in his direction, thinking, great, here’s my chance, but then stopped myself. His intensity was familiar, and it made me smile, remembering a friend who’d sit for hours strung-out over information the way this man seemed to be.

He was so engrossed in his pursuits that I suddenly didn’t want to infringe upon his time and space with my questions. Then I looked a little closer, recognizing the tell-signs of what I hadn’t at all expected: the dingy, soggy denim jacket and pants, the unwashed hands and fingernails, oily hair, and a tattered and filthy messenger bag sitting near him on the floor. Undeniably, he was homeless but like many other patrons, he sat amidst stacks of books, participating in society as the reader and information gatherer he was.

It’s unique, the central library, a place that’s both neutral and not. In its massive building, homelessness can easily tuck itself away from downtown’s vibrating streets. It’s beautiful architecture, cultural events, and free for all learning and reading environment has a way of auspiciously creating a frosted glass effect against what, in other places, is immediately visible.

What made this somewhat typical visit to the library more significant than others was that after I walked down the corridor away from the man, poked around in the collections I’d selected, then sat them aside to write, a mock fire alarm sounded and all inside had to evacuate the building.

145,000 people are said to visit this library monthly, which is believable given the lines and lines that exited onto the sidewalk that day. The movement was like a common act of herded cattle underlined with a low chatter about the possibilities of whether or not the alarm was real. But soon, the open air gave privy to the impulse of the city.

Conversation grew louder as people became more agitated with waiting to reenter the building. And near the entrance I found myself standing next to a woman engaged in a discussion with whom I initially thought was the person next to her.

But after that person stepped away, it became evident the woman was actually talking to herself. Her words sounded like reminiscences of a relationship she once had. “Remember when we used to do this?” she asked to no one, then began to dance. “Or how about this?” And she danced more, as if performing a choreographed routine.

I backed up to give her some room, thinking that if no one was getting hit by her swinging arms, then she had every right to dance on the sidewalk.

A few laughed, but most enacted their outdoor big-city practices of averting glances and viewing the homeless as little more than fissures in their paths to the subway or a coffee shop. Although really it feels more like an act of negating the fact that the homeless are complete glimpses of the other sides of our coins – visual representations of how fragile, unjust and difficult the human experience can be.

People continued trickling from the building, some carrying all of their belongings, and the mixed crowd grew larger while the woman danced and unearthed the recesses of her mind publically.

I rested against the building, knowing there was nothing to be done in the moment. The nature of this city, like any other metropolitan area, is to take care of itself. It makes amends where possible and lets everything else fall at a juncture between the absurd and the normal. Its gaping economic divides, the homelessness, the outbursts from the mentally ill are just a part of the culture.

The Children's Reading Room in the Los Angeles Central Library has historic murals worth a trip to the library. (Photo courtesy of Kansas Sebastian on Flickr)
The Children’s Reading Room in the Los Angeles Central Library has historic murals worth a trip to the library.
(Photo courtesy of Kansas Sebastian on Flickr)

We were soon allowed to reenter the building. People disappeared behind books and study cubicles as before while other patrons pulled out laptops to connect to the free wifi. We can all go on about our days as normal, but it doesn’t ever change the bottom line: people are in need of shelter, for some, effective medical attention and the ache to be accounted for is real.

I stumbled upon a blogger earlier this month whose post entitled, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts,” attempted to give voice to those who chronically exist within a slim area between poverty and homelessness.

She goes by the name of KillerMartinis, and her rant, although void of context, highlights important personal issues, yet frames them in a daunting argument. She states, “We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn’t give us much reason to improve ourselves…There isn’t much point trying.”

Having dipped in and out of poverty myself, skirting the brink of homelessness more times than I’d like to remember, I was initially infuriated by her post. It gives validation to forfeiting human rights such as self-sufficiency due to a sense of helplessness and arguably unworthiness and was therefore more detrimental in my mind than anything she accomplished with it. Yet, on the other hand, I cannot deny that the post fueled a discussion among the general population, receiving thus far, over 2,000 responses.

So in my attempt to digress, I’ll say that at the very least, it is a forum for people to discuss the issues. But to no surprise, its ongoing conversation is difficult to suss out.

There are varying factors to the epidemic. Not all living in poverty are homeless. Not all who are homeless have diseases or mental illnesses. Overcrowded locations serve as saturated hubs where poverty and homelessness lie within gray areas and can be found in astronomical numbers.

And we can endlessly examine the issues through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of contradictions at the will and mercy of our social services and the systemic despotism and legacy of the US government.

That evening, I left the library like many I suspect, counting my change to see if there was enough to purchase a cup of coffee and catch the two buses needed to get to my temporary place of residence. I thought of what internal fire drives me to where I refuse to accept poverty as a constant and homelessness as a result.

Perhaps, for one of the only times ever, I am speaking from a place of privilege because I believe I still have the agency to make it a choice, and the often devastating layers of dependency and mental illness are not a factor for me.

This is the type of societal positioning that causes the lines of poverty and homelessness to blur. It is never concrete enough to apply to the majority yet is familiar enough to call others’ experiences to mind and therefore is not unique. What can be inimitable is the way we individually cure these situations for ourselves and for others and the messages we send out about such issues.

Not everyone in a state of crises will make it out in their lifetimes and unfortunately some we encounter are so far removed psychologically from “real life” that by default we peg them as lost to us; although it doesn’t mean it’s right or that they aren’t still deserving of having their basic needs met.

However, the man with the stack of books appeared to be a viable nominee for receiving help to re-chart himself as well as the woman dancing, who I speculate could have better days if she received medical care and was given access to proper avenues of self expression.

Los Angeles Metro Gold Line. (Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)
Los Angeles Metro Gold Line.
(Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)

I’m possibly inching towards encouraging a sense of optimism that I might consider completely naïve and impossible once my 30’s are complete and I’m knee deep in the next decade of life. But pushing that “one person at a time, starting with ourselves” idea seems right. What we stand for, the positive and strategic ways we go about finding the resources we need and claiming an attitude that won’t conform to the status quo still has the ability to change and affect something.

It might not magically cause our LA homeless and impoverished community to disappear or conjure the necessary funds to administer services to all in need. However, it will continue to demonstrate that the thinking is possible and by thinking this way, perhaps we can affect someone else’s thinking. And considering that all great occurrences where people were involved started with one idea, who knows, the future state of things could be sooner to change than we expect.