Tuesday, January 31, 2017

people under pressure

1. when in doubt

I signed up to help with the Homeless Count because I have house guilt. (I’m also working on a story about homelessness in L.A. for Razorcake, because what is more DIY than building your own makeshift shelter?) As we’ve settled into our new place, the streets of Highland Park and Chinatown have filled with motor homes like the one my family camped in when I was a kid. It’s like a post-apocalyptic time capsule. Meanwhile my middle-class friends struggle to pay rent on tiny apartments, and a not-small percentage of staff and clients at Homeboy commute from Palmdale. It’s safe to say L.A.—despite all its blue-state benefits—has a housing crisis.

Glamping?
After watching two online training videos, I arrive at W.O.R.K.S., an affordable housing organization in Highland Park. I actually emailed them a while back to volunteer, but I never heard back. Ah, nonprofits. W.O.R.K.S. will be the starting point for counting NELA census tracts. I see my former neighbors, Micah and Saskia, at the other end of the table, and an old friend of AK’s named Barbra.

We watch the training videos again. I’d imagined approaching apparently homeless people and explaining the project, but we learn that this is a “visual count” only. It’s pretty simple: If you see a person who looks homeless, a car or camper that’s being used as a home, or a boxes-and-shopping-carts-type shelter, put a tally mark on a clipboard. Every group will have a driver, a navigator, a tally keeper and counters.

A man in a bright yellow vest announces that he needs six or seven able-bodied people to tackle some tracts that are likely to have high numbers of homeless people. I volunteer; so do Micah, Saskia and Barbra. Saskia later says she thinks her faux leopard coat scared the guy away; he doesn’t pick her or Micah.

The man with the yellow vest seems like some sort of authority, but soon we’re handed yellow vests too. His name is Erik, and he’s a civil engineer with the county parks system, as is our navigator, Eddie. Erik participated in counts in other neighborhoods earlier in the week, and he sees himself as an expert. He says “vehicle” instead of “car.” When we debate whether a given person is homeless or just kicking it on the sidewalk outside CVS, he announces “Remember, this is a visual count. We have to make our best guess.” Later he shortens this to a near rhyme: “When in doubt, count.”

The four tracts we cover comprise my commute to work, exactly: from Highland Park through Lincoln Heights, culminating in Chinatown. In true Angeleno style, there is no actual walking involved in our supposedly walking-intensive trip. We just weave through neighborhoods at a creeper’s pace (nothing suspicious about a big white van inching down the street at five miles per hour), talking, swinging our flashlights into parked cars and snacking on Chinese New Year candies that resemble miniature empanadas.

2. unintentional community

In addition to Erik, Eddie, Barbra and myself, we are: another Eddy—this one with a Y—and his wife, a high school principal; an attorney who has three children under six (HOW DOES SHE HAVE TIME TO VOLUNTEER?); and an older guy named Dan.

Almost immediately we see a guy sitting cross-legged beneath a lamppost near a gas station, smoking and making funny gestures with his hands. There’s an uncomfortable I-caught-a-fish feeling to the endeavor. I’m weirdly grateful that I wasn’t assigned to count, like, Beverly Hills. There are a few others like him throughout the night, but what becomes immediately, painfully obvious as we make our way down residential streets is this: A hell of a lot of people are living in cars.


It’s not just the putty-spackled motor homes, which stand out like turtles in a city of rabbits. It’s mini vans with curtains hung in back windows. Sedans with tilted seats waiting for sleepers. Hatchbacks packed with junk. It seems there are one or two on every block.

The houses here, in L.A.’s first suburb, are delicate Victorians and bungalows. The alleys are marked with tags from the Avenues and Dogtown. The businesses: Bi-Rite, a mysteriously lifeless drugstore; Jaime Caro, the guy who did my taxes up until last year; and Razzle Razzle Razzle, a bright clothing store full of H&M knockoffs.

How much do you want to bet they keep the sign and reopen as a hipster bisexual bar?
“Wow, they didn’t have anything like that when I lived here,” said Barbra, as if Razzle Razzle Razzle were Tiffany & Co.

We roll down Sichel, the street where she lived for eight years and where AK lived for three, in an “intentional community” (it’s a vaguely Christian thing) of young adults. One of their cohort, Meg, is now working as L.A.’s Homeless Czar.

The count doesn’t cover people who are crashing on friends’ couches or living in motels or sleeping in shifts in shared rooms. I met a Homeboy trainee who told me that he and his girlfriend once lived in an apartment with no running water, for which they paid $400 a month.

I get a text from a number I don’t recognize: How is your count going? All ok?

I bricked my phone a couple of months ago and am still gathering the numbers I lost. I assume the sender is Micah or Saskia, and I reply: It’s interesting. Lots of car shelters. No walking yet. Our driver is kinda bossy; I think he secretly dreamed of being a cop. How’s yours?

When I don’t get a reply, I realize the text was actually from Francesca, our site supervisor, who collected all our numbers. I hope she won’t rat me out to Erik.

Erik tells us about the time his Chinese grandmother tried to arrange a marriage for him, when he was sixteen. He refused, but he wiggles his ring-less hand for us now and says “I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for it.”

There is a sandwich-and-beer shop next to Bi-Rite called The Heights. The font and color scheme (red, brown and baby blue) all but announce Hi, we are here to gentrify! Lincoln Heights is being squeezed by a gentrification sandwich, between Downtown and Highland Park. It’s resisted this long mostly because it’s a tough neighborhood, I think. Maybe that resistance will turn intentional, like in Boyle Heights.

It looks kind of great, actually. That's how they get you!
Barbra points out a pale yellow building with an arched entryway. “It used to be a crematorium, but it was remodeled into expensive lofts.”

3. putting the grief in machtergreifung

This week my anxiety about Trump’s executive-order rampage reached a tipping point. All my coping mechanisms are dusting themselves off and preparing for battle. It’s disturbing and righteous. I spent my therapy session yesterday crying to my German therapist, who assured me that the Weimar Republic was a young, unstable government with a shaky economy. I felt mildly comforted; then I read about a rumored anti-LGBT order coming down the pipeline, which would deny federal funding to foster care agencies that place kids with queer couples.

As you can imagine if you know me, that pushed every button I have. I bought eggs and milk from the little Persian market next to my therapist’s office and wondered if the checker had relatives detained at LAX. I wanted to hug her, which would be obnoxious and presumptive, but there it is.

Heart of the beast.
Driving home, I felt almost like something physical was rearing up in me. A kind of…pregnancy, you might say, except my baby is an immense beast made of claws and duct tape and a beating red heart. It is ready. It has been through some shit before, and it knows what to do: how to act and compartmentalize, how to beat back its inner scaredy cat, the one who might choose safety over morality. It knows how to fight and rest and love, and do it all over again the next day.

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