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I was walking down the street on this fine Sunday morning on my way to get my daily iced green tea from Starbucks, a luxury I truly enjoy. I live in Santa Monica CA., not such a terrible place to live save the fact that it’s become increasingly overpopulated and highly commercialized. I assume this is due to the money grubbing politicians and general culture of greed we live in. I don’t even mind the plethora of homeless that reside in Santa Monica and there are an abundance of them, but it seems the cave dwellers tend to be more of a problem than the homeless have ever been. Santa Monica homeless tend to differ from the crazy Hollywood homeless population in that they are generally more respectful and far less confrontational than the average resident or over-privileged, self-entitled trust fund baby, of which there are many. Most homeless I find are caught in that downward spiral of bad choices, bad luck, bad timing or any combination of that can greatly contribute to their continued homelessness. I know that feeling I’ve been there. Others are the socially disenfranchised, alienated veterans and working poor we never talk about much less like to think about and we all hope to never become. When you’re down it’s not easy to get back up and a downward spiral tends to slide a lot quicker than the climb to upward mobility does.
One of the many things I do enjoy about living here is that the police officers, a profession I admittedly no fan of, are a pretty decent bunch of people. A far cry from their LAPD cousins. Something I attribute to the cities high standards, recruitment practices and general refusal to hire thugs. There‘s already enough in the street. From everything I’ve seen they’re generally a friendly, decent and fair minded bunch with most of the populous. As well they are exceptionally capable with the homeless population who on seem to respond well to their kid glove handling and conflict resolution skills, no easy task. In short, they treat them as human beings and not the outcasts much of the regular citizenry does.
Now it’s no big secret there is no love lost between me and cops, I’ve seen my fair share of jail cells, but even I brag on the caliber of police officer they hire in this city. From all that I can surmise there seems to be an unwritten rule that if you are homeless law enforcement will turn a blind eye, allowing you can sleep where you need to at night as long as one is not on trespassing on private property, not obstructing others property rights or right of way and not laying naked in the park or on the beach. Those things aside general common sense should prevail. There are a lot of tourism dollars the city on a daily basis and the city and its residents depend upon them, so understandably come dawn one also needs to be awake and moving around and not laying in the park or on a street corner. There seems to be a generous amount social services available to the homeless population here in Santa Monica.
A few blocks away from my house on busy Wilshire Blvd. I noticed a patrol car pulled over on a corner, the light bar flashing as an officer crouched over the hood of the patrol car writing a report. I stopped suddenly a few feet away when I saw that next to him on a bus stop bench appeared to be an elderly homeless man gracefully slumped over not moving. I am no stranger to homeless people but this was different. The man’s eyes were shut, his head tilted to the left supported by his shoulder. He wore thin plastic kitchen gloves on is hands as one arm lay resting across his chest while the other dangled off the bench to his side a blanket draped over his shoulders like a cape. His legs spread eagle out wide in front of him and the soles of his shoes nothing more than flaps of burnt rubber. His hair was matted, face dirty and clothing tattered. I was fairly certain he was dead.
It wasn’t the first time I was witness to a freshly lifeless body. In fact I have seen several, a few in similar condition as the elderly homeless man. I will be the first to admit by nature of my life experiences I am somewhat jaded, emotionally detached, at times lack empathy and can be somewhat aloof. Yet this scene struck a chord in me. It dug in deep forcing me to think and to confront my feelings. My first thought was, who was this man? How did he end up here on this bench and why? And where were the people who were supposed to love and care for him. The whole experience made me ache deep inside. Not at all in a sickened sense but instead in a sense of sadness and even anger at a society that would allow this to happen. One that will allow our women to be abused and our children to go hungry. I contemplated all that had gone on in this old man’s life, what he had experienced. Was he a veteran? Had he once had a normal life, a wife and children? I wondered about the things that had gone well in his life and those things that had not. Clearly things had not ended well.
As I previously stated, I am not stranger to homelessness. Coming from a rather large extended family I grew up seeing its devastating effects with several family members as a result of mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction. To no fault of his own my little brother spent many years on and off living on the street homeless because of a severe mental illness called Paranoia Schizophrenia. My mother spent time homeless, sleeping in shelters and on subway trains because of her own bouts with mental illness. I myself on a few occasions in years past have come close to being homeless but was fortunate to have the social resources to be able to couch surf. My flirt with homelessness and financial bouts were more a result of the bad choices I consciously made in my younger life and not because the lack of options or illness those I loved had. Admittedly I have never been brave enough to endure homelessness so I chose the weaker s not something we can afford to do.
Too many times I have been as guilty as anyone in having walked right by a homeless person as if they were not even there. Yet my personal experiences have taught me how to put a face on others, how to show a bit of humanity wherever I can. I do not claim to be out in the street handing out silver coins to all the homeless and I’m not out searching for my own piece to the cross to carry. In fact, I am very choosey on whom I share my hard earned money with, but what I do try to do is politely acknowledge those who do ask for change even if I have none to give. All anyone wants to be is acknowledged, to have a little sense of dignity and reminded by others that they are worthwhile too. We owe each other that much.
There is that segment of those in America today who truly believe that not everyone is entitled to food, shelter and medical care. They are the same people who feel they are entitled by some God given right to more than the rest of society. It is these people who I rail against and have no empathy for. It is these people who have the false belief they have worked harder than everyone else therefore should not only get more but be allowed to decide what everyone else gets. The truth is the case is usually that they have only managed to get where they are by manipulating the system and using others to get what they want. They live off of the blood, sweat and hard work of others.
I watched and waited for the man to move, he didn’t. The police officer finished his report just as another officer arrived on the scene. Not wanting to draw attention to myself I moved on down the street and about my business. I didn’t care to be around when the ambulance arrived to take the elderly man’s body away. That would serve no purpose for me to stay to see that so I turned the corner at the end of the street and kept on going. However the thought of the old homeless man never left my mind.
About a half an hour passed by and I headed back home from my errands. I knew I would have to pass by where the elderly homeless man on the bench had been again. As I walked I retraced the steps I took to get where I was in both my walk and my road in life. Aware I was only about a mile from home I knew that in the journey in my mind it was going to be a long walk home.
As I turned the corner I immediately saw that the patrol car was still parked exactly where it had been when I first passed by. The elderly homeless man still lay in the same position on bench. To my bewilderment there was no sign of an ambulance, paramedic or medical assistance anywhere at the scene. Just the police officers and elderly man slumped over on the bench. As I drew closer to them one officer walked over toward the lifeless body now shielded from my view by his position. I stopped in my tracks unsure what to expect. I couldn’t imagine that it would have taken them the entire time I was gone to remove his body from the bench.
The officer standing over the man motioned over to the other officer and said something I could not make out. Suddenly and without warning, the elderly homeless man leaped from where he lay slumped over and onto his feet. The police officers didn’t flinch. He stood face to face with them, waved in slow motion and flashed a big toothless grin and giggled like a school girl. Then he spryly turned and hobbled down the street giggling to himself. The officers shook their heads and could not help but laugh as they got into their patrol car and drove off.
Me, I could only smile and let out a laugh more relief than humor. That old homeless man had done to me what I so often do to others, say or do something to make people think, to elicit a thought or emotion.
The thought of his sad demise had reminded me how short and precious life really is. It reminded me of what really matters and what really does not. It reaffirmed my resolve to try and be consistent in my actions and check my motives and to remind those I love that I do love and value them and to treat others as I would wish my loved ones to be treated.
Most homeless don’t want your pity, they desire only a decent meal to eat and a warm place to sleep at night. Just as you and I, they too were once children and most likely had a place to call home at one time. They just want to be home again. For me it’s been a long walk home.