Friday, January 8, 2016

Shelter in a (and another and another) storm

   “Seeing that he was okay, she went on her way.  Soon after, the running water had crashed the curb and began spilling across the sidewalk and into Lopez’s encampment.”
   It has been raining a lot.  At least for Southern California.  (My friend visiting from Vermont chuckled over how people here are alarmed about the inclement weather.) So far, so good – the great El Nino, with its promise of much-needed precipitation, appears to be panning out and like clockwork, with these first big storms coming in early January.
   One recent morning, I went on my weekly marketing trip.  It was raining a bit, more like a heavy sprinkling.  Nothing like the downpour that I looked out my living room windows at a few hours later, lasting much of the afternoon. I was lucky. 
   Yes, I am lucky.  Not only did I get out when the rain wasn’t too bad, I have a nice living room from which I can watch the rain, whether it’s a heavy sprinkle or a drenching downpour. 
   At least, I’m not like Felipe Flores Lopez, who Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about during the first week of El Nino storms.  The columnist visited Mr. Lopez after a nun e-mailed him about the homeless man’s set-up under a bridge: “Hi, I photographed this fellow. His little ‘home’ is unbelievable.  Attached are photos.”
   One can raise questions, as I certainly can, about whether this is romanticizing homelessness, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it.  In any case, Mr.  Lopez did have quite a set-up, complete with table and chairs, cupboards and a double bed with a box spring and mattress and a clean white comforter. On top of his dresser sat a little Christmas tree with red decorations. 
   It was quite a set-up, except when it wasn’t, except when, during the columnist’s visit, the rain came and washed it all away.  There is a dramatic photograph accompanying the column of Mr.  Lopez climbing atop his bed, trying to keep it from floating away.
   In a sense, Mr. Lopez was/is lucky.  He was crafty and scrappy enough to put together “his little ‘home.’” And he told the columnist that he knew a place where he could build a new camp that wouldn’t get washed out.   But he is only one of 44,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. 
   It is said that this is the capitol of homelessness, with the country’s most homeless people, largely because of – ironically now – the mild weather.  Many, unlike Mr. Lopez, are mentally ill or disabled, and many have severe substance abuse issues. 
   Also, as discussed in an adjacent news article, many are stubborn and don’t want to leave their encampments, even with dire warnings and threats of flooding, etc. There are numerous reasons for this – they don’t want to lose a pet, they want to keep their possessions where they are, they don’t like the rules and regimen in a shelter, etc.  There is also pride.  When Steve Lopez offered to buy him lunch, Mr.  Lopez not only declined but, “[a]s the rains picked up and the water rose, he whipped up a fine meal or burritos and set glasses of water on the kitchen table.”
   What are we to make of all this?  How do we deal with all these folks living in such a dire, unsafe and unhealthy situation, even as local and state officials scramble and argue and contradict each other over what to do?  After a woman saw Mr.  Lopez get flooded out, she gave him a dry jacket.  But how many of us are like the woman who, before the rain got bad, “[s]eeing that he was OK…went on her way?”
   How many of us go on our way when we see the homeless out on the street? 
   And I am totally against laws against camping, sleeping in public – laws that criminalize homelessness.  But, when all else fails, when push comes to shove, doesn’t being in a jail cell with meals – if such was available - for a night or for a day or two sound better than being left out in a storm? 

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