Updated: Dec 8, 2021
Photo by Samuel Braslow for Los Angeles Magazine. (Please click on the photo for a link to an article on Veterans Row)
Just a few weeks ago, I happened to take a Lyft ride; I was on my way to a now considerably rare visit with some friends who recently moved into a new home. On my lap was my housewarming gift, a freshly baked apple pie with a very handmade lattice top. The cinnamon and sugar wafted through the air; the pie was an immediate conversation starter with my Lyft driver. We animated what we had planned for the day and our random thoughts about the world through our literally masked words. On a side note: if you haven't tried to have the most random conversations on a Lyft or Uber drive, I highly recommend it. Drivers tend to have unique stories and perspectives about their community experiences. I have had some fascinating car conversations about how people view themselves, what matters to people, the places people are going, and the relationships people value.
With that in mind and in the tradition of spontaneous conversations, I asked my driver about their view on Proposition 22. However, this conversation was abruptly interrupted by the lines of tents (informally known as Veterans Row) scattered with U.S. flags outside the West LA Veterans Center off San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood. Viewing tent after tent decorated with Red, White, and Blue demanded a fall of silence.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread, Los Angeles county was already notorious for its relentlessly growing homeless population. With the pandemic still shutting down a large portion of the economy, evictions have become widespread- increasing the homeless population.
A recent Bloomberg article on the homelessness in Los Angeles county stood out to me; it covered two opposing views, the "real city" versus "tent city."
The "real city" view covered how residence and land developers fear the homeless ruining their hard work to keep them away from their financial successes:
"They say sprawling homeless encampments threaten residents, workers, visitors and the homeless themselves with hazardous waste, disease, and crime and could reverse 20 years of progress."
Then you have non-for-profit organizations, policymakers, and government officials protecting the values of human decency:
"The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a ruling that cities can't outlaw such encampments if no other shelter is available, given the Constitution's ban on cruel and u
nusual punishments (Pettersson)."
The U.S. Supreme Court's decision is an incredible breakthrough. Having a safe place to belong to is vital to protecting the value of life and communities' dignity.
Of the homeless encampments, we have thousands of people who have served our country and no longer have a home.
After a few moments of continued silence, my Lyft driver says, "you know I am a veteran that used to be homeless a couple of months ago." He continued to talk about all the unforeseen events that led to his experience of homelessness. He pointed to the entry and exit of two bullet scars on the back of his head.
His explanation was riveting; he came back home safely from a career overseas with no injuries only to be randomly gunned down while walking home. He talked about his miraculous recovery and then his overshadowing battle with pain killers and crippling medical bills. Because of pain killers' addictiveness and his traumatic situation, he eventually lost his job, marriage, and house while caring for four young daughters. The weight of his story carried through when he described how he turned his life around. He said that he was utterly lost but knew he had to pull through.
One of the challenges he mentioned was that although he had a car, he could not park it given current city laws. He expressed the difficulty of explaining to his family that their options were limited to living in a tent until he could figure out a long-term financial solution. Although he found a new job, it was not enough to cover the lifestyle he once provided for his family. To save money, he buckled down and lived in a tent. He suppressed his pride, got a job, and saved up money to pay for his daughters and ex-wife to live with other family members. He spoke about the relief he felt after finding programs that helped him find safe parking, success with recovery, and how having a car he owned was his ticket to getting his life back. Having a car gave him a sense of dignity; it allowed him to become a Lyft driver, keep his daughters in school, and financially provide for his family.
The Los Angeles Times reported today (11/11/2020):
“In L.A., more than 2,800 homeless veterans were housed last year. Yet their total numbers stayed flat. That's because veterans are becoming homeless as fast as they're being housed. Homeless veterans, of course, face many of the same issues as other homeless people on the street.”
When we think about the circumstances that lead to homelessness, it’s far too easy to rationalize it as an individual’s inability to manage money or hold a job. The reality, in fact, is far more concerning. In a recent story NBC covered the vulnerabilities of every person living in America today stating, ‘One in three households were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic hit. More than forty percent do not have the savings to cover an unexpected bill of just 400 dollars (Iacurci & Nova).’
Take a moment to process that figure- Nearly 132.5 million people are one financial setback away from the reality of not having a roof over their head. My Lyft driver and I agreed that seeing American Flags on tents wakes America up! It reminds people that the homeless have meaningful identities within all our communities outside of being homeless.
The conversation with my Lyft driver made me realize that everyone in Los Angeles County, including the Santa Clarita Valley, has a high probability of becoming homeless with an unexpected life event. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that "the odds of a person in the general U.S. population of experiencing homelessness in the course of a year are 1 in 194. For an individual... double up; the odds are 1 in 12. For a released prisoner, they are 1 in 13. For a young adult who has aged out of foster care, they are 1 in 11."
For a contrasting view, people enthusiastically hope to win the lottery every day, but the probability of becoming homeless is 72,082 times more likely. To win the lottery, the odds are 1 in 13,983,816. Yet, millions of Americans invest in lottery tickets every month for even the smallest chance that they will win big. A common phenomenon happens after purchasing a lottery ticket. A person will visualize, imagine, and mentally prepare themselves for being a lucky winner. People are willing to bet on something positive even if the odds are terribly low; however, it is considered taboo to mentally prepare yourself for homelessness even if the odds are painstakingly high.
When we consider homelessness solutions, we should consider that getting unstuck is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. The COC Place Project has partnered with community policy leaders within the Santa Clarita Valley, such as Peggy Edwards and Jonathan Ahmadi. They have pointed out that once a person is homeless, their risk of staying homeless drastically increases day by day. This is one of the various reasons why fearing and ignoring "tent city" is not a viable solution.
By the end of this upcoming Holiday Season, the COC Place Project is working with our community partners to ensure safe parking in Santa Clarita and finding housing for as many financially vulnerable individuals and families as possible.
To my veteran Lyft driver, thank you for sharing your story and for your dedicated service to the country and various communities.
Veteran’s Row is a reminder of the importance of having a safe place to sleep, that having a place to live increases a person's odds of getting a job, reuniting with family, and finding a permanent home.
If you are a landlord or know of anyone who is willing to work with the COC Place Project, please reach out and send us a message through our website.
By: Helena Oda
Edvard Pettersson, “For Developers Downtown LA is Now Real City and Tent City” Bloomberg, 17 Dec. 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-12-17/for-developers-downtown-l-a-is-now-real-city-and-tent-city.
Greg Iacurci, Annie Nova. “They Lived Paycheck to Paycheck before the Pandemic. Then Their Worst Nightmare Came True.” CNBC, CNBC, 8 Nov. 2020, www.cnbc.com/2020/11/07/they-lived-paycheck-to-paycheck-then-the-pandemic-hit-.html.
Helena Oda is a second-year honors student at College of Canyons pursuing an associate degree in business administration with plans of transferring to a four-year University to obtain a bachelor’s in business economics. Her goals are to incorporate her passion for film and economics to better serve local communities and advocate for fundamental resources.