Late one morning I was sitting in Joey’s, my favorite WeHo diner, waiting for Pedro to deliver the huevos rancheros to my table. The door opened and in walked a disheveled man, his face dirty, the scruff on his face not as neatly groomed as that of WeHo’s stylish gay men. He was carrying a blanket over his shoulder.
“I’m sorry sir, but you’ll have to leave,” said one of the staff members.
“But I want to buy a cup of coffee,” the man said, putting an emphasis on the word “buy.”
“I’m sorry sir, but you’ll have to leave,” the staffer repeated, stepping forward to escort the man out the door.
It happened quickly, and at first I felt ashamed for not having stepped forward and offered to buy the man a cup of coffee myself. But then I realized that being able to pay for the coffee wasn’t the issue. The issue was that my favorite diner didn’t want a man who looked to be homeless inside its door.
That happened about two years ago, when there were modest rumbles about homeless people on the streets of West Hollywood. Now those rumbles have become a roar.
That roar became even louder last month when an apparently homeless man attacked another man with a hatchet at the 7-Eleven convenience store on Santa Monica Boulevard at Havenhurst. The hatchet attack was even more upsetting because the man who was attacked apparently had offered to buy food for the hatchet carrier as he was trying to steal it from 7-Eleven.
The man with the hatchet had been filmed earlier driving a red car and at one point apparently had lived in an apartment in West Hollywood. He had a long criminal record in Riverside County yet once was one of those people who, like most of us, could afford a car and, apparently, an apartment in West Hollywood.
Since that attack WeHo residents have demanded the city act more forcefully, with some calling for homeless people to be rounded up and carried away and others calling for seizure of their limited belongings, typically stored in shopping carts or black plastic trash bags.
The uproar has gotten over-the-top dramatic. Someone reading comments on WEHOville or attending city government meetings might be left with the impression that there are hundreds of homeless people in our little town, happily defecating on our sidewalks, busting through our front yard fences, shouting threats and obscenities and littering our sidewalks by sleeping on them. One especially dramatic local resident claims the sidewalks on Santa Monica Boulevard from San Vicente to Doheny are “black” because of homeless people. That’s in sharp contrast, he says, to the gleaming white sidewalks of adjacent Beverly Hills.
Two of our supposedly progressive City Council members, John D’Amico and John Duran, recently advocated sweeping the homeless off our sidewalks and taking away their belongings. “They say a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Well I’m feeling like West Hollywood is about to tilt to be less compassionate if we don’t figure out ways to intervene,” said Duran, who pushed for removing the shopping carts in which the homeless keep their belongings. D’Amico took a shot at what he called “progressive liberals … eating lunch at Kitchen 24” that might give money to homeless people and attract more of them here.
There’s no question that some of what West Hollywood residents complain about is happening. Readers have sent WEHOville a couple of photos of people defecating or urinating on sidewalks. Personally, I have seen only dogs defecating and urinating on WeHo’s sidewalks — a daily occurrence — and their “guardians” don’t always clean that up. (And where would you defecate when you don’t have access to a toilet?) There are claims that our sidewalks reek of urine, which are made by people who apparently have never been in Manhattan in hot and humid August. (I must confess, as an ex-New Yorker, I don’t smell urine anywhere in West Hollywood outside my bathroom.)
There have been some, but relatively few, incidents of actual physical violence by homeless people. However, other than the hatchet incident, the really dramatic attacks in and around West Hollywood have come from affluent people killing their girlfriends and boyfriends and themselves. And then there are the weekly armed robberies, where the crooks, apparently strangers driving from out of town, get away with a cell phone or wallet. Finally, it is true that most if not all of the homeless on our streets aren’t well-groomed, aren’t wearing well-pressed and clean clothes and neatly shined shoes and clearly haven’t had their makeup done.
So what is our real problem with homeless people on the sidewalks of West Hollywood?
Is it that we, residents of what we brag is an incredibly progressive city, are upset because we see homeless people suffering, some apparently from a mental illness, others from addiction, and all from poverty?
Or are we upset because we don’t like to look at them with their dirty hair and shoeless feet and shopping carts packed with garbage bags full of what they see as something of value and we see as only trash?
Sadly, I’d say it’s the latter. That’s based on what I hear from most of those West Hollywood residents (and two of the City Council members) who speak out about homelessness. My belief is reinforced by a study titled “Discrimination and well-being amongst the homeless,” published in 2015 in “Frontiers in Psychology,” a journal of peer-reviewed research, that explains why we humans act like we do.
“ … Despite the fact that individuals who are homeless are perceived as struggling and in need of care and compassion … , there is also evidence that homeless individuals are not perceived as fully human … ,” the study says.
“Research has shown that homeless people as a group are seen as neither competent nor warm, and thus form ‘the lowest of the low’ …. This elicits the worst kind of prejudice – disgust and contempt – and can make people functionally equivalent to objects … . This further enhances the perceived legitimacy of negative treatment against the homeless and, in turn, further compromises an individual’s ability to cope with discrimination.”
As someone who struggled to come to terms with his own homosexuality in North Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, that description of how homeless people are viewed brings up painful memories of how LGBT people and black people were viewed in the city I grew up in. Fayetteville did a thorough job of hiding the gays and segregating the blacks (the Sears “Bathroom for Colored Ladies” and forcing black people to sit only on the movie theater balcony to cite two examples.)
So, am I saying that West Hollywood should just welcome more homeless people to our sidewalks? Of course not. I am saying that this is an incredibly complex county-wide issue that cannot be solved by WeHo alone, and that kicking people off the sidewalk and making them even more uncomfortable while here is not a solution.
The City of West Hollywood and the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station already are working with independent service providers to do what they can. We have chronicled some of those efforts, such as the walks through WeHo by the LA LGBT Center’s Jake Weinraub to deliver granola bars, condoms, water and socks to homeless people and help connect them to services. Then there’s the work down by WeHo residents Rick Watts and Lee Walkup to deliver meals to the homeless at Christmas. But there’s more that we, the residents of West Hollywood, can do. We can push for public toilets and hand-washing stations, proven to be the best defense against the spread of Hepatitis A (a disease that rich and Republican Orange County will be dealing with soon now that it has removed such facilities.) We can push for regular tours of the Lava Mae bus that roams Los Angeles to provide showers to the homeless there, just as AHF’s van provides free HIV tests to gay men on WeHo’s Santa Monica Boulevard on weekend nights. Maybe we also can find a way to lure to WeHo the sort of laundry truck that serves the homeless in Denver or the mobile barber shop that does the same in Brisbane, Australia.
We also can learn how to interact with the people who live and sleep on our sidewalks so that we can welcome them back into society. There are risks in dealing with people who are mentally ill, whether they are homeless or a member of your family. But there are ways to do that smartly and safely that are described by Craig Mayes, CEO of the New York City Rescue Mission in an article you can find here.
Finally, those who view the homeless with prejudice and disgust should think about the principles upon which West Hollywood was founded. If those principles of acceptance and support aren’t something you feel comfortable with, well, I hear there’s lots of real estate for sale in Beverly Hills (whose sidewalks are said to be “whiter” than those of West Hollywood if that’s what matters to you.)