Helter Skelter Street: LA’s specter of homelessness
Helter Skelter Street is a metaphor of the pandemic that is homelessness in America. In Los Angeles County, alone, the homeless figure is 50,000 to 60,000. Some estimates put the number of men, women, and
Helter Skelter Street is a metaphor of the pandemic that is homelessness in America. In Los Angeles County, alone, the homeless figure is 50,000 to 60,000. Some estimates put the number of men, women, and children on the street as high as 100,000. Black Americans comprise the largest racial group at 34 percent.
Helter Skelter Street: The ever-growing specter of homelessness ravaging Los Angeles County
LOS ANGELES — Helter Skelter Street is a starkly unforgiving specter lurking amid the thoroughfares of L.A. County predating the human scape, seeking to remand evermore men, women, and children to the hard, virulent streets stripped of shelter, food, and clothing.
Helter Skelter Street is a metaphor of the bourgeoning fraternity of the homeless in the county. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), an agency of the City of Los Angeles, estimates the figure to be 50,000 to 60,000, including children, stumbling onto Helter Skelter Street through social missteps and random misfortune. Other agencies establish the number at closer to 100,000 persons.
The realization that most people are a single paycheck removed from Helter Skelter Street is a stark reminder of how slippery a slope the homeless malady remains. There are many able and capable souls among the disheveled throngs that ended up there through overpowering circumstances.
I experienced this personally. Through a series of misfortunes that quickly spiraled out of control, I ended up with a street-level view of Helter Skelter Street that changed my perceptions of homelessness forever.
Rising rental rates in areas of the county without rent control forced many families on Helter Skelter Street. Escalating rents competing with other priorities like car notes, automobile insurance, life insurance, utility bills, kids clothing, and food with job salaries lagging behind inflation, devastated family budgets. In many cases, some priorities went ignored.
MY PARTICULAR TROUBLES involved government bullying from the Social Security Administration. The agency contacted me in June 2018 to notify me of an overpayment of retirement benefits – money that I earned over the course of more than 50 years in the job market. Adding to my consternation was the fact that the so-called error was no fault of my own as the SSA determines a retirees’ cumulative award at age 66.
The agency sent a letter informing me of the overpayment amount as it related to nominal social security disability benefits paid over 18 months for a stroke suffered in 2018, and the time period in which it was paid, ordering restitution. Ironically, the SSA routinely makes the same error with thousands of retirees each year. SSA’s justification was, “We incorrectly figure your benefits because of incorrect or incomplete information.”
That excuse was questionable and offered without an itemized appraisal, but little did that matter. SSA’s subjective determination was going to stand. They gave me a choice to make restitution — monthly payment plan or a one-time remittal. The amount of overpayment was for thousands. A single payment was impossible, as it would have left me destitute, unable to meet my financial obligations and provide care for my 18-year-old daughter.
The SSA urged me to make arrangements online. The dilemma was too serious to leave it to an online transaction. I sought live phone interaction with an SSA account representative. Anyone who has attempted to phone-in to the Social Security Administration knows how nearly impossible it is to reach a live person, which can take hours. I was determined to speak with someone. Following a marathon three-hour wait on hold during a Monday afternoon in June this year, alas, a live woman’s voice crackled in the receiver.
I informed her I wanted to make financial arrangements for an overpayment at $100 per month. She agreed and after pulling up my file, I assumed she updated the information reflecting my request. I should have notated her name. Later in June, I received a second letter from the SSA, which completely dismissed my conversation with the SSA agent. The letter informed me that the Social Security Administration decided to withhold the entire amount of the overpayment over four payment periods because I had not made payment arrangements with them. The error belonged to the Social Security Administration. I had been dutiful in negotiating a payment structure.
It was my word against U.S. government bureaucracy. Two weeks later on July 3, the SSA withheld my entire retirement benefit. My next remuneration would not be until November 2018. The payments were withheld on the third of each month from July through October. I attempted to reverse the action to no avail.
That created a financial conundrum for me, and though I managed to pay the $ 1,850-month’s rent; the payments were tardy, but never more than two weeks and compounded by $185 late penalties. Prior to that difficult period, I was only late remitting the rent once in four years.
Despite my excellent payment history, NHG Properties, LLC, the property manager, sought to evict me and my daughter. My wife, suffering from multiple sclerosis, was confined to an acute nursing facility at the time and thus was secure. But, operating a business coupled with my daughter’s plans to enter her freshman year at the University of California at Davis, were in serious jeopardy with a pending eviction, which would wipe out any semblance of stability.
I appealed to Norma Streams, the principal at NHG Properties, who passed the buck to the real estate owner. Two weeks late on the June rent payment, I had cash in hand and told Streams that it could be delivered to her a day later. She said she was going on vacation the following day, and that the owner “wanted a tenant who could pay the rent on time.” I explained my financial predicament, but she countered with, “The owner would refuse it anyway” because it was too late. I told her I had been a responsible tenant for four years that my record should account for something.
I asked for the property owner’s name and she balked. That’s when I realized Streams was a cold, heartless soul governed by greed, looking to dump my daughter and me onto the unforgiving street, forcing two more hapless individuals to the fraternity of the homeless. There was no good reason to follow through with the eviction, other than to rent the unit to another family which would pay a much higher premium than $1,850 in the rapidly gentrifying city of Inglewood where rent control is non-existent.
A little checking produced the owner’s identity, a realtor named Leonard Green, Jr. I sent both Green and Streams the following letter, hoping to persuade them to pass on what would serve nothing but cruel and unnecessary punishment. I wasn’t a criminal and didn’t deserve to be punished.
Herewith is the letter:
Jul 25, 2018,
To: Norma Streams and Leonard Green, Jr.
NHG Properties, LLC
I send you this correspondence to appeal to your heart, humanity, and sense of reason. In lieu of the eviction you seek, to carry through with the mandate will serve not only to dislodge the occupants from 559 Hyde Park Pl., Unit No. 4, but will also devastate us at this time, as we are on the cusp of some very important milestones: First, my daughter, Jaslyn, 18, is set to enter the University of California, Davis, in the fall on a partial four-year academic scholarship. An eviction will alter this indefinitely, as a secure place to live is vital to stability.
Secondly, I own comptonherald.org, a digital newspaper serving a readership of 100,000 per month in Southeast Los Angeles County. Since the business is home-based, an eviction will cause irreparable harm. I would have to break down my network for an indefinite period of time, putting me offline just as recent lucrative advertising contracts have been signed and set in motion. The result: Significant revenue to the business will be imperiled.
In addition, I would be unable to conduct the daily business of writing and editing the newspaper – which receives hundreds of press releases per month – and would essentially be inoperative for an unknown period of time.
Additionally, an eviction would forestall the publishment of two books scheduled for the fall – an effort that has required years of work and research, now on the cusp of a seminal achievement. An eviction at this time would derail this, as well.
The unlawful detainer by NHG Properties, LLC, due to my tardiness in remitting the rent is rooted to extenuating circumstances beyond my power to control. While I have been late, I have managed to make the payments. Even now, I possess the cash to pay June and July’s rent, including late fees. That would bring matters current and I would still be able to pay the August rent before the Aug. 3 deadline.
My family has lived at this property for nearly four years and I have demonstrated an excellent track record of timely monthly rent payments. While I own and operate a media enterprise, I also receive retirement benefits from the Social Security Administration that augment my income. Unfortunately, SSA has stalled payments the past months while they correct a payment issue, through no fault of my own. This resulted in the calamity with my finances resulting in the tardy rent payments. Revenue from the Compton Herald in the form of advertising generally requires 60 days to pay and herein is the problem.
The problem: By then my family will have been evicted. That will be devastating. I take no issue with your right to eviction. I understand that even in view of the issues that fomented my financial issues, legally, NHG Properties, LLC is within its right to evict.
I only seek a fresh opportunity to rectify this once and for all. To send us packing now, will only render us homeless when clearly we have the income to remain off the street. That would be a travesty. We are not criminals deserving of punishment, but hardworking people of faith seeking an opportunity to rectify our tenuous predicament.
I am appealing to your humanity to rescind the unlawful retainer. If the cost of the legal action is an issue, I am willing to repay that sum and all other fees accrued to NHG Properties, LLC, through an incremental payment arrangement.
I hope that you, Ms. Streams and you, Mr. Green, can appreciate this appeal. If you can find it in your hearts to consent to this urgent formal request, it will mean the difference between ruination and despair, and hope for the future.
Jarrette Fellows, Jr.
Accumulating the rent along with other financial responsibilities was no easy task each month, but I managed to string along enough revenue to satisfy the monthly note. NHG Properties, LLC nevertheless, moved ahead with the eviction. I remember distinctly hoping I could one day look into Green and Stream’s countenance when they reap for this particular evil. Streams conveyed a callous indifference to our plight.
After swallowing my pride, I went through the rigmarole seeking temporary shelter with family members until I could regain my fiscal balance. My efforts fell on one denial after another based on a litany of brittle excuses that defied reason. How could family refuse a loved one in need? I didn’t approach them as destitute. I offered to pay for limited time shelter, but the offer fell on deaf ears.
That was deeply hurtful. I never expected this from family. Then, I reluctantly turned to persons I thought were friends — risking putting my business in the street. After all, I was viewed as a successful journalist and owner of a popular newspaper. Homelessness didn’t befall people like me. I had resources. Forty-three years in the news business, I knew everybody — right?
I was naïve. Helter Skelter Street is a learning curb. Every person that appears to hold you in high esteem may just be waiting for your fall. The aura of jealousy, of envy, is always present. Lend a hand? The excuses were as lame as my family’s — “No space. If I make room for you, I have to make room for them,” — speaking of family members who had long since departed home, only to find hardship a big part of adult life. They sought the convenience of a return home to ease the strain. But they were not facing Helter Skelter Street. I sought refuge to escape Helter Skelter’s frigid embrace. I had run out of what I thought were reasonable options. What remained was the cold, hard reality — homeless shelters. I could not believe my plight at age 66 when I should be enjoying retirement and traveling the world.
There is no lamenting here. I made the choice to pursue my independence on a road unpaved and ridden with obstacles. The grinding stress has taken its toll; the price of independence costly. weakening my heart and inducing a stroke in 2013. The journey hasn’t been all hardship — I’ve enjoyed moderate success along the way. But now I had hit a giant crack in the road. Eviction had come at a terrible time. I have been strong physically and mentally throughout my life. That’s how I’ve been able to navigate the road of independence, but, really, I was always just made of clay.
Now, here I was on a rainy Monday in brittle health seeking emergency shelter. As difficult as it was, I made my way to Skidrow, the epicenter of homelessness in Los Angeles. A couple of days earlier I had dialed the Union Rescue Mission after resisting every impulse to do so. A phone attendant informed me daily intake for men seeking shelter occurred at 1 p.m., and timely arrival — even early was paramount to being ushered in.
The weather was drizzly and cold when I arrived at URM. Despite the wintry conditions, San Pedro Street was teeming with homeless persons — a cluster of despair and confusion. Men and women — mostly Black, plastered with dirt and grime, congregated and moved about governed by the moment. Some lay flat out on the ground curled in blankets. A remarkable stench hung in the heavy air. If you never knew the smell of hopelessness and what it looked like, this was it, even though the Mission provided refuge and three meals daily for hundreds. These people were just getting by, one day at a time.
URM is not the only major shelter in the city, just the oldest and largest. There are 14,000 people in shelters or transitional housing in L.A. County, and an estimated 15,000 living in their cars and tents. That leaves about 29,000 who absolutely have nowhere to lay their head except the concrete sidewalk.
On this dreary, overcast day, I was one of them.
Those persons I encountered were at the end of themselves and I was on the verge of joining them. I did not feel remotely safe moving about with a cane on slick, wet pavement dressed in a sweatsuit and sneakers that clearly signaled I was a neophyte to Helter Skelter Street. I was keenly aware that someone would not hesitate to shank me for my shoes and attire — not to mention the cell phone hidden in my pocket.
I entered URM through heavy steel-reinforced doors, 10 minutes early for intake, surprised a throng of men were not present. I went straight to the glass-enclosed counter informing the attendant I was there for 1 p.m. intake. He responded intake was rescheduled for 7:30 p.m. later that night. The news was disconcerting. I had hoped to gain entry while there was still daylight. I wasn’t going to return for night intake on Skidrow. I wasn’t going to risk another postponement without an alternate plan, and I definitely wasn’t going to sleep on the cold pavement.
I managed to hitch a ride from the district to a public park southwest of downtown, the name of which I will not divulge. I sat on a bench there for several hours contemplating my next move before darkness set in and the temperature plummeted. At dusk, I was still sitting on the bench with the stark realization that I was in fact, the newest member of the city’s homeless hordes. The only saving grace in the thickly wooded park were benches to stretch out on and a couple of 100-foot high electric park lights that prevented total darkness.
Prior to that, I slept in a friend’s car for several nights, but sleeping in a vehicle was risky and prohibited on residential streets in most parts of the county. The Social Security Administration was two months from resuming my retirement benefits, and advertising income from the Herald was still 60 days out. I also knew securing a place to live would be difficult. An eviction is unforgivable, thanks to the stone-hearted Norma Streams.
God has been my benefactor all of my adult life. Despite my circumstances, I did not rail at Him. It was by His permissive will that I faced this grave circumstance. He hadn’t forsaken me, still, I had questions and my faith was shaken – at times hanging by a thread. I managed to survive off the street for two months renting expensive Airbnb’s, but the practice proved too expensive. After arranging the safe keep of my daughter, I resigned myself to the unavoidable, looked Helter Skelter Street in the face, took a deep breath and exhaled. I was enraged with anger that despite my work ethic, I had not been able to prevent this crash.
Whatever God was doing, this was going to be the most challenging test of my faith in more than six decades. Helter Skelter Street’s embrace was upon me. I steeled my body and mind.
SURREAL AT NIGHT. I will never forget the first nights I slept in the open air beneath a full moon. The lunar rays increased visibility in the largely shuttered park, exacerbated by thick foliage and towering trees. It was surreal and icy cold in the wee hours between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Alternately lying down and sitting upright on the hard wooden bench, I didn’t once consider shutting my eyes. I wasn’t going to let my guard down for one moment and risk assault by a spook in the darkness. Homeless people have been injured and murdered on the street. Still, despite herculean efforts to remain watchful, my eyelids were heavy as I was fatigued from successive nights of little sleep. I sprang alert one night just in time to spot two coyotes less than 100 yards away blend into the night. The wild canines have now been urbanized and predate pet cats and dogs for food, and seek any other sustenance they can find in backyard trash containers as well as garbage bins in public places.
I did not doze again.
On the third night, again I succumbed to sleep. When I snapped to, I was uncertain how long I had slumbered. That was riveting along with the cold. Shivering, I had never been so cold in my life and was concerned about the prospect of hypothermia. That’s how cold it was. I might not have woken up had I dozed again. A refuge was paramount, even a bustling shelter. Risking the uncertainties there was safer than a park facing the threat of sickness from the harsh elements or predators – both the four-legged and two-legged kind.
Eventually, I learned of a South L.A. church shelter, Testimonial Community Love Center, a non-profit operated under the auspices of the Testimonial Cathedral Church of God in Christ. Once a Christian school, Testimonial Love Center, located at 5721 S. Western Ave., now arguably serves a more critical role in the community, housing and feeding up to 200 men and women daily in separate quarters. The shelter, a softer rebound from the street than URM or the Los Angeles Mission downtown, came on referral by Word of God International University (WGIU) in South L.A. Over the years WGIU had referred numerous men and women to the sanctuary.
Testimonial Love Center took me in right away. The facility housed an equal number of men and women in large rooms that accommodated 12 bunks each with a maximum capacity of 24 persons. Residents of the program receive three meals daily; access to showers in portable trailers for men and women, and big screen TV access. Guards check photo ID badges, purses, bags, and backpacks continually for weapons, and illicit drugs. Food and drink are forbidden in the sleeping quarters, as well, checked at the entrance to the shelter. The rules of conduct are stringent as the population is monitored very closely, much like a jail “trustee” program, as several ex-felons in the shelter likened it. A guard I befriended noted, “You have to provide instruction every inch of the way because many people here – not all – but many are in this place due to a lack of discipline and personal responsibility.”
The rules of the shelter are overbearing for someone who doesn’t need constant prodding like a recalcitrant child. Individuals are constantly encouraged to make their bunks and maintain their personal space, report for meals by the deadline or forego them, and return to the shelter by 10 p.m. curfew. Those individuals arriving one minute late are forbidden entry that night. The entire population must be dressed to vacate the shelter by 8 a.m. each morning while custodial cleans all sleeping quarters. Individuals are only permitted to return at 11 a.m. after the cleaning is complete. Meals are generally good and served hot, but do not conform to the specialized needs of persons like diabetics, who must limit starchy foods like rice, potatoes, bread, and sugary sweets that contribute to their body’s inability to produce insulin regulating the accumulation of sugar in the bloodstream. Unfortunately, the foods mentioned are mainstays at Testimonial Love Center.
The drawbacks at Testimonial Love Center are insufficient toilets — two each for men and women nearby the sleeping quarters, a single portable shower per group, which have perpetually wet floors and are vectors of disease like athletes foot and other germs encouraged by moist, damp conditions. I remained at the Testimonial shelter only three days, transported from there by ambulance to Centinela Hospitals after falling ill. The days and nights outdoors in frigid conditions in the park before arriving at Testimonial had exerted a toll on my health, which was exacerbated by continuous air conditioning in the sleeping quarters at the shelter to minimize the spread of germs, a common practice by hospitals.
DISPROPORTIONATE PRESENCE. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, in 2018, African Americans comprised 34 percent of L.A. County’s homeless population — enormously disproportionate to the percentage of African Americans overall in the county — roughly 8 percent.
Although homeless people are found throughout the county, the largest concentrations are in the central L.A. area (27 percent) and in South L.A. (16 percent). Most are from the L.A. area and stay in or near the communities from which they came. About 7 percent are veterans.
Other facts about the homeless resigned to Helter Skelter Street in L.A. County include:
- 9 percent are under age 18.
- 31 percent are female.
- 16 percent are in family units (often headed by a single mother}.
- 13 percent are physically disabled.
- 15 percent of 18+ homeless population have substance abuse disorders.
- 27 percent of the 18+ homeless population suffers from serious mental illness.
- 25 percent of the 18+ homeless population were victims of domestic/intimate partner violence.
Source: Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority
Since 2005, LAHSA has conducted numerical and demographic counts of homelessness, not only within the city of Los Angeles. but throughout the County. Over the course of three days in January, this count is conducted with the help of thousands of volunteers branching out throughout the county. The 2018 homeless count in Los Angeles County found 7,368 people living in cars or vans and 8,380 people living in recreational vehicles or campers. America may be the richest nation on Earth but still has its destitute, downtrodden, and homeless. A good measure of the misfortune is self-induced, but much is the providence of fickle fate.
As for me, it is a mystery. Every step I’ve taken as an adult has been to avoid life’s pitfalls, yet, in the waning days of 2018, I find myself in the grip of Helter Skelter Street. For what it’s worth, this is a story I’ve long wanted to script as a journalist, albeit not as a homeless eyewitness. I never expected to piece together a story this way. Good can be squeezed from every life experience, however. This is the juice from my bitter fruit.
Perhaps this story will afford the uninitiated a view of this awful human scape and help them to understand the plight of so many who yearn to breathe free of the clutch of Helter Skelter Street.
After all, it can happen to anyone. It happened to me.