“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
— Margaret Mead (1901-1978), American cultural anthropologist
On my way to the supermarket the other day, I spotted a ragged man sitting on the sidewalk, eating out of a discarded food container. Debris was strewn all around, evidence of his recent foraging.
My first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was to capture the bleak scene on my cell phone. I decided instead to park my car and approach the man. “What am I doing?” I thought to myself. “I ignore panhandlers. I don’t move towards them.” As I drew closer, other people were keeping their distance, pretending not to see him.
Soon, I was close enough to see that he was in terrible physically shape. He was filthy. There were open sores on his face and body, and he had no teeth. His feet and calves were swollen. He was talking to himself.
He babbled on incoherently. I gave him money. Then, holding the bill, he said, “This is going to make a fun party.” Presuming that “party” was his euphemism for drugs, I cautioned, “It’s not for partying.”
The man looked down and for the first time saw that I had given him a five-dollar bill. “Oh my, that’s a lot of money. I’ve never been rich before. Thank you.” He reached up to shake my hand. I backed away. Like I said, he was filthy.
“You know, it would make me happy if you would put the trash back in the trash can,” I urged. He nodded silently, appearing to hold back tears.
This didn’t take place in some forgotten Third World ghetto. This was Sherman Oaks, a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles.
Truth is, although I did more than most, I didn’t do nearly enough. In the end, I walked away…again.
+ + +
Chief Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana announced last April that the City of Los Angeles spends $100 million a year dealing with the homeless, including arrests, mental health interventions, services, and unplanned costs, such as those incurred by public libraries that provide impromptu shelter.
Subsequently, on Sept. 22, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a plan to spend an additional $100 million to address the growing number of encampments and develop solutions focused on the estimated 26,000 living on the streets. That comes to $3,846 per person, enough to provide job training, health care, and transportation, assuming you’re truly naïve and believe that the money is going directly to the needy.
It is time to change the conversation or at least adjust the terminology. Provide a “homeless” person with a home — problem solved, right? Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a diverse street population that includes veterans and families with children as well as drug addicts, alcoholics, panhandlers, prostitutes, drug dealers, assorted predators, and people who are chronic street-dwellers and simply don’t want to leave the streets. About one in five street-dwellers suffers from severe mental illness.
Garcetti’s gesture is a step in the right direction. Its effectiveness will come down to the actual plan and its execution. If it works, maybe the next time I come across a ragged man eating out of a trash can, I will know what to do.
+ + +
Growing up on Fifth Street in downtown L.A. in the ’50s and ’60s, I became accustomed to seeing transients wandering the area. The main problem: alcoholism. They were commonly referred to as winos, bums, hobos, and vagrants … and those were the polite words
Skid Row back then was segregated. Yes, segregated. Most transients were white and stayed west of Los Angeles Street; African Americans could be found east of Los Angeles Street and all the way to Central Avenue.
My parents’ 40-room Edward Hotel was in the kokujin (black people’s) section of Skid Row. Our tenants were predominantly men who worked as cooks and bellmen in major hotels and restaurants. Others were houseboys/servants who lived in their employers’ Beverly Hills homes during the week and stayed at the Edward on their days off. The rest of our clientele, about 15 percent, were gays who could afford to live in better parts of the city but were not allowed.
Issei and Nisei returning to L.A. after the war had to find creative ways of making a living. Skid Row property was cheap, and there was a need for housing for single men. Small hotels provided incomes and living quarters for the managers, becoming a viable option for many Japanese American families. A room with a clean bed and sink with running water: $50 a week.
+ + +
A recent letter from Rafu Shimpo reader Roy K. Imazu struck a nostalgic chord for me and even revealed new information about that period in JA history. Imazu wrote that his parents, Genichi and Mitsuko Imazu, ran the King Edward Hotel in the heart of Skid Row in the late 1940s.
Roy was serving in the United States Navy from 1951-55. My parents, Masami and Giovanna Endo, took over the Edward around 1953.
“I recall someone telling me that your mother, being Italian, showed my mother how to make a spaghetti dinner,” Roy stated. It seems that Mitsuko Imazu was quite a talented homemaker. She also learned how to cook beans and homemade tortillas when the family was farming in the Imperial Valley prior to World War II.
Roy also worked at Rafu for a time and remembers meeting the late Akira Komai, who was organizing the Nisei Athletic Union at the time, at the newspaper’s former First and Los Angeles Street headquarters. It was Komai who first hired me to work at The Rafu.
I have a theory that if two Japanese Americans talk long enough, they will find a mutual relative somewhere in their family tree. Thanks, Roy, for the cool journey back to our connected past.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Rafu Shimpo or its management. Comments and/or inquiries should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.