◗ Saturday Sun reporter’s odyssey among the U.S. poor and homeless
◗ Lessons for travel-eager Nigerians
Chika Abanobi, In Los Angeles
Somewhere in the untutored minds of travel-eager Nigerians is this assumption that America is the Promised Land flowing with dollars. All you need do as soon as you arrive there is to bend down and pick as much as you can and begin to send home to your people. Based on this presumption, many are willing to do anything in order to achieve what has come to be known as “the American Dream.”
But a visit to a place called Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, California, where the homeless live, is bound to shock anybody travelling to US with such mindset. The truth hit home for this reporter when he signed on as a volunteer with the Los Angeles branch of a San Francisco-based non-profit organization called Lava Mae. It specializes in providing bath services for the homeless.
Doniece Sandoval, Founder of Lava Mae, a Spanish phrase which translates as “wash me”(in English) came up with the idea, when she discovered that, among the homeless, there are those who go for days, and even weeks, without having their bath because there’s simply nowhere to do so, Paul Asplund, Swedish director of the organisation’s operations in Los Angeles, told you.
The making of the mobile shower
What serves as mobile shower for the homeless people (guests, the workers call them) consists of decommissioned bus or trailer refurbished and refitted with two or three bathrooms equipped with toilets, showers, sinks, all spanking white with state-of-the-art porcelain walls (a source says it costs the organization about $75,000 to refit a bus, that way, with two toilets. For the purpose-built truck being used in Los Angeles county, it is bound to cost more). Since it takes only three guests at a time, the bathing is rationed among hundreds of the homeless that live within the commune. It means hours of waiting to have a turn. The impatient among them usually don’t bother to wait once they perceive something like a long queue building up.
Sanjay Gupta, one of the organisation’s coordinators, observed that they can’t provide shower to every homeless person in Los Angeles but to about 152 of them every week. “The dream is really to inspire people, to see what we are doing and bring some compassion into their hearts. It’s about population because most times people are ignored on the street and we hope through our examples we can inspire others to be more compassionate and to give back in whatever way they can.”
“Generally, as people walk out of the shower, you see the effect on their faces; they just change and with that, they can just go on for days,” Asplund interjected. “One day, one guy came up to me and said, ‘now, I can have a day with my girlfriend.’ You know, the humanity of being able to feel comfortable enough.”
The shower service is on first-come, first-served basis. Because of this, the people usually come to write their names down (sign in, they call it) so that they can get a chance. The average time allocated to each user is 20 minutes but many times they exceed it. But whenever the workers perceive that a guest has exceeded the allotted time by a wide margin, one of them would gently tap on the door to remind them that their time is up.
“If you have to take 25 minutes, no problem because we realize that it is the only time our guests have some privacy; they get access to hot water, toilet, sink and the shower,” Asplund said. In addition, the people are provided with clean towels, feminine products, whatever they need – toothpaste, toothbrush, etc, so that they can have their moments and also take it with them. Sometimes, the organization come loaded with clothes to enable the people have a change of clothing. “But we don’t do that directly; people give them to us to give to them,” Asplund explained.
Calming frayed nerves with music
To calm frayed nerves, the workers play on the powerful mini-speakers attached to the light-blue painted shower van or truck, some bluetooth-transferred songs, while the exercise is on. Sometimes you could see some of the homeless, especially ladies, and some men, either dancing to familiar songs or singing along or shaking their heads to the beat. Some of the oldies played on the first day that Saturday Sun visited the St. Francis’ arm of the homeless, include Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” Boney M’s “Daddy Cool,” and Temptation’s “Papa was a rollin’ stone.” A black guy wearing a pair of black trousers (pants Americans call it) continued to tap his feet to the beat as he sat waiting for his turn.
“A lot of times I guess that people who have been chronically un-housed are a little bit dispirited; the things they have experienced begin to take a toll on their lives,” Asplund explained. “The purpose of being here on the street is to say, ‘hey, we are here with you; we share in your suffering.’ We take that mission seriously; we are providing dignity and we are providing a way for people to come back.”
Statistics released in March 2017, by PATH (People Assisting The Homeless), a different organization that specializes in providing them with accommodation, shows that a total of 7, 316 homeless people, comprising 2,213 individuals, 2,898 families, 2,295 veterans (retired military personnel) were provided with an accommodation, as at last year, in 779 housing units built by the organization in 14 communities/counties across California.
But truth is, majority of the homeless living at Skid Row, said to number about 60,000, have no roofs over their heads. They live in tents, many of them, makeshifts they set up on the streets. Covering about 15 to 20 square metres, any visitor taking a walk through the area could see their tents, of different shapes and colours, dotting the landscape.
“You see 25 per cent rise in homelessness over the last couple of years,” Gupta said. “For now, it is almost 60, 000 in L.A (Los Angeles), County. Monstrous numbers compared to that of other cities in America. Really every city in America is struggling with some form of homelessness as the middle class disappears.”
Encounter with the homeless
You were confronted with a notice placed, conspicuously, on the wall of one of the long halls that serve as residence for some of them, on the first day you visited a part of the homeless quarters located off Broadway/Maine streets in South Los Angeles, called PATHway. That was before you were formally signed on as a volunteer.
It read: “the use of camera and video equipment is strictly prohibited here.” Placed on the gate of the complex was another notice asking residents not to bring in knives, firearms, alcohol and drugs into the place. It ended with a caveat: “violators will be prosecuted.”
The commune houses the poor and the homeless of all shades: the mentally ok and not-so mentally ok. They mill around the place in jeans trousers, shirts, T-shirts, sweaters and windcheaters of all shapes, sizes and colours. And, they smoke like chimneys, both men and women alike. Despite the warning, some of them smoke marijuana, which is said to be legalized in America, anyway. But they do so outside the complex.
You watched as a middle-aged black guy with a kinky hairdo, a cornrow like woman’s, brought out of his shirt’s pocket, an unfinished cigarette that has become almost a stub, lit it up and, without any care in the world, began to puff the smoke into the air. You approached him, wanting to start a conversation, but he waved you off brusquely. “Sorry, buddie,” he said. “I don’t need no help.”
Don’t let his braggadocio deceive you. He and hundreds of others who live in that community seriously need help. Which is why you see trucks and other smaller vehicles bringing supplies – food items, clothes, shoes, drinks, etc, from small and big-time philanthropists and charity organisations, from time to time, to the place. Those affected include men and women, some of them married and having families. They seemed to have lost all hope of not only working and making a living but also of having a roof over their heads any time soon.
They are decently dressed, and, from their look, sometimes appear healthier-looking than many people in Nigeria. But remove them from that commune where they sleep, eat and recreate everyday and you would discover that they are, perhaps, no better than the beggars you meet everyday at Iyana Iba, Iya Ipaja, Oshodi, Lagos, or on the streets of Kano, or at any other town in Nigeria. White, black and coloured – they are all united by this common fate.
For many of them, nobody knows how long they have stayed in that place and in that condition. Nobody knows how long they are going to stay there. Nobody knows when they are going to come out of the pitiable situation. And, to make matters worse, they themselves do not know either. But the fact that they are alive and managing to eat is enough. As far as they are concerned, tomorrow will take care of itself.
The helper and the helpless
Delia Gonzalez, a young Mexican lady, who runs an NGO called PLK (an abbreviation which translates as Peace, Love and Knowledge, and which specializes in fixing up jobs for some of them who can read and write), confessed that she finds it strange that many of them are not willing to take up paid job, a phenomenon that Ebony Lynk, one of Lava Mae volunteer workers, attributes to their unwillingness to work and earn a living and pay their bills and taxes, something they consider burdensome. Joey Suith, who started living at Skid Row, two years ago, in another part of the commune called Gladys Park told Saturday Sun that he would have loved to get a job except that he is suffering from an undisclosed sickness which does not allow him to keep a job for too long. But about three quarters of them have their problem aggravated by drug addiction.
You discovered this truth when you followed the staff to work at another location for homeless people, called St. Francis Centre. It is situated at 1835
South Hope St., Los Angeles. Sitting quietly on a white plastic chair, under a canopy was a white-skinned guy jotting down on some pieces of papers something of interest to him. He was clothed in black suit on top of black trousers. As you watched his lips moving in sync with what you assumed to be a song playing on his earpiece, initially you assumed that he was singing and shaking his head to a familiar song. But you soon discovered how wrong you were when he stood up from the plastic chair and came and stood at the entrance of one of the rooms leading to the mobile shower truck as his turn drew closer. You noticed that in spite of the fact that he had dropped the earpiece or plug, the man continued to mutter something indecipherable to himself.
Beyond him, you sighted another white-skinned guy called Falvarez. Spotting some Hazel eyes, beards and long hairdo that rested somewhere on his shoulders, he cut the image of one of these characters that played Jesus in films, that is, actors like Hunter of Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), Robert Powell of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Jim Caviezel of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2004), or Ewan McGregor, of Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert (2015).
The only snag is, clothed in light green T-shirt, black trousers and sneakers this “Jesus” was “sagging.” This is evidenced by his multi-coloured underwear shooting out from the lower part of his body. He walked dreamily and staggered as if he would fall any moment soon. But he never did as he came out of a nearby common eatery clutching two plastic cups containing black coffee on the one hand and water on the other. It was obvious that he was walking and doing whatever he did under the influence of drug.
Situation reports among the homeless
The following day, you reported for volunteer work at another part of the city called Gladys Park located on 808 E 6th St, Los Angeles. In fact, the public park and its surrounding streets, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th seem to have the largest concentration of homeless people. Unlike other places by visited by the reporter, here you see tents, some of them made up of jute bags and similar materials, dotting the landscape.
A few homeless people who have their cars parked nearby were said to be those who lost their original abode owing to one financial default or the other, but who have decided to be going to work, in the meantime, from there. You observed, like in other places that, among the homeless, bicycles of all kinds, are the major means of transportation, of moving from one part of the city to another.
Standing nearby just outside the park is a public toilet managed by Five Keys, a California-based non-profit organization which aims at providing “traditionally undeserved communities” with the opportunity of getting fixed up on five key areas, namely, education, employment, recovery, family and community.
All of a sudden, traffic coming from the downtown end of the 6th Street – a one-way course, came to an abrupt stop although the green traffic light was still on. You looked to see the cause and discovered, in the middle of the four-lane road, a middle aged black woman with a dirty hairdo and light brown overalls dancing to a music beat only she, perhaps, knew where it was coming from. She too is one of the homeless. She did that for some minutes, causing, in the process, some vehicles coming from behind her to swerve either to her left or right hand, to avoid knocking her down. The spectre only ceased when two black men came out of the park to rebuke her angrily before forcibly leading her away.
Shortly after, a black guy in dark sunshades came dragging along with him, from the opposite direction, a cream-coloured dog. He walked up to, Javier de Leon, one of the officials of Lava Mae and asked when it would get to his turn. Leon looked at the list and asked him to come back in two hours time.
On his way out, he reached out to the hand sanitizer the officials were using to disinfect their hands as they work, poured some into his palms and rubbed the lotion all over his hands before leaving the scene, still dragging with him the dog. After he left, a black lady came to inquire whether Lava Mae did come with some hand-me-downs (what we know in Nigeria as okirika or second hand clothes), so that she could pick from the bunch some dresses she needed to change her clothing. But unfortunately, on this day, a Friday, the organization did not come with any and Leon politely told her so.
Colton Coty, another official of the organization recalled how he once gave away his clothes, his belt, his shoes, to a homeless man walking with one leg. But surprisingly, he said, he had not set his eyes on him since then and he’d been wondering what happened to him or where he is, as he didn’t know him by name.
April, a pretty lady with a beautiful pony hairdo, was a sight to behold. Of average height and dressed in slightly faded light blue jeans, with a multi-coloured leather jacket on top, she had this faraway look about her as she stood waiting for her turn to have a bath. Holding in-between her fingers a stick of cigarette which she inhaled nervously from time to time as if her life depended on it, she combined that with gum chewing which she blew up into a small reddish balloon as she exhaled into the air the smoke of the cigarette. You looked at her and she seemed to be smiling at you.
Encouraged, you approached her for a chat, only to realize that she was not smiling at you at all or at anybody for that matter. In fact, as soon as you made a move as if you would go further, she gave you a baleful look that seemed to transmit only one message: by all means, keep off! But you were touched to learn later from Ronald Villalobos, one of the volunteer workers, that she is dumb.
Waiting for a chance to have a bath
Standing nearby and waiting for his turn to have a bath, a black guy called Michael asked that an “S” be added to his name. There are so many Michaels on the list he observed. To distinguish who is who, he would like to have an “S” added to his name, he explained. His request was promptly granted as one of the Lava Mae staff scribbled an “S” besides his name.
“In California, you gonna hustle,” you overheard him saying in a conversation with a mate standing close to you. “You don’t just sit down there; you gonna make some money, otherwise you go broke”. At this juncture, he touched your overall coat and said: “I like your shirt, man. You are from Nigeria?” You said yes. “Really? I can tell from the accent, com’n. I thought so, man. You guys got culture, I can tell you.”
Americans tend to ‘swallow’ “t” sound whenever they speak, especially if it appears in the middle or end of words. As a result of this phonetic phenomenon, words like “written,” “water,” “twenty” and “computer” may end up sounding as “wri’en,” “warer”, “twenny,” and “compurer,” a phenomenon known in linguistics as rhotic sounds.
To while away time, the people usually engage in small talk. All over the place, you see them in group of twos, threes, etc, discussing matters of common interest. But such discussions are generally held between same races, blacks with blacks, whites with whites. Occasionally, though, you see discussion taking place across races (what Americans know as “biracial”).
You wanted to speak to one of them, a black man who wore a dreadlock. He is from Ethiopia, he said when you approached him, “from Judah actually”, he added. He took a glance at you and remarked that you looked like someone from Africa. “(Are) You from Mother Africa?” he asked, placing, an undue stress, as every American is wont, on the last syllabic sound of the word, as he sought to confirm his suspicion. You nodded without uttering any word. From what part of Africa, he probed. From Nigeria, you answered. “Oh yah, you from Nigeria?”, he asked, again placing some phonetic stress on the last syllabic sound of the word. “That’s good!”
His black face brightened up with a smile as he introduced himself to you. “I’m Roy, from Judah,” he said (Ethiopia’s history asserts its founder, Menelik 1, as being a descendant of Solomonic dynasty, through his love affair with the Queen of Sheba during her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem). Pointing to his lower torso ending up on the upper part of his legs, Roy remarked: “I’m circumcised. Are you?” You nodded to indicate affirmation to his question. But before you could ask further question, he left you standing at the point you met him and ran off to the opposite side of the street.
Getting an insight from an insider
You looked in another direction and saw a white-skinned young lady calmly reading a golden ash coloured Bible while waiting for her turn to have a shower. You approached her. Sakura Houston by name, you discovered that she tends to speak very fast in a way that makes it look as if the words are in hurried pursuit of one another. You were attracted by the Bible you saw in her hand you told her. She looked up from the page, smiled and said, “O yeah, it’s a new one, I just gor’it (got it) and I am going through.” It was supposed to be eight dollars (about N2, 400), she added, but the bookshop people overcharged her and took 10 dollars (about N3, 500) from her.
“I love the Bible,” she said. “I am trying to get back to it. I read a lot of it when I am online. Before I bought this, I used to have a copy. But everybody got mad at me at Skid Row here that I was reading the Bible. They were all laughing and making jokes of me. But reading the Bible helps, you know.”
“My daughr’er (daughter), that’s how they’d been laughin’ ar (t) me,” an elderly black woman among the homeless interjected, as she passed by. “They say, Ma, you’r the mos(t) insane of them all. They said I would no’(t) have children but my only son came and he is a preacher. God had a plan.” Ha, ha, ha, she laughed loudly.
“Many people think I come from Houston,” Sakura said, referring to her surname (what Americans know as last name). “But it is not so; it is connected with a church.” She is from Australia, although she lives in California, she informed you. She used to live with her father who happened to be a pastor, she said, before she was driven away because she could not get along with some of his ideas of doing things. “It’s like everybody was trying to decide my future for me but I could not go with that. My stepmother, she doesn’t like me. It wasn’t as if I was trying to run away from them. I was always willing to hang in there and suffer. But it was like nobody wanted me anymore. So, I had to walk down here.”
You noticed that she had a bandage over her left eye and you asked how she came about it. She said some policemen and women came around and tried to push her into their car but she resisted and got injured in the process. You were to learn later that the city health workers, aided by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), go to Skid Row biweekly to make a clean sweep of the place and the surrounding streets, with some disinfectants, in order to prevent epidemic diseases from breaking out from the place and spreading to the rest of the city. The law enforcement officers, in the course of performing their duty, sometimes do apply minimum force on reluctant residents or on some of them who appeared to be too slow in moving their things so that health workers can do their job, a source explained.
Causes of homelessness in America
In America, it is easy to become homeless. Apart from the drug issue, you could lose your job or home without prior notice. This happens oftentimes if you bought your house through mortgage. The mortgage system is such that if you default in servicing it when due, for a certain period of time, the house may be recovered from you by concerned bank authorities, no matter how much you’d paid, even if only few months remained for you to complete the payment.
Let’s say you lost your job and were unable to pay for two or three months. You could lose the house and find yourself or you and your family homeless overnight. A popular saying among Americans, a Los Angeles-based Nigerian female nurse told you, is, ‘you are only two paychecks away from homelessness.’
Other causes could be family squabble and marital feud leading your spouse, especially the woman, or your child or parents, friend or benefactor, to kick you out of his or her house into the street. Ladies or women here are said to be easily hot-tempered and hardly bear with marital situations like most Nigerian married women do. To them, marriage and divorce are nothing to lose sleep over. Marital inheritance laws favour the women especially in states like California; hence they take full advantage of them.
The result is that men can receive court restriction order from their wives and, lose their houses and property within a twinkle of an eye. Such order forbids a man from entering his house, even if you solely bought and owned it, to take anything out, not even a pin, once it is served. “If you go against it or disobey or do anything to the contrary after you’ve been served with a court order, you go to jail,” a Nigerian source who is conversant with the situation said.
But the source insists that many Nigerian women living in United States are beginning to imitate their American counterparts by sending their husbands packing through the same legal instrument. Mr. Ebenezer Agbanye, a Nigerian working as a volunteer with Lava Mae, recalled a particular sad case in which a Nigerian lady of Igbo extraction, had, after some domestic squabbles, insisted and succeeded in getting the US legal system to repatriate her husband to Nigeria. The man, said to be from a village in Imo State, reportedly died from the trauma after some years.
“I have met with people from different walks of life, people who had been doctors, lawyers and teachers,” Lynk said while commenting on the homeless situation. “You really cannot say what people are going through. Everybody you see is going through something; this is why it is not good to judge people because I could be in the same situation tomorrow. If I lose my job and I lose my apartment, maybe I could be here too. I approach my work with a kind of empathy that this could be me. I have met a lot of people who are going through mental illness because they have drug addiction. And they’ve been evicted, they have lost hope and they have lost their children. And there is a lot of grief and pain, and so we come along and make them smile by hugging them. We don’t judge them and treat them as if they don’t belong to the society. It makes a difference and I think that’s why people keep coming back to us.”