Growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, we had only one homeless person who wandered our streets. He was an elderly man who moved about with the aid of a walker and always carried a Samsonite suitcase. He was white and wore a black suit. Years later, I saw the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film, Desk Set (Twentieth Century Fox, 1957) and realized the Old Man With the Suitcase (as my family called him) looked just like Spencer Tracy, same white hair, same sharp blue eyes. We passed this man on our way to school each morning, on our way home in the afternoon, and when we went to church on Sunday. Mysteriously, we never saw him after the sun went down, which made all of us wonder where he slept each night. I did see him once very early in the morning on my way to serve 6:30 mass. I flew past him on my bike, almost without seeing him. He was sitting in a vacant shopping center carefully wrapping his swollen, red legs with Ace bandages. Another time, I saw him through the shelves at the local public library, nodding off over a thick book spread on the table before him.
The library actually was the vehicle by which some of the Old Man’s mystery was revealed to me. I was a teenager, already with a driver’s license, and I had to return some library books to the night slot late one evening. I parked with my headlights pointed out over the dirt lot next door and ran to the double glass doors to stuff my books in the metal slot. When I returned to my car, I was startled by a creature who rose up from the dirt lot directly in my headlights. It was the Old Man wearing a long, dirty night shirt. Pooled around his feet was his bed roll; he was sleeping in the lot and my headlights disturbed him. He had a look of fear and confusion in his blue eyes. I quickly got in the car and drove away. From that moment on, I rarely passed the dirt lot next to the library at night, in cold rain or humid heat of summer, without thinking of him there, hidden just beyond the asphalt, sleeping the restless sleep of someone never out of danger.
These days, so many more people drift through life upon the streets of our cities, and Los Angeles is no exception. In fact, more homeless congregate here because of the mild temperatures in winter and summer, especially by the beach in Santa Monica. Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and his administration repealed the Mental Health Systems Act that President Carter had worked so hard to pass. Not to let it go at that, Reagan then changed the eligibility criteria for disability insurance, creating an environment on the street where survival for the mentally ill would be nearly impossible. We are seeing the consequences play out daily on our streets.
Last winter, former Marine Itzcoatl Ocampo stabbed several homeless people to death in Anaheim. According to prosecutors, Ocampo was a serial killer on a “thrill-kill spree.” He allegedly modeled his attacks on previous murders, including Marine Charles Whitman who shot 13 people to death from the University of Texas tower in 1966. Ocampo claimed that his experiences as a soldier in Iraq made him do the killings.
Fullerton police beat an unarmed homeless man to death last summer. According to surveillance camera footage and audio recordings of the incident, Kelly Thomas cried out over and over again both that he could not breathe and for his father as officers restrained and beat him. Thomas was schizophrenic who walked the streets picking up cigarette butts to smoke. Someone erroneously reported him breaking into vehicles in the area leading to the police response that resulted in his death.
Homeless people are often victims of alcoholism and drug abuse. Instead of treating them, we throw them into prisons. It is shameful that people must live in such conditions, but the stories these people tell are often even more disconcerting. Many of them are veterans who served our country with distinction in the military. As the number of returning vets increases, we can expect the homeless population to soar. These former soldiers often suffer from mental and physical ailments that go untreated.
I recently started studying the religious response to poverty and social injustice. The Jewish Old Testament clearly dictates that people must be responsible for those less fortunate, the widow, the orphan, the alien. The Old Testament writers take great pains to remind people that as God created human beings in his image and likeness, and led the Jewish people out of captivity and slavery, it is a solemn obligation to return the favor to those who are suffering poverty and alienation. The Christian New Testament gives the example of Jesus, who time after time put himself in harm’s way for prostitutes, tax collectors, and other marginalized human beings in his short time on earth. Repeatedly in sermons and parables, he warns early Christians to be responsible for others, thus continuing the mandate of the prophets to observe the covenant and care for those less fortunate.
In the Catholic church of my childhood, no one every addressed the predicament of the Old Man With the Suitcase who walked the streets of my suburban neighborhood. The priest each Sunday never mentioned him, nor did I hear a request to assist him from my Catholic school teachers. We did get our mission boxes during lent to collect money to send the word of Christ to Africa, but nothing focused on those in need locally. Today, so many more are in trouble, each with a story of addiction, traumatic service in war, loss of livelihood, home, and savings in the declining economy; even more suffer from mental and physical illness. The situation is dire, and there is little hope on the horizon. The poor and homeless wander these streets desperate to recover their dignity and sense of self-worth. If empires can be judged on how the most vulnerable among its citizens are treated, what does that say about America? In a first world nation, how is it that some people live a third world existence in the streets and alleys of our richest cities? Do we not have an obligation, a moral imperative, to help?