12 January 2013

Last night it was colder in Los Angeles than it was in Boston. As I curled up under a blanket on the sofa, I thought back on the homeless man who had shared living space with me for a few weeks this past summer.

For the last several months through the spring, there had been evidence that a homeless person was camping out occasionally on my landing. I would come out in the morning to cigarette butts, trash, and, sometimes, crumpled up newspapers or bedding.

I wasn’t happy about it, but there was no damage done and I thought it was nice that a homeless person could find a few hours’ refuge in my apartment building’s stairwell.

Then in July, either the same homeless person or a new one took up residence in my stairwell. He arrived late at night after I was already home and was usually gone by the time I needed to leave. Sometimes I didn’t hear him arrive, he was rather stealth. Other times, I would smell cigarette smoke coming in under my door and know he was back. 

Instead of a peep hole, I have a little peep door at eye level that I have to open to look out. It got to the point where before I would open my door, I’d look out to see if he was there. Depending upon where he was sleeping, sometimes I could see him fully. If he was right up against my door, I often couldn’t see him because of the angle, but would see the edges of the tarp he was sleeping under. His outline looked huge. 

Even if I wasn’t aware he was there, often when I left my apartment the evidence of his previous presence was: plastic cups filled with some yellow liquid (I choose to believe it was beer), cigarette butts, ashes, trash, and other detritus.

Then, he started to overstay his welcome. When I would get up in the morning, he would still be there, blocking my path. I was too afraid to wake him up or startle him, but I couldn’t get past him. One morning, one of my neighbors rousted him and tried to get him to leave.  At first, he just fell back asleep, but my neighbor came back again and stood there until he shuffled off to wherever he was spending his daylight hours.  

He kept returning and he was getting sloppier. More trash would appear on my stairwell. Then drug paraphernalia.With little ventilation, the stairwell smelled like cigarette smoke all the time. He defecated in the back yard.

I began to feel like a prisoner in my own home. My neighbors were supportive, but I was the only one who used that stairwell, so it didn’t affect their ingress or egress. 

Adding to my anxiety, I couldn’t see if my visitor was there when I first walked up the steps because of the way the stairwell turned. I lived in fear when I came home  late that he might have already nestled in for the night and I’d surprise him and have him trapped since he wouldn’t be able to escape without getting past me. Or I'd try to step over him and he'd grab my leg or attack me. I knew that he was probably much more scared of me than I was of him, but it didn't feel that way. 

After several nights of this, I was a bit of a mess. I was too afraid to talk to him —not that I ever saw him when he was awake. I thought about leaving him a note and asking him to leave or leaving him some food and water, but more than anything, I just wanted him to go away.

I called my city councilman to see if he had any suggestion. His office was absolutely no help. They couldn’t even tell me shelters or resources I could call. I called a few shelters, but they couldn't help him if he didn't come to them. A friend gave me the name of two shelters with outreach services. I called both and neither ever returned my call. I felt out of options. That’s when I learned there are less than 16,000 beds in Los Angeles for the more than 60,000 homeless (some estimates put the number as high as 90,000).

He began to get bolder. One afternoon, I left for only a few hours, and when I came back, it was clear he’d been here. He’d left cigarette butts, a pizza box and other trash. One evening, I came home very late. He wasn’t there, but by the time I went to bed, he was.  It was either an amazing coincidence or he was watching me. 

Finally, one morning I needed to leave and he was asleep on the landing.  At the urging of my landlord and my neighbors, I called the police.  Two officers showed up about 45 minutes later. He was sleeping away.  My heart was pounding as I listened through my door as they talked to him. I was terrified they’d hurt him or manhandle him or he’d make some sudden move. The two cops woke him up and told him to gather his bedding and meet them on the sidewalk.  They weren’t overzealous, but they were firm. 

He told them his name was David.  He said he was 25. He easily looked 55 to me. His clothes, which were hanging off him, were filthy. They asked him his social security number and ran a check on him to see if there were any outstanding warrants for his arrest.  There were none. They asked him if he had somewhere to go and he told them he wasn’t homeless.  They told him he had to leave and he couldn’t come back here. He was cooperative, but seemed bewildered and out of it. He shuffled off with his tarp. 

The police said my landlord needed to take out a complaint and if David came back, they could arrest him for trespassing. I asked about giving him food or trying to talk to him and they strenuously warned me against that, suggesting there was no way to know if he was mentally ill or dangerous.  

 I called my downstairs neighbor to fill him in and I’ll be damned if five minutes after the cops left, in broad daylight, David didn’t come back. He had ditched his tarp. I gasped to my neighbor that he had returned. David heard my voice and looked up at me in the window and turned into our courtyard. My neighbor said he’d try to find him to talk to him, but by the time he hung up the phone and went outside, David was gone. 

My landlord decided to put in a front gate. It was a move that none of us wanted, but it seemed the only recourse. He installed it, but we seldom kept it closed, rendering it useless. My landlord talked to some other landlords on the street and learned that David had worked his way up the block. We were officially the last stop. After a few weeks of the fence, we never saw him again. The landlord moved the fence to the back to keep folks from coming in from the alley. 

David disappeared (though my neighbor saw him a few weeks later on another street), but I still feel haunted. 

Never in my life has the distance between who I thought I was and who I actually turned out to be been so great and it was quietly devastating.  If someone had related this story to me, I can guarantee you I would have believed 100% that I would have handled it differently: Fear wouldn’t have overcome me. I would have woken David up and tried to talk to him or at least fed him. I would have treated him like a fellow human being.  And yet when the time came, I did none of those things. I cowered in my apartment and, eventually, called the cops. I felt helpless and I felt fearful and I felt deeply ashamed. I still do. I failed David and I failed myself. I was not the hero in my own story. If anything, I was the villain. It is humbling and disturbing to realize that my compassion ends at my front door. 

Today’s $10 donation is to PATH: People Assisting the Homeless. The Los Angeles organization consists of  a network of agencies that work together to end homelessness. They are one of the places I called to help with David. No, I didn’t hear back from them, but my friends who work with them have nothing but praise for their work. 

Jan. 12: PATH: People Assisting the Homeless www.epath.org


  1. - Often, when we picture a set of circumstances, there are aspects we never imagine being a part of the experience.
    - In the case of a homeless person taking up residence in one's stairwell, it seems reasonable that the self-preservation instinct would kick in, which is nothing of which to be ashamed. A person who is unknown and starts occupying a space that is part of one's comfort zone is automatically perceived as a possible danger. It doesn't matter if that person is homeless or not, male or female, old or young.
    - Others in your situation might have made calling the police their first move, and might never have thought to call any homeless assistance organizations.
    - I don't see in your story someone who avoided treating this man as a fellow human being. Quite the opposite. That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement in the way most of us deal with homeless persons, but I suggest you be kinder to yourself. :)

  2. Mary-
    Thank you. My sister called me after reading it, concerned that I'd called myself "the villain." LOL So yes, maybe there's a little room to be kinder to myself AND to others.