My brother’s phone was dead — really dead. But his exacting and obsessive nature wouldn’t permit him move on.
A few days earlier, he had lost his phone along with several credit cards. Technology being what it is, his wife’s phone was able to pinpoint exactly where it was — behind the El Pollo Loco.
Even though my brother had already bought a new phone and closed out his credit cards, the fact that he knew for certain that his phone was right behind the popular Mexican restaurant rankled his brain. He had to see it for himself.
When he got to the El Pollo Loco, he saw a homeless man camped behind the restaurant. My brother approached him and asked if he had seen a phone. The homeless fellow (my brother has since learned his name, but I’ll call him Ernie) showed him several phones in his collection but none were my brother’s. He asked several other homeless people hanging around the area whether any of them had spotted his phone, but none had, or at least admitted that they had.
My brother would be back five more times.
On his sixth visit, Ernie waved my brother over. “Your phone is at the El Pollo Loco,” he told him. My brother went into the restaurant, spoke to a manager, and retrieved his phone and all his credit cards. He wanted to leave a small reward for finding his phone, but the manager told him to save it for Ernie — he was the guy who turned it in.
My brother went back behind the restaurant to thank Ernie. Ernie told him that he did manage to get his phone back but that his credit cards “were all over the place,” so Ernie took it upon himself to collect them from the other homeless people in the camp. My brother was impressed.
He asked Ernie pointblank, “You seem like a smart guy, a nice guy, why are you homeless?” Ernie told my brother that he was in a car accident and couldn’t work anymore. The insurance paid him a total of $15,000: $5,000 went to the lawyer and $5,000 for medical bills. He lived on the last $5,000 until it was gone, then he became homeless.
My brother asked about his family – where were they? Could he buy him a bus or train ticket home? Ernie said he had no family and that his parents had passed away.
My brother asked if he could buy him some groceries — what does he need? Ernie said he didn’t need any food because the fast-food restaurants in the area took care of him and his other homeless buddies.
My brother didn’t quite know what to do after that, so he gave Ernie the $100 he had in his wallet and made a promise to himself that he would look into Ernie now and then.
A homeless state of emergency
In her first act as mayor, newly elected Karen Bass declared a homeless state of emergency for the city of Los Angeles. In the latest counts, there are more than 41,000 homeless on the streets of Los Angeles and 60,000 in the county.
What struck me in Ernie’s case was that his decency and act of kindness toward my brother show that with proper shelter, job training, and counseling, Ernie could potentially thrive and become a success a story. Unfortunately, he could be waiting for the rest of his life for help.
Measure HHH, which passed in 2016, provided $1.2 billion for homeless shelters. According to an audit by the city controller, units cost upwards of $700,000 and in one upcoming project the cost will be as high as $837,000 – a sum that would even make a reformed Mr. Scrooge wince. At this rate only a tiny fraction of the homeless will ever get a roof over their heads. As we’ve written over and over in our Right by the Bay blog, government can’t be the only answer.
Take LifeArk, a nonprofit organization that provides permanent supportive housing and ongoing intensive case management services to homeless people. The goal of its 18-unit pilot program in El Monte is to build independent living among formerly homeless people and connect them to community-based health care, treatment, and job training services — all in housing units that cost a fraction of what the City of Los Angles spends. In a LifeArk community, Ernie and others like him who have fallen off the grid could reset their lives. The city would do well to understand why LifeArk’s program is working.
As for my brother, his half dozen trips in search of his phone and his encounter with a homeless man no doubt got him thinking: “Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
Rowena Itchon is chief operating officer of the Pacific Research Institute.