To some homeless, solving the crisis isn’t as simple as just receiving help
WHITTIER – Whittier is still relatively foreign territory to me, so I only recently learned of the issues going on at Parnell and other parks.
As we all know, the homeless crisis is not unique to any one community alone. It’s in Los Angeles. It’s in Orange County. It’s in Whittier. It’s in Norwalk. It’s in my home city of Downey.
But that doesn’t change the stigma that many of us have about the homeless being dirty, potentially dangerous, and an overall nuisance to society.
It’s a bias that I am not afraid to admit that I have developed myself.
If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t exactly volunteering to run in and be buddy-buddy with any of the homeless at Parnell Park. I drive a nice car and had over $1000 worth of expensive camera equipment on my person. I may have needed photos for a story, but I was alone and potentially vulnerable.
I planned on keeping my distance, getting what I needed, and then getting the hell out of Dodge.
It was just by happenstance that I arrived at right around the same time as Whittier resident Paul Ramirez.
Ramirez lives in Friendly Hills, and has taken it upon himself to speak with, document, and in a few cases, aid those in his community who are experiencing homelessness.
“In the spring of this year, I started noticing encampments populating band of business, particularly Friendly Hills Marketplace,” said Ramirez. “I began working with the city to try and get them rectified, and then the Boise law changed everything.”
The Boise vs Martin case ruling prohibits the removal of a public camper unless there is a bed available.
As well intentioned as the ruling may have seemed, it has effectively tied the hands of Whittier, and created the dirty and – yes – even dangerous looking eyesore that residents have become accustomed to seeing at their parks.
Whittier remains one of the only cities to adhere to the ruling.
As I began to set myself and my camera up behind the comforts of a brick wall, Ramirez extended me the invitation to enter the park with him. He must have sensed my trepidation, because he reached into his pocket and flashed a can of what I assumed to be pepper spray at me and assured me that I’d be safe.
Since the Boise decision, Ramirez has taken it upon himself to clear abandoned encampments by picking up trash and other items left behind.
“In doing so, I became more familiar with some of the homeless who are out here,” said Ramirez. “I maintain my own data; I record everything. Of the 110 people I have met, I would say 20% are truly homeless by circumstance…the others would be drug-addicted vagrants.”
Many of these individuals know and call Ramirez by name, including 28-year-old Oscar Alcazar.
Alcazar has been experiencing homelessness for over ten years, leaving his home after a confrontation with his brother and mother.
He was almost immediately aggressive with me, telling me that he didn’t want me there, nor pictures taken of him, and that I needed to “get out of her.”
It was Ramirez who settled him down enough to engage in a conversation.
In talking with Alcazar, I was able to get him to admit that he was a user of drugs, although he was mum on exactly what. Ramirez would later tell me in a phone call that Alcazar spoke of injecting meth daily. While I hate writing under hearsay, I have no reason to not believe this statement based on my experience that day.
Ramirez says that he has been working hard with Alcazar’s mother to get him back home, however “the meth is what is standing in the way.”
Still, he believes that Alcazar is “redeemable.”
However, along with the drugs that may or may not be in Alcazar’s system at any given time, there is one other thing that blocks his path to redemption.
The prior night to me meeting Alcazar, Whittier’s City Council had approved a pilot program with First Day shelter, establishing 11 crisis beds for those who may need them, particularly in the city’s homeless hotspots.
Yet, Alczar didn’t seem to want any part of it.
“It’s not easy to do that shit, man,” said Alcazar. “You’ll never know until you feel it yourself. That’s straight the [expletive] up.”
Unfortunately, much of my conversation with Alcazar dissolved into swear-filled rants from that point on, mostly directed at Ramirez.
“Mr. Paul took me and my girlfriend at the time out to lunch one day, and says how he wants to help us, which is great,” said Alcazar. “But then he talks so low of us. He says, ‘I want to help you, you scumbag, tweaker, drug addict, [expletive] thief. Who wants to help then?”
“Parnell Park is the 14th most dangerous place in America? Do you believe that? I’m gonna answer for you; no, you don’t believe that…That’s what [Paul] has done to us.”
Another woman, Sabrina Ruiz, 41, has been homeless for over ten years as well. She joined the conversation and almost immediately became increasingly hostile.
“You I just cannot [expletive] stand, because you’ve caused me too many [expletive] problems,” said Ruiz, directed towards Ramirez. “I don’t hate people, but you’re one person that I can actually say with a capital H-A-T-E, that I [expletive] hate.”
“You don’t help nobody, Paul. All you do is make it look more negative than it is.”
Ramirez does not discount claims that he has said negative things about some of the individuals he has tried help.
“I don’t think that was inaccurate,” said Ramirez. “I offer individuals’ help…they don’t like being called criminal vagrants or drug addicts, but that’s what they are.”
It’s increasingly rare that those who Ramirez extends his hand to actively accept the help. Of the 110 individuals he has made contact with, Ramirez says that he has only been able to work with 8.
But amongst many of the naysayers, you might find a diamond-in-the-rough like Sam Garcia.
Garcia, 43, has only been on the streets for a few months. He was forced out when his rent was raised and living in motels became too much.
He stood on the side for much of Ruiz’s tirade with the patience and demeanor of a saint. Almost as if he was the Jiminy Cricket of the encampment, he even apologized for Ruiz’s words after she departed.
He did not deny the worst kept secret of the camp: that it consisted of several substance users; even he himself smokes marijuana, although he said he doesn’t drink alcohol or do anything else.
He also affirmed that a majority of the bikes that were scattered around the premises were stolen.
“It’s unfortunate that there is a criminal element that does come here. There are people who need mental help,” said Garcia. “We can’t control that.”
Still, he insists that the entire situation is not black and white.
“Until someone comes out and assess every individual individually and sees what each person needs, help for one person is not necessarily help for the other person,” said Garcia. “Until everyone gets assessed and sees what they need, you can’t lump us together and say, ‘Oh, we tried helping them and they don’t want the help.’”
In Garcia’s case, he says it is difficult to go elsewhere because he feels he needs to stay close due to family ties. Shelter stay can also prove to be difficult to manage.
“Shelters are only good in winter months,” said Garcia. “You have to be there at 6:30 p.m., it’s limited beds, and at 6:30 in the morning, you have to leave. So, I have nowhere to go, I have to leave, now I walk around, and if I’m caught somewhere in front of a business, I’m a loiterer. Now I’m becoming a criminal; where am I supposed to go during that time?”
“I have nowhere to go, and it’s only in the winter months. After the winter, I’m maxed out. The shelter in uptown Whittier is not really an option.”
I can’t help but feel like I walked away from these conversations with a muddled opinion on homeless. Here were a couple of individuals who could use the help, who were actively turning it away.
On the other end of the spectrum was a man who wanted the help but didn’t feel it was accessible to him.
For something that is not “black and white,” sometimes it feels entirely “black and white.”
And then, it doesn’t.
As we stood by our cars and started to wrap up our conversation, Ramirez said something to me that hasn’t left my mind since we parted: “Sam is homeless. Oscar and Sabrina are drug addicts. There’s a big difference between the two.”
I don’t necessarily feel comfortable endorsing this statement myself, as I don’t care to label someone I’ve only just met a drug addict or not. However, Ramirez is definitely correct in that there is a huge difference between an individual like Sam and Oscar.
There are most certainly those who do not want the help of their community, that is for sure. I can only hope that they don’t end up dragging individuals like Sam – who are simply down on their luck – down with them.