By attorney Donald E. Arnold (state bar number: 202148). In 2005, Arnold was homeless in the Antelope Valley.
I used to see a homeless person and I usually deliberately looked away. When I did look, I thought: What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you go to McDonald’s and flip burgers or something?
Having started my own work career at age 14, as a dishwasher, and having put myself through college and law school, I felt I had the right to question their motivation while formulating my own opinions about how they arrived on the street and why. If I was willing to wash dishes, why weren’t they?
I know now that one really never knows why a person is homeless, although one may think they know. I also know now that one has a tendency to lose things while on the streets; for example, wallets with driver’s licenses and Social Security cards. Most of us know that obtaining employment or benefits like Social Security Disability, State Disability and General Relief (welfare) requires identification. After all, in today’s world we have to prove who we are.
But did you know it costs $27 to get a duplicate driver’s license issued in the State of California, and you can’t get a replacement Social Security card without other identification (e.g., a driver’s license or a birth certificate, which most homeless persons do not carry with them)?
And how does one work if they have nowhere to shower, no address or phone number, and/or nowhere to keep one’s clothes (except in a plastic bag stored in the desert or a shopping cart)? Many if not most of us are one paycheck away from being homeless. Think about it: If you were in an automobile accident tomorrow, and were injured such that you were unable to work for a year or more, could you pay your mortgage/rent/utilities/credit cards/etc., on two-thirds of your salary (the standard disability rate, which also reaches a maximum of about $1,000)? Or what if you were laid off and unable to find work for a year? Could you make it? Do you have a year of salary in savings?
There is a solution: Permanent Supportive Housing. Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) cures homelessness, rather than perpetuate it with a “Band-Aid” approach. The concept is simple and proven: remove the homeless individual from the streets by providing a home and the necessary services to stabilize a recovery process and reintegrate into society. Services such as: A “home” with an address and phone number; job training; job placement assistance; health care; drug and alcohol rehabilitation; financial education; and legal assistance.
What follows is my story. I set it to paper with the hope of raising awareness of homelessness, and with the hope of raising funds for much-needed Permanent Supportive Housing. I’m trying to point out that people on the street are not who you think they are, and that the homeless deserve more than a look of contempt when we pass them by, if we look at them at all.
I never thought I’d grow up to be homeless. I can’t be blamed for that; “homeless” wasn’t in my vocabulary when I grew up. My 16-year-old daughter knows the word though. You know the word. And so does everyone else.
Most don’t like to say it. Most don’t like to see it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
You may think that because I am homeless, you know who I am. I do not believe that is true. You may think that because I am homeless, I must be lazy; I assure you that I am not. And you may think I don’t have an education, yet I do: a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering from California State University at Northridge, and a Juris doctorate (Law Degree) from Southwestern University School of Law. There’s a lot people don’t know about me.
For example, I was in the top 10 percent of my class for the first two years of law school. That was a lot of work and quite an accomplishment, considering I also worked 50 to 60 hours a week, not including the hour drive from Palmdale to work and the hour drive from work to school and the hour drive from school to home each night. On a typical day I left home at 4 a.m., arrived at work by 5 a.m., and left for school at 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday. I arrived back home (I owned one then) at 11 p.m. I stranded a wife and a toddler, except Friday nights and all day Saturday, when I cared for my daughter while my wife went to school for a Teaching Credential.
I did homework when I got home from school and when I could on Saturdays. There is a lot of homework in law school, and I did most of it, which my grades reflected. I also received superior reviews at work, five stars, which was a review many coveted but few received. Then the Southwestern University Law Review invited me to join their publication after my first year of law school because of my high grades. This added another 10 to 20 hours per week to my already busy schedule and, ultimately, Law Review decided to publish the article I wrote. As a member of Law Review and the Law Review class, I was required to write it; however, they were not obligated to publish it. In fact, they don’t publish most articles, yet they published mine (28 Sw.U.L. Rev. 677, 1999). Lucky me: More hours as I edited and perfected my article.
My first job was washing dishes when I was 14. I worked through high school and I put myself through college, working. I’ve always worked. I am not lazy, and I am not uneducated.
I am a recovering alcoholic and addict, though I once went eight years without a drink. I started Law School during that period without a drink, when I had five years sober. But then I started taking prescription medicine: Soma, Xanax and Midrin. I had backaches, stress and headaches. I became addicted, and I suffered. I was sober but not clean.
I suffer from major depression, recurrent, perhaps as a result of enduring child molestation for eight years when I was a kid. That diagnosis makes me mentally ill (DSM-IV 296.35) and a “mental health patient,” though I’m better now that I consistently take medication as prescribed like I am supposed to. (Oops! I don’t think I am supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. I learned that in grade school, or maybe high school, or maybe college or law school. Maybe all four. The point is, I should know better.)
I should also know better than to smoke crack. After all, I passed the Bar on my first attempt (SBN 202148) and I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering: Emphasis, Thermal Fluids. That’s Rocket Science. I’m a “Rocket Scientist,” so I cannot be stupid, right? But what kind of idiot would smoke crack when they have so much to live for? When they have a house, a beautiful daughter (the light of their life), two cats (no dogs, not even 1.5), and a six-figure salary? I mean, c’mon. Not me—right? Wrong.
I lost my job when the crack pipe became more important than my clients, more important than my employer, more important than my daughter. And also, apparently, more important than having a place to live. I sold my house when I couldn’t pay my bills because I wasn’t working. I wasn’t working because I got fired. I thought I was sick. Perhaps I was. Too sick to work? Perhaps not. Regardless, I used some of my profit from the sale of my home to pay six months of rent for another house and I then blew the rest, literally. I thought I would rest and get better. After all, I’d get it together now that I had money again, right? Wrong again.
I stopped seeing my daughter, I didn’t see friends, and I didn’t see family. They didn’t understand, but my new friends did. I bought a lot of drugs for my new friends. I also bought them a lot of food and cigarettes and alcohol. I gave them a place to live, at least until I got evicted, which happened when I ran out of money. True, I had my priorities mixed up. True, I should have known better. But I had stopped caring. I was suicidal.
Then I did the unimaginable. I became one of them. The word many of us don’t associate with anyone we know personally. Perhaps a word that we know yet do not wish to acknowledge. It’s a dirty word. They’re dirty. Lazy and on the streets because that is where they want to be. And I was one of them. Homeless.
I slept behind the dumpster in back of the Salvation Army Store, or in the park, the desert, and in the rain. I slept in County Jail or the psyche ward, or in the psyche ward at County Jail (they have one at Twin Towers-7th Floor). I didn’t have a car to sleep in because I no longer had a car. I didn’t care; I learned to ride the bus instead. Do you recognize me yet? Don’t you know who I am?
I’m the one who asked you for change for the bus because (reportedly) I got stranded in Lancaster going to the doctor and I needed to get back to Palmdale. I’m the guy who lost his shoes (or forgot where I put them) and had holes scorched in the bottom of his socks by pavement heated to extremes by the summer sun. The burning summer sun. I showered at the public pool because there was nowhere else to go. I ate Kentucky Fried Chicken out of the dumpster, because KFC couldn’t give you the extra food they had left over at the end of the night—they were required to throw it away. (At least they put it in a bag for us.)
I was the dirty one, the crazy one, the one who smelled like alcohol. The one you may have ignored. The homeless one. (You’d drink too if you had my problems.)
Some statistics: There were over 3,500 homeless persons in the Antelope Valley in 2005, which was the year I became homeless, and over 80,000 in the greater Los Angeles County area. (See 2005 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count here.) There is also only one shelter in the Antelope Valley, then and now, which is limited to providing 10 beds during the normal season (March 15 through Nov. 15), and 50 beds during “cold weather” season (Nov. 16 through March 14). The most recent count — according to the most recent survey (2013) released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) — shows the number of homeless in the Antelope Valley area (SPA1) increased to 6,957, even though the overall homeless population has decreased to 53,798 in the greater Los Angeles area. (View the report here.)
I have a few more things to say. First, I’m better now and no longer homeless, thanks to Proposition 36, Tarzana Treatment Center, psychotropic medication, and most importantly— GOD. Thank God (literally) someone cared. I’m clean and sober, and I’m practicing law again at the same firm that fired me in 2004 (though I nearly lost my law license during my “adventure.”) I also realize that I am blessed to have a career to return to (oops! I did it again…) to which I can return. Many don’t. I rent a small room in Tujunga, I have an old “new” car, and today it doesn’t matter that it’s 17 years old. After all, it beats the bus. Trust me (I’m a lawyer); it beats the bus.
What I strive for now is to raise awareness. Your awareness. The awareness of your neighbor, your co-worker, your child. People you know. And I want to help fix the problem—not just write about it— by raising money to help alleviate homelessness through the funding of supportive housing programs, like Tarzana Treatment Center.
A very wise person once said, “Every journey begins with a single step.” Consider this my first step: telling you who I really am. Can you take a single step? After all, it could happen to someone you know. Like me.
*NOTE: I wrote the original version of this story, which was then titled “It Could Happen to You,” in March 2007, shortly after the State Bar reinstated my law license. I now own a fancy car that is only four years old, I recently purchased a new home (my first home in nine years) in Santa Clarita that I share with my beautiful daughter, Lorilyn, who is now 23, and I celebrated nine years clean and sober on Nov. 18, 2014.
I am a success. Please let’s help the homeless recover like I did, by finding solutions, and not derogate them with irrational fears.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The AV Times.
Editor’s note: Donald Arnold wrote this letter in response to a Feb. 27 article titled “Resident: ‘Tent cities’ in Lancaster are a grave public safety issue,” which was written by “a concerned Lancaster resident.”
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