Molly doesn't seem to mind the torrential downpour across the street from Sun Valley Park on a Sunday morning. The svelte young brunette makes her way down a sidewalk, through a maze of drenched cushions and blankets. She finds some scraps of soggy food and wags her tail. She's part of a small tribe of street sleepers who haunt the blocks around the park.
Huddled under tarps, chilled to the bone in the pounding rain, they are invisible to the steady stream of traffic as local residents run their weekend errands, grocery shopping at the Mercado or buying shoes for the kids at Payless.
Far from the glitz of the Skid Row press darlings in the human zoo of downtown Los Angeles, this lost tribe has no news crews coming to tell the story of hapless people drawn together by a need for survival and community. It's not a place of hope, but there is love.
Dennis Kimble looks ancient for his 48 years. He has a long gray beard and hair that seem to have been untended since forever. His face is a Rorschach of pain. He looks like he could be on a porch in the Ozarks with a banjo.
A former civil service worker and owner of a small automotive business, Kimble has been sleeping on the street for eight years. The patriarch of this tribe, he's ravaged, worn down by attrition; the elements have taken their toll. He says he fell off a ladder at work and sustained hip and back injuries 10 years ago. Unable to work, he assumed his position on the pavement.
Today Kimble is taking an extra pounding from the storm. Inexplicably lighthearted, he says he drinks beer to stave off the cold and keep his soul warm.
“Without heat the body shuts down,” he says. “You have no warmth, you have nothing out here.”
He speaks in a raspy stream of consciousness with untrackable non sequiturs, darting between ideas without warning.
“My health is probably about three quarters of the dealings because of the medical problems,” Kimble says. “Esophagus reflux syndrome, stomach disorder for internal gastritis, hip disorder, back displacement and all kinds of other medical disorders that I can't say right now.”
A few weeks ago, police confiscated a wooden cart he had built by hand. He lost his tools and everything else he had.
“They want to take everything that I need to shelter myself from this weather,” Kimble says. He accepts the rain, the cold and the loss of his possessions but can't come to terms with the fact that he couldn't help his friend William when he had a seizure last week and split his head open. Kimble's first-aid kit was in his cart.
William's hands are shaking uncontrollably as he sits in a puddle under the tarp. It's not the DTs. He's chilled to the bone. His long, auburn beard and matted hair make him look old, in contrast to his childlike sensibility. He says his name is Engelbert Humperdinck, and laughs.
He struggles unsuccessfully to get some pasta the four inches to his mouth from a Styrofoam plate.
William's head hit the concrete so hard that it took seven stitches to stop the bleeding. Like the rain on the tarp, his head has been pounding since. He has a bloody scab between his eyebrows.
William stops joking as his frustration mounts. It's too much to contain and he finally cries out, “What am I supposed to do?”
After a few minutes he collects himself. “I've been out here since 2002. I got a bad back, nerve damage and liver problems. They won't give me no medicine for that so I have to drink alcohol. Look!” He pulls back a tangle of hair, revealing some of the stitches.
“I'm having seizures now and they won't give me medication. They're saying I'm homeless and I'm a drunk, but I'm only drinking two and three beers a day.”
Like Kimble, William is trapped in an endless loop of self-medication. Beyond the addiction matrix, he's not trying to get high, just stave off the pain of living.
“It's not really working,” he confesses. “I aren't gonna do no heroin no more. I done made my mind up on that. It's been over five years since I done heroin.
“I don't do nothing but go out and panhandle money,” William says, finally managing to get a mouthful of pasta.
“It doesn't really make sense to me. I'm going to the hospital for major headache pain, and I can't get nothing for the pain.
“You go to Olive View [Hospital] and they don't wanna help you. And I'm stuck out here in the rain, freezing my fucking ass off. There's a rain jacket right there,” William says, pointing to a plastic poncho. “I'm gonna have to put it on and panhandle some money today.”
Ramping up, his tremors uncontrollably spilling the pasta from the fork, he lets loose again. “What else am I supposed to do?” he yells as a group from a local church shows up with more food.
“God loves you,” a guy from the church group says in a Spanish accent. “God wants to pull you out of here because there is a new life in heaven. Receive the word in your heart. We won't forget about you guys. We know that you guys exist. You are blessed.”
But Gina doesn't feel blessed today. She's cold and shivering, even under four layers of clothes the church gave her. She and 26-year-old son Justin emerge from their tarp and press against the wall of a nearby building, trying to stay dry. It's useless. The rain is relentless, now coming down so hard that cars are pulling over to wait it out.
Gina is 55. She has the leathery brown skin of someone who sleeps days in the California sun. Shivering in wet sneakers, she stands on a sleeping bag.
She and Justin had a fight last night; he slept around the corner until he got too cold and came under the tarp.
“I've been homeless for two and a half years, since I lost the house that my grandfather built. My kid's joined me now. It's nice that we have a family,” she says, her words betrayed by tears streaming down her face.
“It's hard but we try to bond together and keep each other covered. I got a smile on my face and tears. A lot of these people make it worthwhile,” she says, looking at Kimble, William and the church people. “But this is great. We get the prayers.”
Gina says she needs to go to the doctor so she can get on SSI. She was partially disabled in an accident when she worked at Price Club but says she hasn't gotten around to following up with the paperwork.
Justin's not speaking to Gina. He leans against the wall, shivering in a sweater with the hood pulled up. The newest member of the tribe, he's just begun his journey into the homeless vortex. He's 26 but looks 36.
A disheveled goatee is the last remnant of his hipster past. “I have ulcers. It's from the drinking. Ain't nothing else. Probably some stress too … but it doesn't really hurt,” he says in a raw, raspy voice. “I got bad knees from skateboarding when I was younger.
“I attended one semester at community college, but I'm not really qualified for much. I was going for broadcasting. I wanted to do voice-overs, but obviously that's pretty fucked right now. It sucks donkey balls.” He quickly apologizes for using that language.
“I used to live with my mom, but after the fucking housing bubble or whatever popped, we were out the door, you know?”
Molly crawls under the tarp and curls up next to William as the deluge continues. She knows this storm won't be passing anytime soon.
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