“Homelessness is hell, but nobody knows what it's like,” says author Todd Murphy by way of introduction to his new book, Homeless: A Day in the Life. Murphy was homeless himself for 2½ years in the '70s, and he's used the harrowing experience as the basis for the semiautobiographical work. We spoke with Murphy about it all…
L.A. WEEKLY: You spent 2½ years homeless — what have you been doing since, and how did you become non-homeless?
TODD MURPHY: I was homeless in the 1970s, about 1976 to 1979, in Boston. I became non-homeless when a friend of mine told me I could stay in an empty room in his place for a week or two. I jumped at the chance, and that meant I had an address and a phone number to put on a job application. I also had a place to keep clothes and such things. I did my laundry, took a shower and then looked clean. I went out to pound the pavement for a job, and saw a Help Wanted sign at a gas station. I applied and was told to come in at 4 p.m. They didn't call the number, send me a card or check my references. So luck was on my side that day. I went home after my first shift and told my friend I had a job and would rent the room. He agreed, and that's how I got off the streets. It was a slice of good luck, unhindered by a lack of an address and phone number. I'm sure I never would have landed the job if I didn't have those basic things taken care of.
When and why did you decide to write a book?
I was in a bookstore, and I saw a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the thought hit me, quite suddenly, “I could write this book,” if I changed the theme to homelessness, instead of life in a Stalinist gulag. I'd thought about writing a book on homelessness many times in the past, but Solyzhenitsyn's book gave me the literary context. All of a sudden, I knew how to write it.
You note in the foreword that the main character is fictitious, but how much of the book is fact? For example, bum bashers — is that something that genuinely goes on?
It's a novelized memoir, and all the incidents and experiences I write about are things that I went through. I was only beaten up once, but that's because I was young enough to look like I could defend myself, and I wasn't a drinker. Drunks seem to be the main victims, but anyone too weak to defend themselves is at risk. Yes, it's very real. If you want to see some of it, look at YouTube. It'll put you in a bad mood but you'll get the idea quickly. The “bashers” are thrill-seeking predators. They're mostly younger (late teens and 20s), and they choose the weak for their victims.
Here in L.A., with Skid Row, etc, we have such a huge homeless population — what do you think the solution is?
I think the solution is to provide rudimentary housing (even tents set on platforms) in organized villages, with municipal clean-up crews, police patrols and access to services on-site. Most importantly, they need phones (which they often have), and proper mailboxes (so they have a place to receive letters from places like the food stamp offices, the VA, unemployment and SSI). Above all, a mailing address means that they have an address to put on a job application. In time, the tents could be replaced with micro-housing.
We can no longer afford the luxury of strict housing and building codes, based on higher (even median) incomes. With no provision for housing cheap enough for the very poor, they end up on the streets. We need to lower our standards for housing but raise our standards for the other amenities.
Some people will never come off the streets, and we shouldn't throw them back because of their dependencies, mental illness or old age. Low-income housing is one thing, but the no-income housing we need to solve the homeless crisis is another. Parklands (a small portion of them), back alleys and vacant lots should be pressed into service, but that will mean changing the rights of property owners and cities, abolishing the right to evict people from unused land. So long as a property owner can toss people out of empty lots, the homeless will endlessly be confronted with the fact that they have no right to be anywhere. The homeless will never have the all-important address and phone number it takes to make the transition back to holding a job while they live “unofficially.” If the post office doesn't recognize an address as valid, it will never receive mail, and P.O. boxes require that a person visit the post office every day, instead of the mail carrier bringing to them, as they do for “normal” people. The extra effort will mean some of them don't see their mail often enough, and can miss appointments, etc.
Tent housing may seem inadequate, but it allows a person a little space to store things like clean clothes, food and a few possessions. These small things can make the difference between mere poverty and real degradation. The psychological difference between someone who has even the smallest home and someone who has nothing is enormous. The former can believe they can get a job. The latter cannot — and won't bother trying.
There's a lot more to say about this. I could go on for many pages. In one sentence, the solution is homeless villages, with the same services we see in ordinary neighborhoods.
What's next for you?
I'll carry on my work in behavioral neuroscience. If I have an opportunity to be a homeless advocate, I'll do that, too. However, I don't want to get involved in begging for attention from the government people who are responsible for addressing the issue. I went that route, and got no response. Promoting the book is probably the best thing I can do to raise awareness, and perhaps earn a voice in the national discussion about it.
Homeless: A Day in the Life is available now on amazon.com in ebook and print editions.