“No one wakes up and says, ‘I want to be homeless. I want this to be my journey,’” says Robert who lives at the Whittier Boulevard greenbelt.
Especially not Robert. In fact, he worked quite hard to stay housed. Robert once had a job that required he walk eight miles from his home in La Mirada to a paper factory in Santa Fe Springs for a 12-hour shift. Once, he had to walk right back for a double.
Losing Family, Losing a Home
Starting in 2015 with the loss of his brother, Robert lost several people close to him. In 2016, his mother died. His father followed her in 2017. In 2018, the mother of one of his three children passed away. Robert had been the caregiver for his parents for ten years leading up to their deaths. Before they died, they had been a strong, cohesive family unit. After, Robert likens them to solitary spokes emanating from a broken hub.
Robert had been living in their six-bedroom house when they died. The home passed to him and his sister (Robert’s other brother died from exposure to Agent Orange during Vietnam). Robert wanted to stay and rent the other rooms out but she preferred to sell.
When the home sold, Robert received a large windfall. Problem is he owed thousands in back owed child support. Matter of fact, unable to pay, he had spent a year at the Pitchess Detention Center, better known as Wayside. Robert claims his ex girlfriend, the one who died in 2018, successfully filed for child support from him even though the children were living with him. She was in detention herself at the time and had the check sent to her brother. Robert lost custody of the children while at Wayside and even though all three of his kids are adults now, he still owes around $30,000 in back due child support.
Dark on Bright
Robert begged the county not to garnish his entire inheritance and they agreed to let him keep $2,000. He used this to get an apartment on Bright Avenue in Whittier. Even though his criminal history is free of violent crime and consists of DUI and drug possession charges from his early twenties (Robert is now 50), he says finding a place to live was hard. The apartment on Bright, “was the only place that would rent to me,” he says.
Robert was looking for work in a warehouse but he worked odd jobs and did yard work that he found through word of mouth to pay the bills. When that proved insufficient, he found a roommate who split the rent with him. With the help of church friends, he secured a full time job caregiving for a retired truck driver with Parkinson’s disease. When the man’s family moved him to a convalescent home 15 months later, Robert found himself without a job and out on the streets. This was back in January.
The Cold, Hard Concrete
Robert had never been homeless before. He tried sleeping in Uptown Whittier but ultimately landed at the Cold Weather Shelter operated by the Whittier Area Interfaith Council. The shelter rotates among local churches during the winter months.
Robert made friends during his two months or so there. One invited him to the greenbelt encampment. Robert figured a tent on the grass would be better than being exposed to the elements on the cold, hard concrete.
Here, it’s the coyotes they have to worry about. Recently, one came by at night sniffing at tents. “He wants a mate,” Robert laughed and told his buddy.
Do You See Me?
Robert has started to get to know the people living at the greenbelt encampment and a couple things are clear to him. First, the vast majority of people here are from the local area. Second, everyone has a different story. Some people “self-medicate” but not everyone. Not him.
Robert tells a story of a homeless man he used to see on the streets of La Mirada when he was younger. Robert once went up to him and said hello. Robert was taken aback when the man responded incredulously, crying, with, “You see me? You see me?” The man just wanted someone to see him as a person.
The encampment gets people who drive by and honk their horns, shouting insults at them.
Robert’s eyes begin to water talking about this. “Find out the story,” he says. “Get to know us.”
Reprinted with permission from In My Back Yard.