Parking Lot Becomes Tent City
California isn’t everybody’s favorite place. I get it. I was born here and grew up here. I’m a fourth generation Californian on my dad’s side. I have lots to say about how great California is – how I learned to swim when I was four, how I grew up surrounded by the perfume of orange groves, how I can get myself out of a rip current, how my dad worked at Knott’s Berry Farm when it was actually a berry farm.
I lived inland as a child and ended up in Los Angeles as an adult. I know Los Angeles isn’t the center of the world. I get that, too.
In fact, I understand that there are people all around the country who have pretty negative feelings about California, the “left coast,” and Californians, in general.
Not a week goes by that some Facebook friend of talks about how happy they are to have moved out of California; or how awful California is; or how the only thing Californians want to do is raise taxes, and force everybody to eat tofu and do yoga.
People love Disneyland, that’s for sure. And when they subvert their dislike for the state and visit one of its premier attractions, I hope they have fun. I hope they go to the park, to the beach, to In-N-Out Burger, and all my favorite places.
And I hope they get a taste for what it’s like for those of us who live here: crowded and expensive. That’s part of what makes us strange to people from other places. We have adapted to being squeezed. Squeezed into smaller spaces, squeezed financially, and squeezed culturally.
There is something all this squeezing creates that doesn’t affect every town in America. In Southern California, we have a large population of homeless individuals. It’s gotten larger during the pandemic, because shelters have had to decrease their intake numbers.
Now, there are new homeless shelters cropping up around Los Angeles. Temporary tiny homes going up, and “pit stops” and portable restrooms making the rounds of homeless encampments.
Recently, a “Safe Sleep Village” was created in a large Los Angeles-area parking lot.
It’s for the homeless, or the “unhoused,” if we are trying to speak without attaching stigma to our words. There’s 24-hour security, a case manager on site, and room for 72 tents.
Reports say it’s part of a pilot program and is funded by a group called Urban Alchemy. Reports also say it costs as much per person, per month as renting a one-bedroom apartment. It costs more to house the unhoused because they have no credit, no jobs, and no money of their own.
I don’t feel OK about a tent city in a parking lot, but I expect to see more of them as time goes by. Even though I don’t have a better solution, I’m not comfortable with the idea and implementation of urban campgrounds. I used to think the best thing to do is discourage homelessness – as if homeless people are not already discouraged enough.
Regardless of what I think and how I feel about it, unhoused people exist and require help. I’m forced to adjust my level of compassion so that I don’t feel threatened by their needs.
For those who live in places were homelessness doesn’t exist, or barely registers, I envy you.
I see this particular suffering. I am confronted with mental illness in public places. I go out to lunch with my children and feel sad that there’s a hungry person sitting on the curb a block away. Transient people approach me in parking lots at Target or the grocery store or the bank – not every day, but often.
I’m not surrounded by homeless people, but I encounter them regularly. I have no answers. Poverty is one thing; mental illness and addiction are other things. I cannot blame these people for their misfortunes, because I know that besides needing food and shelter, some are also deeply unwell.
Tolerance is created by exposure. I love California. Its particular kind of squeeze forces me to practice empathy for everyone – not just people who look like me and live like I do. I’m not saying that’s easy, but I’m glad for it.
I’m off to do yoga. Tofu for dinner.