Homeless for the Holidays: A Thanksgiving Story

(The following post originally ran Nov. 21, 2007, and has become a Below the Fold holiday tradition of sorts. For those who have read it before, please pardon the repetition — and for those who are reading it for the first time, I hope it serves as a reminder of what this holiday, and being human, is all about.)

LOS ANGELES IS A CITY of fragments, its people fragmented. It’s a place apart and in parts, a labyrinthine expanse so loosely bound as if against nature. LA is a place to live, not to be from.

Most people only see L.A. through a windshield – the observer protected behind glass, the observed seen in glimpses if at all. It is into this concrete dichotomy I drive several days a week. I’ve done this for nearly a year with no regret, save for the occasional Sigalert that slows traffic even more than the usual crawl. Once this happened by the Staples Center, forcing me to watch the video ad for “American Idols on Tour” more times than should be considered humane.

Almost every day, before joining my fellow commuters on Interstate 10 and 5 for the long slog to Orange County, I see a homeless man by the freeway entrance. Always smiling, always pleasant, and always with a hand out, as if he’s the operator of an imaginary toll booth. I give when I can, when the stoplight cooperates. This means lowering the window, a risky proposition in a place where people lock their car doors while they are still driving.

For months I saw this man – and then, a few weeks ago, he was gone. Maybe it was the weather, both turning slightly cooler and for a long while heavy with smoke and its unhealthy remnants.

He could be anywhere, doing just fine, but nevertheless I worry and wonder – whether he is safe, whether he found a better onramp, or whether he melted back into the jigsaw world of Greater L.A., another face in another windshield. This is the time of Thanksgiving after all, a time for holidays and families and desires for human connections. So I wonder, I worry, and wait.

The Day after Christmas
This man – and next time I see him, I promise to ask his name – reminds me of another man I met in Atlanta, exactly 17 years ago Friday. He, too, was (at least to me) homeless and nameless, a regular character at the CNN Center. I wrote about him in my book, and the following passage tells the story of our brief encounter:

“Where are you from?” The question came out of nowhere, as did the man. He looked 40ish, wearing a purple long-sleeved shirt, a green jacket-vest, a black hat, and a beard grown from neglect rather than purpose. As we talked, he would continuously sip from an empty Styrofoam cup. I wanted to tell him there was nothing in there, though I’m sure he knew. I just stared at the cup rising and falling from the man’s lips with mechanical precision.

I don’t know what was in the cup before, but based on our conversation, I got the feeling it was more likely vodka than coffee. We talked about life on the streets and how being homeless is a lot like being in prison – except that in prison you get three meals a day and a warm place to sleep. But that wasn’t the worst part.

“It’s the loneliness,’ he said, taking another imaginary sip. “All the time, loneliness. All of my friends are either dead or gone.”

I was going to tell him how lonely I felt that Thanksgiving, but decided against it. Here was a guy who has endured the same ugly feeling for six years, and I was depressed about one day spent in a warm hotel room with the people I love a phone call away. His cup was empty; mine runneth over.

“The day after Christmas,” he said. “A business is made or broken by how well it is the day after Christmas. Everything is defined by where you are the day after Christmas.”

We had been talking about Thanksgiving, but I wasn’t going to argue. This was his conversation. I was just along for the ride.

I gave him some money as I got up to take my tour, which he accepted but don’t think expected. When I came back downstairs an hour later, I spotted my friend talking to a couple of other street people. He waved to me as I passed.

He still had his cup and it was still empty. And I felt bad, really bad, because I knew that on the day after Christmas, he would still be there.

I never looked at people or a place the same after that. Everywhere is home for someone – every place has its own ecosystem that functions often despite itself. No matter where we live, we can connect.

Yes, Los Angeles is a city of fragments, its people fragmented. But while the pieces don’t always fit, we must, eventually, come together.

39 thoughts on “Homeless for the Holidays: A Thanksgiving Story

  1. Reblogged this on Mind Pulp and commented:
    I was reading through some blogs today at lunch, and this one hit me like a tractor-trailer.

    Sharing was not an option.

  2. First time reading this and glad you put a spotlight on a problem that plagues society as a whole.

    It is difficult to tackle homelessness although the United States does a better job than most countries. The problem is that we do not tackle some of the issues that cause a person to get into this state in the first place. If you are struggling in your life, you get no help. You have to lose everything before you can qualify. It is your fault that you were laid off or maybe some think that they are uneducated or lazy and do not deserve help until they are homeless and on the streets. The second is the ease of help for those with mental illness. It is a hard problem to get a handle on.

    There are many under the radar who are struggling and need a leg up to become productive again. It betters society as a whole.

  3. It’s just unacceptable in this country! There are so many Multi Billionaires who should be doing their part after all it was ALL of the Little Fish who FED The Big Fish that made them WHAT They are today !
    Thousands and thousands of empty homes across the board from foreclosures . Run down homes that have been abandoned by the banks.
    There is just no G.D. Excuse for WHY Any man , woman and child should NOT Have a warm bed to lay their head or a hot meal in their stomach !
    You blame them for being homeless when its

  4. People make much of the holidays with the homeless, but how about the whole year, they are forgotten and neglected. It is so sad. I wish there was something I could do about it. I wish there was some place where they could stay indoors in my city instead of being thrown out at 7 am to spend time at the library, the only place they have to stay indoors during the winter. All the shelters are closed from 7am to 7pm leaving these poor people to fend for themselves in a cold place, with cold people brushing them off. They can go to the bread line to get hot meals but that is for a little time and then they have to go out to walk aimless in the frigid winter. What a shame I feel that my city does not have a place for them.

  5. It doesn’t take much for the average person to become homeless, especially in recent years. I think a lot of people are close to the ‘edge’ without admitting it, or perhaps they ignore it, since there may not be much that can be done to prevent it happening, if its going to.

  6. A few minutes before I read your post, I had read this article.


    What does it say about human beings where we treat the symptoms instead of looking for a cure? There is absolutely no need for anyone, anywhere, to go homeless, hungry, or without medical care. Why do we allow this? Why do we look the other way? Haven’t we learned anything at all about caring and compassion? Are we so judgmental as to think people who have less than us somehow deserve their lot in life?

    Christmas for many means gift giving and maybe a few coins or dollars tossed towards charity. But what about the rest of the year?

  7. I think of the homeless every day ; not just on holidays..In California I grew to a new sense of awareness..And with a love for people; there were things I could NO longer avert my eyes from…I also think it is pathetic! in the land of freedom & milk/honey; that there are SO many homeless in our country. A country can’t be the front runner with so many of its people homeless, hungry and without health insurance..I could go on & on about this topic; but I won’t . 2 thumbs UP for your write!!!

  8. Great story, I always enjoy posts about the side of life that society tends to look away from. Yet, those are the ones that need to be noticed most. Thank you for the reminder 🙂

  9. Homelessness is an epidemic in the US these days. People are losing their homes left and right. Being put out on the streets with no caring as to what they are suppose to do.
    If you haven’t ever had this happen to you, well let me tell you about it.
    I was thrown out of the house I was renting because a medical condition was keeping me from returning to work. I could no longer pay my bills, rent or for the medical care I need to get me back up and being productive. My landlords didn’t care what was going to happen to me or my daughter. There are no programs unless you have minor children.
    This is not a seasonal situation, it is a daily one. I met many of the homeless in my area (Southern California). Some have died due to the situation. Some prefer to live this way. Then you have the rest of us who refused to stay there. Reaching and looking for all possible ways to get out.
    We only got out of our situation due to my daughter having an emotional breakdown which lead us to a program that would assist us.
    While homeless we were shunned and ignored like we were invisible to society. I never sat with my hand out or asked any stranger for anything. Not even a kind word.
    People would look at my car (Jeep Grand Cherokee) and the enclosed trailer I pulled behind it like we were diseased. I was lucky, my car and trailer were in excellent condition and I kept them clean. I just had to park at the library all day, everyday as I had no where else to go. Or the money for the gas to move around much.
    You have to visit food banks and feeds (meals provided by different churches) to have food at all. If you have the ability to cook you are living high on the hog. There are only so many shelters and they aren’t really fit to stay in. Major health concerns in them.
    Oh and by the way it is against the law to sleep in your car between 9pm and 9 am where I live. Kind of stupid, you would think they would want every one sleeping and quiet at night. Yes they give tickets to homeless people all the time for this.
    There are several ways to improve this situation but every attempt our community has made gets shot down. There are many people who would rather see the lower income people just disappear from their “view”.
    Society itself keeps the divisions. We don’t have communities which are caring for each and every member, like a family member. Helping each other at all times. That type of society/community no longer exists in this world. But it is where we should be striving for. It wont happen though, not in my life time. People are greedy and want distinction of rank and power. To become truly united money and greed have to die.

    1. I loved the original post…and I treasure your “post reply”. My heart keeps returning to this issue…countless millions are just a breath away from the telling of more stories…

  10. This question of homelessness have long divided people, while the majority – I believe feel sad and sorry for people without shelter, I’ve always found it hard to agree with the others who judge them or blame them for their situation especially if they’re young and healthy, and while I don’t deny that some of them caused themselves that misery by indulging in drugs or whatever, I still FEEL sad that they paid a huge price for human mistakes. So compassion is the least we can do. It’s late at night here in Prague but I didn’t regret spending time reading your great post. Thanks!

  11. Even though homelessness exists year round, it is most keenly felt during the so-called “best time of the year”. Well, for many people this is not the best time of the year, it is the worst and just keeps getting worse. Maybe if greed and consumerism weren’t so prevalent in the society, so many people wouldn’t sufferer from the results of it. Homelessness comes about for a variety of reasons, but it is obvious that those who can not compete in a materialistic world will suffer horribly.

  12. Thank you for sharing this. It’s nice to know that there are people out there that will look at a man on the street and see a PERSON. Sometimes we lose ourselves in all that we have and watch others with nothing try to survive.

  13. This is my first time reading this and, living in Atlanta, it hit me like an anvil. I, too, have met several homeless people while working downtown. The irony is that many of them are smart, capable victims of circumstance. As someone who lost my job in 2009, I often think about how things might have been if I hadn’t have been lucky enough to get another job relatively quickly.

  14. I am homeless and write about homelessness and humanity, your story here is encouraging. My goal is to get society to see that homeless folks are after all just folks with no home, no more or less than everyone else.

  15. This caught my eye as it’s an issue I think about a lot, living in L.A. I love the very human way you wrote about this. Well done! I am putting the final touches on a story about a similar encounter. Let’s keep the conversation going in the ways we can! :))

  16. Reblogged this on RoadTrek Adventures and commented:
    If everyone would just help one person, we could begin to tackle this problem. In the last couple of months on the road, I have met so many thoughtful and intelllegent folks who are parts of the side effects of our current society and culture. I’m currently involved with helping a friend of mine get a roof over his head this winter. See:http://www.gofundme.com/VW-Van-for-John
    Lets all try to reach out and help those in need this Season. Peace.

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