It’s 6 am in spring in Los Angeles (LA) in California, one of the 50 states of United States of America.
Temperatures are ranging between 15 and 20 degrees, slightly warmer than Washington District of Columbia (DC). But it is a bit chilly during night and morning hours.
During the evening and early morning chill weather, some people are spotted on most streets and corners, sleeping on cartons covering themselves with blankets. Beside them are usually big travelling bags or suitcases, fully packed. The contents are not known.
The first sight of such would give the impression that these are mad people but these are people that live on the streets of LA 24 hours, seven days.
They look so scary and unfriendly. Most of them are very filthy, smell so bad and are always unstable.
The sight of some of them enjoying sleep along the streets is not new either, at least to the permanent residents of LA.
It is however shocking to learn that these are homeless people. Yes, they have no home and literally live on the streets of LA. This somehow sounds strange because most Africans believe that America is a land of opportunities and life is better than that of third world countries such as Malawi.
The homeless people of LA are mostly seen behind any bush around, in rugged tents, on benches, under bridges and in the sidewalks, among other public places.
Random interviews with residents, workers and owners of restaurants or eating places indicate that the homeless people rarely pay for their food, but rather get it for free from the owners and workers.
One of the workers at Cherry Picks restaurant in downtown LA, Amaris said everyone is used to the homeless people along the streets of LA.
He added that daily, he gives out food to more than ten homeles people. Some of them usually go to his restaurant while others just go as they move along the streets.
“Honestly, these people don’t want anyone to help them at all. There is a facility down this street where they are given food and all other basic needs, but they don’t want to go and live there. They don’t want anyone to control their lives. They have problems to take instructions from anyone,” he revealed.
Amaris added: “At the facility, they are not allowed to drink, smoke and their life is fully controlled but it’s for their own good.”
On numerous occasions, Times Group has tried to approach several of the homeless people but they all appear to be in their own world.
True to the fear that they are scary and unfriendly, they want to get ‘uncomfortably’ close when one tries to approach them. It’s even very difficult to speak one language or have a normal conversation. For one moment, it appears almost easy for one to make a quick conclusion that most of them might have mental problems. Engaging in an interview (with them) in order to hear their side of the story or get their experiences of living on the streets is a ‘luxury’.
It’s been observed that most homeless people are using public restroom facilities available to their nearest ‘camping’ site but having a bath and observing routine hygiene somehow seems to be a luxury to them. Some streets of LA literally smell as they can also just urinate anyhow.
Extent of the problem
LA has a population of about 58,000 to 60,000 homeless people, probably the highest across the USA.
Media reports indicate that the homeless situation in LA did not just appear overnight and according to research, mental illness (mostly due to substance abuse), unemployment and expensive house rentals are some of the contributing factors.
Francine Orr, a Photojournalist working for LA Times who has been working on the homeless situation (in LA) said the situation has reached a critical point due to lack of social support from all fronts and poor family coordination.
“In Africa, the poverty is extreme as people have to live on less than a dollar a day. But people are surviving because they have strong family links. Here, people end up on the streets like this because it’s everybody on their own. In Africa people have a means of helping each other through life’s difficulties. The real wealth is family,” said Orr, who has been to several southern African countries on a poverty reporting assignment.
She added that the investigations which she has done in collaboration with her colleagues on the homelessness situation in LA also exposed that the problem is worsening due to an increase in drug addiction, among many.
“It’s not like the authorities are not doing anything about it…there are facilities or shelters they could stay at but they don’t want to go and live there because they don’t want to stop using drugs,” Orr noted.
She further claimed that people from other states are also dumping homeless people to LA.
Somehow similar to some big cities of Malawi or African context, she stressed that housing is very expensive.
According to Orr, a one bedroomed, self-contained house costs $2,000 per month. An average minimum wage is $1,920 (per month) and 40 percent of this goes back to government through tax.
This is somehow strange considering the fact that most African countries regard USA in general as a land of opportunities where there are no such situations.
However, the soft spot of this issue is the fact that despite their desperate situation, they have access to free quality medical care at the country’s health facilities.
Media reports indicate that the number of homelessness people on the streets of LA has been growing at an alarming rate in the past five years.
In September 2015, LA elected leaders declared a state of emergency (and devoted) over $100 million to end the problem. But nothing tangible has been done to this effect.
Malawi disaster in waiting
A study which Chisomo Children’s Club conducted in 2014 shows that Blantyre and Lilongwe have over 5,000 street children. Some of them are sent to beg in the central business district by their parents or guardians while others literally do not have a home.
The issue of street children has been a long outstanding one and if proper means are not applied, we could have a lot of homeless people in the near future, just like our LA counterparts.
Already, it has been confirmed that street children are posing a terror to people, as they steal from them especially during night.