The Homelessness Continued Pt III

Julie Pena

For Jodan Wischmeier, a woman living next to three garbage dumpsters off the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Berendo Street, coping with the danger of homelessness often looks like carrying a 4-inch switchblade in her purse. Other times, it looks like Wischmeier digging through her purse and taking a swig from a bottle of vodka. Especially, she says, after hearing the police tell her that she needs to move her home—a tent holding everything from her propane cooking stove to her bed to her Bible. “We’re always being told we have to move,” Wischmeier said, tears spilling from her eyes. “But where are we going to go?” “Honestly, it’s getting harder and harder for me to leave this alley.” — Jodan Wischmeier

Wischmeier has a young face, with dirty-blond hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. She became homeless after fleeing a domestic violence situation, she said. With nowhere to go, she moved into her tent. Regardless, the 42-year-old said she feels “lucky,” as she is currently living across the street from a Chevron station, where most of the employees allow her to use the bathroom without telling her to buy something first. Plus, a couple of times a week, her boyfriend’s mother allows her to take a shower and do laundry. She works odd jobs, she said, and those jobs allow her to buy food and pay for her cellphone. She doesn’t want to talk about what the jobs are. But the one thing she is willing to talk about is how she hasn’t found a way to navigate the anxiety that rushes through her on a regular basis. A doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication, Wischmeier said, but the diagnosis left her feeling deeply ashamed. “I don’t see what I have to be that stressed about,” she said.

I told her that I recently reported and wrote a story for Slate about the constant stress of living on the streets, as well as the misdiagnosis and under acknowledgement of post-traumatic stress disorder in homelessness. Hearing her personal situation normalized, Wischmeier sobs openly. “Honestly, it’s getting harder and harder for me to leave this alley,” she said. I remember that feeling—how, before my sudden plunge into homelessness—I had been a successful journalist who traveled the country reporting stories. Yet in the trauma of homelessness, which included being stalked, beaten, and sexually assaulted, my world shrank to a two-mile radius around the park bench where I slept. I coped by withdrawing into my own mind, where I prayed.

Five days after I met Wischmeier in the alleyway, California state Sen. Holly Mitchell held a campaign event at a pizzeria around the corner from Wischmeier’s tent. Nguyen invited Wischmeier to come. There, Wischmeier had the chance to talk to two candidates running for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about the criminalization of the homeless. “It’s not every day that [the homeless] get to talk directly to elected officials,” Nguyen said. “It’s so important that politicians hear directly from [them].” Javier Prado, 61, sells electronics and cellphone covers on South Alvarado Street on Dec. 1.

Julie Pena

It was quarter past three on a Wednesday afternoon. A 61-year-old man, Javier Prado, was being evicted from his home of six years, as the city had deemed the building uninhabitable. “Do you want to go and meet him?” Nguyen asked me.

The two-story house on Lake Street, in a gentrifying neighborhood on the edges of Koreatown, looked decent enough on the outside. Inside, though, there were huge holes in the corners of ceilings, holes surrounded by what Prado’s attorney, Sean Chandra of Eviction Defense Network, said appeared to be a mold-like substance. The toilet that Prado shared with other housemates was broken, and the entire building stank of human waste. The landlord had been cited with failure to meet fire, safety, sanitation, and construction regulations. Prado says that after the eviction notice came, but before he finished packing his belongings, he sat determinedly on the edge of his single bed, holding his guitar, strumming out a song about perseverance that he found on YouTube: “A Wooden Cross.” Prado sang along karaoke style, to cheer himself on.

He’d paid his rent on time and showed me receipts to prove it. But now he didn’t know where he would go. Prado is a street vendor who works seven days a week, eight hours a day, selling cell phone cases and batteries in downtown L.A. He says he makes between $125 and $150 a week—nowhere near the minimum needed to rent a studio apartment in Los Angeles. Dressed in perfectly pressed black dress pants, spotless black shoes, and a shirt with cheerful lime and blue pinstripes, his thinning black hair carefully combed across his lined forehead, Prado looks to me like a picture of determined stoicism. “Many people I know in similar situations have gotten depressed and then become homeless—they live in tents on the streets,” he said. “I cannot allow myself to get depressed, even though I am sad and depressed.” Prado’s eviction notice said he needed to be out on Nov. 13—two days away. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.

Prado’s attorney says the judge allowed Prado’s landlord to evict him under a no-fault eviction. “There is a lot of lip service in this city about defending tenants’ rights,” Chandra said. “But if you look at what [the city] is doing behind the scenes, it’s ugly.” The office of councilmember Herb Wesson, who represents Koreatown, said his schedule was too busy for an interview. Meanwhile, the issue of homelessness in America has reached the federal level, where the Supreme Court decided in December against hearing an appeal to the case of Martin v. City of Boise. In that case, Robert Martin and five other homeless individuals challenged the city of Boise’s ability to fine them for violating an anti-camping ordinance, and won. In its appeal, the city of Boise argued that “the creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of more than 1,600 municipalities in the Ninth Circuit to maintain the health and safety of their communities.”

In Los Angeles, Ordinance 85.02 expired Jan. 1. The legislation had made living in a vehicle in residential areas or within a one block radius of schools and parks illegal. There are approximately 16,500 people living in cars, vans or RVs in Los Angeles County, according to a 2019 LAHSA report. Also on Jan. 1, California enacted a 5 percent cap (plus inflation) on rent increases. Despite these changes, Chandra says that the number of people he serves who are teetering on the brink of homelessness is increasing. One of his most recent cases involved a woman with a severely disabled 11-year-old child, as well as a 6-year-old. The woman had been burglarized and lost the money orders that she had been keeping to pay her rent.

Later that afternoon, on another quintessentially sunny California day, Sabrina Johnson, a Koreatown for All volunteer, talked with Prado outside his home, assuring him that she would help him move his things into storage, as well as make calls to the landlord’s attorney about compensation for the move. There was a feeling of extreme urgency between Johnson and Prado, as if a bomb were about to detonate. But no one knew how to stop it before it went off. Koreatown for All volunteers Dan Donoue, Andrea More, and Jane Nguyen stop by to see Jodan Wischmeier on Sixth Street on Nov. 30. The volunteers handed out hygiene supplies, water, and socks, and gave out information about services for the homeless in the area.

Julie Pena

In January, a Koreatown for All volunteer said that Josh Law had suddenly moved away from the city, and he was not returning phone calls. Jane Nguyen has been hired to participate in the Activist-in-Residence Program at UCLA, where she will be helping students to engage with the issue of homelessness. “As much as I would like a happy ending, things are getting worse,” she said.

Lucrecia Macias was still in her tent on the streets. Javier Prado received a relocation check for approximately $10,000 from the client trust account of the lawyer who evicted him. While that may sound like a great solution for Prado, it is really “a Band-Aid fix,” his attorney Chandra said, as the money will pay for less than a year of market-rate rent in a studio apartment—that is, if Prado can prove income to pay for the rent after the money runs out. Prado had not yet been approved for such an apartment; the last Chandra heard, Prado was staying with a friend.

Jodan Wischmeier told me on the phone that police had asked her to move her tent in late November. She now lives on a street a few hundred feet away from her original homesite in the alleyway. She told me that the news she gets on her phone tells her there are city services available for homeless people. But no one other than Nguyen has come out to her area to offer her anything, she said. “No one is helping with permanent housing,” Wischmeier told me. “We get wet when it rains, even though we have tarps. I don’t know how I’m doing. I just do every day.”

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