Nightmare on Main Street

Who are these people?  Why are they dirty, disheveled and walking the streets of my neighborhood?  I can’t go anywhere without seeing them.  Anywhere.  Their tents and shopping carts and bags of filthy belongings are a blight on the landscape.  Why can’t they find somewhere else to go?  Their presence disturbs me in a primal way.  As if they are capable of destroying all that I have built.  As if they have nothing to lose.  As if they have turned a manic, threatening eye to my placid, ordered existence.  It’s not fair.  I have worked hard for my slice of the pie.  They have nothing to lose.  The collision of those two trajectories fills me with dread.

Why are there so many of them?  Why do their numbers seem to be increasing exponentially?  Who are they?  One of them is my son.

He is thirty-three years old and has been spiraling down for years.  At first, it was the loss of a crappy job.  Then it became the inability to find or hold another crappy job.  A woman he was living with told him to leave.  The love of his life.  Fear then took over.  Fear of failure.  Fear of being alone.  Fear of disappointing his parents.  Fear of everything.  All-consuming, constant fear at this level has consequences.  It is not sustainable.  There must be relief at some point or there will be collapse.  The rational solution would be to rectify the bad choices that had brought him to this point.  But my son wasn’t rational.  For him, relief beckoned in the form of a bottle.  And he ran to it.  Alcohol created a numb space where the fear could be held in abeyance for a little while.  A black void where the shrieking voices taunting him for his weaknesses could be stilled.  Temporarily.  But they always came back in the morning.

Every single person in the city sitting on curbs staring vacantly at the parade of passing cars.  It is apocalyptic, a lost episode of the Twilight Zone.

There are almost 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County.  Imagine the entire population of Gardena, California or Bristol, Connecticut wandering the streets, going through trash cans searching for discarded food, fighting over scraps of soiled bedding, sleeping on benches or under bushes.

Every single person in the city sitting on curbs staring vacantly at the parade of passing cars.  It is apocalyptic, a lost episode of the Twilight Zone.  Every demographic is represented: young teens who hate high school and their abusive parents but love crack cocaine; single mothers who can’t afford a studio apartment and end up living in their cars; veterans who can’t reconcile the chaos and madness of combat with the deceptive serenity of normal life; men and women of all ages who feel like they don’t belong, don’t fit in with their work/home environment.  This past summer, my son joined their ranks.  He slid quietly and anonymously into this slipstream of misery.

At first, I was relieved.  Relieved?  How could that be possible?  How could the specter of my son wandering the streets of the San Fernando Valley, confused, scared, hungry and alone not make me want to get in my car and keep driving until I spotted him?  Because he had become an inconvenience.  His continued erratic behavior and seeming inability or unwillingness to do anything to improve his circumstances irritated me.

I saw him not as my son, who needed help, but as a drain on my time, energy and money.  An alcoholic and a liar who would say or do anything to avoid the responsibilities and challenges of the real world.

Sometimes I wished he would just disappear.  Shamefully, I played out fantasies where he moved to Miami and simply vanished from the radar screen.  Out of sight, out of mind.

But he wasn’t gone.  He was wandering around Los Angeles, begging for food, sleeping on deserted loading docks, drifting through a dense fog of hopelessness and despair.  Every week or so he would collapse somewhere, the police and paramedics would be summoned, and he would be conveyed to one of the psychiatric hospitals and placed under a 72-hour hold, or a “5150”.  This is for people who demonstrate through words or actions that they want to hurt themselves or others.  Those are the magic words– “I want to kill myself”– that unlock the resources previously unavailable to desperate, homeless people.  Short of that, the police and paramedics who respond to inert bodies on public sidewalks can only ask the person to move along.  Move the problem down the road to the next community.  The problem.  That’s what my son had become.

Olive View Hospital lies at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains at the northeastern end of the San Fernando Valley.  Pacifica Hospital is a few miles to the south.  These are the beaches where the delusional and suicidal wash up.  They are always at full capacity.  As soon as a bed opens up, another lost soul is brought in.  It is mental and emotional triage. The doctors, nurses and social workers who are assigned to these facilities show up every day and attempt to manage the continual onslaught of people at the end of their rope.  They are caring.  They are empathetic.  They are good at what they do.  And they are overwhelmed.  They are directed to stabilize the patient with antipsychotic drugs and then release them back to the streets.  Stabilize and release.  Stabilize and release.  This is not a sustainable protocol.

You might ask, why not let him live in my house?  Give him a safe harbor, protected from the howling winds of a chaotic world.  Maybe it is the responsibility of an empathetic parent to sacrifice personal wellbeing for a troubled son.  The answer is two-fold.  First, he is an adult, manifesting extreme behavior that would be continually disruptive to the peace and harmony of my household.  Second, if I allowed him to move in, he would never move out.  Never.  He would have no incentive to engage with the real world, find work, risk failure and rejection.  It would become a hermetic cocoon, an isolation tank that would magnify feelings of paranoia and insecurity, day after day, until the slender reed of self fragmented once again and he found himself knocking on the door of another hospital.

So what is the answer?  From my experience, three things come to mind: medication, therapy, and shelter.  Anti-psychotic drugs are essential to ameliorate the roller coaster of emotions plaguing many homeless people.  Without the ability to think clearly, bad choices inevitably result.  Regular, on-going psychological and behavioral therapy is also critical.  Weekly monitoring, group workshops and individual sessions are necessary to address addiction issues and provide a roadmap toward self-sufficiency.  Finally, shelter.  Without a safe, clean place to live, the chances of emerging from this hopeless, precarious existence are slim.  When you are constantly afraid of being arrested or assaulted or robbed or ridiculed, no amount of drugs or therapy can mitigate the gnawing, constant sense of dread and insecurity.

But housing is expensive.  Who’s going to pay for all the units needed to accommodate all those who have nowhere to live?  The answer is you and me.  We are already paying for services that nibble around the edges.  It may be nothing more than a matter of reallocation of resources.  In Finland, the government has spent almost $500,000,000 to build new housing for thousands of homeless Finns.  They estimate that this amount will be substantially offset by the reduction of money currently being spent on social services, healthcare, and the judicial/criminal system.  Since it’s launch in 2008, Finland’s homeless population has fallen by more than 35%.  What is the alternative?  Turning a blind eye to the homeless encampments lining the freeways?  Hurling invective at desperate men sleeping on park benches?  Shaking an impotent fist at the hordes of vacant-eyed people flooding the peripheral streets and alleys of downtown Los Angeles?

My son is off the streets now and living in a board-and-care facility.  He is taking his meds.  He has a caring social worker who checks up on him regularly.  He has a mother who has always been his greatest advocate.  And now I am starting to show up as well.

He is slowly re-integrating himself into the myriad demands of normal life.  Is the problem solved?  I am not naïve enough to believe that years of inner turmoil can be resolved in a few weeks.  But he is beginning to resemble again the son I watched perform confidently at his high school talent show in front of 600 people.  The son with a great capacity to love.  The son who deserves a better life.  But what if, in spite of intensive therapy, he still can’t hold even a crappy job?  What if, in spite of constant love and affirmation from his family, he still can’t make friends?  What if, in spite of the efforts of psychologists and social workers, the stark loneliness and brutal sense of failure recur and drive him into the void again?  Then we will start the process all over again.  And again.  And again.


Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly
Kevin is fond of saying he was born in Texas, raised in Colorado, and corrupted in California. A filmmaker for 23 years, he wrote and directed commercials, documentaries, and dramatic films for companies running the gamut from TRW to Microsoft to Disney. For the past twenty years, he has taught filmmaking at an inner-city Los Angeles high school. Kevin’s novel, Ride The Snake, available on Amazon as an eBook, is loosely based on his life growing up in the ‘60s.

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  1. Blessings Kevin, this touches the heart of my soul. Every time I see a homeless person, he or she, I say to myself, “What a messed up World” these were children at one time, somene’s sister, brother, uncle, aunt, mother, or father. I will share this with you, my son got into drugs in his sophmore year of high school. A good student, good kid, atheletic, good looks; he had it all. When things broke down in our family, I made the decision to do what ever it would take to get him straight and I told him, ( _____ you may never speak to me again in your life, but everything I am going to do from this day forward is for your own good.) Well, my son kicked the drugs, went back into his love of basketball and graduated from high school and college. However, he has not spoken to me in nearly 15 years, and although I know where he is, that he is not in jail, not on drugs and has a good job, it is painful as a mother to lose the contact with my son. I pray every day for God to change his heart, but when I see young and old on the streets, I think of how easily it could have been my son. I will pray for your situation, thanks for the story.

    • Tough love is probably the hardest thing to apply and then live with in this world. You did your son an enormous service and it has paid off. i hope he realizes this someday and appreciates that you saved his life.

    • Tough love is one of the hardest thing in life to apply and then live with. You did your son a great service even though it resulted in a great sacrifice on your part. I hope he realizes someday that you saved his life.

  2. Wow Kevin, this is a shocking, heartbreaking story. I’m sorry to hear about your son and sorry to hear how bad things are in L.A. I’m not going to debate political philosophy because it never solves a damn thing, conservatives and liberals alike… but I will say it’s an American tragedy that has infected many cities. Drugs, crime, homelessness… it all seems to pour into the same boiling cauldron of futility. I understand your dilemma, damned if you try to help him, damned if you don’t. I have one son who is eight and I’m trying desperately to protect him from the bad choices that await him in life. I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I could give God everything I have, I’d beg him to keep my son away from drugs…I suppose I’d also beg God to keep him out of politics, it’s all the same devil. Many prayers you find the wisdom to save your boy 🙏

    • Good luck with your journey with your son. It never seems to end, no matter how old they are. And I share your determination to keep him out of politics. Why corrupt a good he

  3. Kevin, first, thank you for sharing this. Your story is heartbreaking and brutal, and I am humbled by the courage it must have taken to share it. I feel for you and your son, the pain that it is for a parent to fear for their child (grown or not!).

    I hope you won’t mind if I share with you something that I’ve seen since returning to SLC early this year. While I in no way suggest this as a total solution, I believe that what these two organizations are doing is part of the answer. I hope that it will bring some ideas to you and to others who read it.

    Jessie Campbell is an absolutely amazing gentleman here in Salt Lake who is tackling the problem of homelessness one person at a time … Jessie was a drug addict living on the streets of SLC for several years. With the help of a stranger who cared, he turned his life around. Now, Jessie is helping others who are on the streets through his organization Life on the Line. He said that the one of the hardest things about being homeless, is that you are in an environment where you can never let your guard down. So they take people out of the harsh environment of the streets and they go fishing to help them open up and learn to connect and heal. It gives people a chance to get outside of their day-to-day reality and then they can start to address individual issues. Then, they work with them to help them get off any substances they’re abusing, get mental and physical help, they help them get a place to live, to get a job (holding their hand through each step of the way). Not only have they had great success with this model, the rate at which people want to give back and help the next person is 100%.

    There is another amazing young man who is bringing humanity to the homeless – and I do mean young! Chase Hanson is a 10 year old who, at the age of 6, was curious about why people were on the streets. His dad suggested they talk to them, find out their stories – so they started taking homeless people to lunch just to have a conversation. They realized that people on the streets no longer feel like people, they feel like they are outside of humanity looking in. So, through conversations and caring, they help them remember that they are people, not trash. They help them reconnect with themselves and their abilities. Chase and his dad, John Hansen, started Project Empathy and it is becoming a movement in the community here. They have also seen great success.

    These two organizations are working together, and with other services here in SLC, to help both the community and the people who have (as you so eloquently stated) “…slid quietly and anonymously into this slipstream of misery” to realize and reconnect with the fact that we’re all human. As Dr. Hughes stated, it can happen to anyone and who knows when we will need that human touch?

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and reasoned response. Those are two amazing stories about thought turned into action. It’s clear that active human empathy is the key to attacking the inertia that permeates these issues.

  4. Thank you for sharing this powerful and personal story, Kevin. I’m with Mark when he says, “there but for the grace of God…” I, too, know people who seeming had it all until they had nothing at all. It can happen to any of us, I suppose. I’m glad your son is in a better place and I’m grateful that you share this story as a beacon of hope for others who share your plight. I wish you and your family a brighter tomorrow.

    • Thank you for your kind thoughts. I, too, feel that we are all sometimes a blink away from being thrust into the same situation. It only takes a couple of bad breaks.

  5. Kevin, welcome to what I am fond of calling “our family.” Let me also congratulate you on publishing your first article here. Homelessness is an issue that goes back a long way with nobody seemingly willing or able to come up with a viable solution. This is due in no small part is that there are so many causes for it. I have seen these people in many different places. Each must have their own story as to how they wound up in this position. There is a part of me that feels great sadness for these people. I always catch myself before I get too disgusted or mad at them that it could very well be one of us that are sitting on that corner or wandering around the streets with wagons or alone. Any number of things could bring this nightmare to life. Hospitals cannot handle high volumes of people unless they are violent or a threat to themselves. Knowing your son is in the same boat as many of these people must eat you up inside as it would any parent. This problem is not going away. With rents spiraling out of control with a possible recession looming this problem could worsen. The winter is coming (I am in New York where we have no small population of homeless people) which means many will die in the cold. I wish I could do more. Some of us can do more. To simply shrug this problem off with disgust and disdain we should thank G-d it is not one of us.

    • There are no easy solutions as you well know. That doesn’t mean we just give up in despair. Hopefully, a growing awareness of the problem will change public perception and galvanize some sort of action.

  6. Kevin, sometimes I read things, and I am left feeling so overwhelmed with emotion that I don’t know what to say. But I can say thank you for sharing this raw and emotional story about your son, you as a father, and this journey. I hope that your son finds the peace he needs and that you also do. I cannot imagine the pain that must accompany what you’ve gone through. So, I’ll send blessings from where I am to you and your family.

  7. Kevin – Your story is full of raw emotion and pain because there are no easy answers to the problems you raise. My heart goes out to you and my prayers lift you and your son.

    And welcome to this amazing community – your first article clearly shows you are going to add much to this forum and will stir much conversation.

  8. There are those who think that the homeless have chosen this life, but the reality is that the homeless phenomenon has many facets and concerns different segments of the population. Every homeless hides a story of its own that needs to be understood. Stories of marginalization, loneliness and despair of which poverty, both economic and spiritual, is the protagonist. These are people who have come to the fear of the stranger, to total isolation from their surroundings. The condition of severe marginalization exposes them to very high risks for their lives due to the failure to satisfy basic needs.
    The company reacts to the emergency but is struggling to organize re-inclusion strategies. The problem is that very often the emergency situation is met with emergency policies that fundamentally aim to satisfy primary needs. In some countries there is a great awareness and constant assistance to these unfortunate people, trying to create moments of social interaction, solidarity, permanent canteens, roadside assistance, collection of clothes and blankets and other initiatives to high social value. But more and more instruments of social reincorporation are needed, through psycho-social support, income support, job placement, housing.

    Kevin, I have faith that your son will make it.

    • I appreciate your words of support. It’s a troubling question but sometimes life thrusts us into areas of challenge whether we are ready for them or not. Thank you for your response.

  9. I read your story multiple times, Kevin. My sons are 36 and 33, respectively. There, but for the grace of God …

    While a late-blooming college student, I took a Public Policy course. At first, I didn’t understand why it was offered in the Philosophy Department, rather than Political Science. Once I realized public policy is about the allocation of finite resources, it was crystal clear.

    Your son and his fellow sufferers are caught in a perfect storm of personal responsibility and political neglect. Because other interests are made “more special” than his so politicians can keep themselves in office, priorities go to Hell and take people with them. At this point, 243 years into our grand experiment in self-government and individual liberty, we’ve accepted dependence over meaningful help, we’ve accepted vote-getting promises over constructive results. Your son and his fellow sufferers, sadly, are collateral damage.

    I don’t know if this will help you or your son:

    I offer it in the hope that it might. I hope your son is able to find his self-faith. I hope both of you are able to find peace. And I hope to God we find our way back to the nation, to the caring, unified culture that would make your son and his fellow sufferers first among those who need help legitimately and would gain from it productively.

    Thank you for having the courage to share your story at all, let alone with such brutal candor and ruthless insight.

    • Thank you for your sensitive response to my article. I share your frustration with our government and try not to let it paralyze me. I’m not sure what to do about it other than joining with like-minded individuals in expressing myself.