By now many of you have seen the positive message street art popping up around town. Some of you are even familiar with the artist, a homeless woman named Michelle. I ran into Michelle a few weeks back and (of course) took pictures to document our meeting. After our run in, my plan was to share the story as just another “That’s So Pedro” happening, but in light of the great homeless debate going on in town, right now, there’s a little more I’d like to say.
I had spent the day working out of the library on Gaffey and had been chatting with one of the librarians about the rampant homelessness in town and I was feeling pretty helpless about it all. I decided to walk over to Sandwich Saloon for lunch. As I sat there eating my feelings, I tried to find someone to blame for the town’s predicament. My early list of culprits included the City of Long Beach, LADOT Dash, MTA, the City of LA, drug addicts and the slum lords on the hill. I usually sit with my back to the window at Sandwich Saloon but today I was so stuck in my own head that I sat facing the street. As I hate chewed the poor innocent chicken salad sandwich, I spotted the image above through the zoetrope of traffic. Who was that and what was she doing?! The mere question put a stop to lunch and activated reporter mode.
I walked out to the crosswalk without taking my eyes off the woman who was now pulling out multiple bubble wands from her bicycle basket and trying to blow bubbles in traffic. I often make up stories in my head about what things are before I find out the truth and something in her movements made me decide that she was blessing the street and all the cars who were doing their best not to hit her. By the time I caught up to her, she was heading back out into the middle of the street with a fresh bubble wand.
Drivers were stopping to let her cross but she waved them on because she was using their wind force to create the streams of bubbles. I looked on the ground where I had first seen her drawing and I spotted “Love Rules” spelled out in purple and gold. I had finally found the person responsible for all the positive graffiti around town. I introduced myself and asked her permission to take pictures.
Her name is Michelle and she giggled when I told her my name was Romee- because of the movie Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion. Michelle became homeless two years ago when a deadly arson blaze closed the PV Inn. Despite her dire situation, she has spent the last year scrawling positive chalk and crayon messages of gratitude all over town. Michelle also suffers from bipolar depression and feels blessed to be able to share the uplifting words and bubbles to spread happiness and keep herself happy.
When I asked Michelle specifically about being homeless, she got a little quiet and apologetic in tone. She admitted that her mental illness played a role in keeping her on the street and maybe even a little laziness, but she hoped to find a place in a month or two. Not only that, but she was completely aware of the assistance being offered at Harbor Interfaith and at a similar place in Long Beach. I gave her my phone number. She asked for a hug and walked her bike up Gaffey, probably headed for the Channel Street underpass where some of her biggest messages stay up the longest.
I’ve thought about Michelle a lot since that day, especially recently, in light of the whole tiny houses kerfuffle.
Since I’m a pretty involved and somewhat public person, I’ve had people ask me my thoughts on the whole tiny houses issue. My answer is simple, it all makes me sad.
I don’t want to talk about the ugliness that has afflicted our online community over this issue. That’s not what I do. I’m a story teller. I have made it my job to seek out the people who are working to make this community a better place and share their stories. Whether you agree with me or not, because of your stance on if what she does is art or graffiti, Michelle is one of those people. I had dinner with a friend of mine and she teared up at the mere mention of Michelle’s work and gushed about how much it meant to her.
Apart from our methodology, there is absolutely no difference between what Michelle does with her street art and what I’ve been doing with That’s So Pedro. We are both trying to improve the lives of San Pedrans by infusing a little positivity into your day. The similarities don’t stop there.
We have both flipped the script on personal tragedies to do what we do. Michelle lost her home to arson. She lives on the street and still manages to think about putting a smile on someone else’s face. As for me, no one would have blamed me for going off the deep end after losing my job and my mom within a span of 18 months. But instead I used it as an opportunity to grow and battle the ugly with good stories.
When my Mom died, I was on my last unemployment extension with no job prospects in sight. The country was still knee deep in a recession. Michelle lives with bipolar depression and depends on her disability check for survival. But when the PV Inn burned, Michelle had nowhere to go. This is where we differ. If it weren’t for my parents, I, too, would have been homeless.
What I couldn’t understand about Michelle’s situation was that she knew about the agencies that could get her off the streets, but doesn’t utilize their resources. She told me she would probably get some housing in a month or two. I remember thinking, “So you’ll just get around to not being homeless anymore?” I would be waiting on the steps doing all I can to get in somewhere. But then again, I’ve never been homeless. There are tons of people talking about that sector of homeless people who don’t want help. Michelle might want help in a month or two. Those of us who have never been homeless don’t understand this.
Humans are extremely adaptable creatures. We adapt to survive. Everyday we make horrible choices that are completely counter intuitive to survival. Think about smokers. Someone who has never smoked a puff in their life can’t begin to fathom the logic behind a) doing something so harmful and disgusting to yourself and b) picking a day months into the future (New Year’s Day, perhaps) to quit. In essence, you’re going to put off not killing yourself because you want the day to be right? It’s the same thing with being homeless. You adapt to survive your present reality. That’s why getting these people housed is so important.
We need housing first. We need to get all of these people who are suffering from their own realities and get them into housing. Because when they are in housing, we can get them in front of professionals who can show them that their’s is a false reality. That it doesn’t have to be that way. That they can be better. Sure, you can’t force them to see it or agree or even take the help. But we keep trying, over and over until they’re ready for it.
And there are so many people on the streets now. It definitely wasn’t this bad when I did San Pedro: Block by Block a few years ago. The difference between then and now is the difference between a 3.0 and the Northridge Earthquake. And I purposely chose an earthquake analogy because homelessness is something that affects us all and it reminds us that as Californians, we are all just one catastrophe away from being homeless ourselves. San Pedro is in a state of emergency, so let’s band together and rebuild some lives.
And we can definitely use some humanity right about now. Now is not the time to ask what these people did or continue to do keep themselves homeless. It’s not the time to ask how they got here. If you knew someone was trapped in a pile of rubble, would you admonish them for shoddy construction before you tried to pull them out? No, in times of crisis people’s true humanity shines and you always hear about heroic stories of neighbors helping neighbors. These people are in crisis and they need us to fight for them. San Pedro has fought big fights before and won. We fought for the breakwater and won. We fought for labor rights and won. And to top it all off, we’re the home of humanitarians like the late, great Ante Perkov.
The absolute #1 thing I love about San Pedro is the people. I love and believe in this town so much that, despite all the ugliness I’ve read on Facebook, I still think that this community is so full of big-hearted, passionate and hard-working people that we could actually make some major headway in decreasing the homeless population. There’s a reason why we get so much local political attention- because we show up on election day, because we make noise and cause scenes and, most importantly, because we care. So it’s time to shake our sticks and rattle some politicians because we’re not going to take “we’re trying” for an answer anymore from the city. We want some action!
We can all start by attending the Homelessness Forum hosted by Councilman Joe Buscaino on Thursday, September 3rd at 6pm at the Warner Grand. Joe is gathering experts and professionals who can get us all on the same page about moving forward and what the best next steps are. And if there’s anything you take with you to this meeting, please let it be just two words from my friend Michelle- Love Rules!