A sin­gle home­less voice is heard

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - SANDY BANKS

They’re tired of side- step­ping pan­han­dlers out­side the mar­ket and let­ting tran­sients sully their well- kept parks. They’re wor­ried about ris­ing crime, fu­eled by jumps in home bur­glar­ies and car break- ins.

That’s what drew dozens of Chatsworth res­i­dents last week to the LAPD’s Neigh­bor­hood Watch meet­ing head­lined “The Home­less: A Grow­ing Prob­lem.”

Of­fi­cers blamed the crime surge on tran­sients — repro­bates and drug ad­dicts whom cops are try­ing to round up or run off. In the mean­time, they warned, don’t keep your garage door open or leave any­thing in

your car.

When they asked for ques­tions, hands shot up: Is it still safe to hike in Stoney Point Park? Are home alarm sys­tems de­ter­rent enough? Can we block off our streets and hire se­cu­rity guards?

The fi­nal ques­tion came from a tat­tooed young man with dirt- caked sneak­ers and grimy hands. “My name is Dy­lan and I’m home­less,” he said. “On nights when I have nowhere to go, where is it OK to sleep?”

I watched two women in the row in front of him reach out and pull their purses closer. The of­fi­cer with the mi­cro­phone re­minded him that there are plenty of shel­ters down­town on skid row.

Dy­lan Fowler, 26, knows that he’s part of the prob­lem his sub­ur­ban neigh­bors are try­ing to fix. He’s lived on the streets, off and on, for years.

He re­al­izes that lo­cals con­sider him a nui­sance. But Chatsworth is his home­town too.

“I em­pathize with the peo­ple around here,” he told me. “I know my dad worked very, very hard for a long time to be able to af­ford to raise a fam­ily here. I can un­der­stand the whole thing about be­ing an eye­sore.

“But it feels un­fair some­times to be judged con­stantly. Per­son­ally it’s just, it’s kind of tragic. There are peo­ple out there to be afraid of. But I’m not one of them.”

Af­ter the meet­ing, I stuck around and talked with Dy­lan for a while. He’s about the same age as my daugh­ters, and went to preschool at the park where they played soc­cer and bas­ket­ball.

I found him thought­ful and preter­nat­u­rally po­lite. “I make a point to hold doors open for peo­ple and make small talk with any­body I pass,” he ex­plained. “I’m hop­ing that just gen­er­ally peo­ple will see me around and know I’m not a prob­lem.”

It’s im­por­tant to him that peo­ple know he’s not a bad guy.

On Sun­day, I took him to lunch at a neigh­bor­hood deli. He sa­vored a bagel and veg­etable omelet as if they were del­i­ca­cies.

And he talked about the forces that shaped his life.

It sounded to me like he’d spent years feel­ing that he must be a bad guy.

“I was al­ways a prob­lem child,” he be­gan. “I got ex­pelled for the first time in fourth grade.” He was the class clown, al­ways caus­ing a ruckus, tip­ping over desks and tor­ment­ing teach­ers.

By the time he was 14, he’d been sus­pended so of­ten for fight­ing that “they ran out of schools to send me to,” he said. He landed in a Texas pro­gram for teens with emo­tional prob­lems and left there two years later with a di­ag­no­sis of de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der.

Back in Chatsworth, he be­came a loner.

He tried other schools geared to­ward trou­bled kids, but they didn’t work out. “I re­al­ized I had no idea how to deal with nor­mal peo­ple,” he said. When he turned 18, his par­ents told him “it was time to get out on my own and fig­ure things out.”

He worked odd jobs and rented an apart­ment with a girl­friend. Then he found out that his men­tal health is­sues qual­i­fied him for fed­eral dis­abil­ity pay­ments of $ 850 a month.

Those checks al­low many home­less peo­ple to eke out a sub­sis­tence liv­ing. But Dy­lan said they hand­i­capped him: “It to­tally makes you lazy. It’s not enough to live on.... And you can’t take a job or your ben­e­fits will end.”

But what re­ally hand­i­capped him was heroin.

At 22, he was in­tro­duced to the drug by an ac­quain­tance.

“He told us we were smok­ing hash,” Dy­lan said. “Pretty much ev­ery­one I knew in the whole Val­ley got caught up in that prob­lem.

“I was strug­gling with it for a re­ally long time. That has a lot to do with why I ended up on the street.”

Dy­lan’s story is one that many home­less peo­ple could tell: emo­tional prob­lems, school fail­ures and so­cial dys­func­tion lead to self- med­i­cat­ing with al­co­hol or drugs.

“I had a good child­hood,” Dy­lan in­sisted. “But once the whole school­ing thing started chang­ing, that’s where ev­ery­thing got tough.”

He’s bounced around a lot in the last four years. “But I’m at a good point now, at 26,” he said.

He’s spent a lit­tle time in re­hab and done stints in sober- liv­ing homes. He’s learned to roll with his moods, con­trol his tem­per and walk away from trou­ble.

Heroin, he said, numbed the pain he felt when peo­ple didn’t want him around.

When he’s sober he’s thank­ful for all the peo­ple who’ve been will­ing to help at a neigh­bor­hood church, where he helps with chores and yard­work and at­tends weekly Nar­cotics Anony­mous and Al­co­holics Anony­mous meet­ings.

He’s found a place to sleep out­doors that’s cramped but safe and clean. He has a bike, a back­pack, a cell­phone and a Net­flix sub­scrip­tion. He’s try­ing to save for an apart­ment and would like to en­roll in Pierce Col­lege this fall.

Still, it’s too soon to make this some kind of re­demp­tion trope. Liv­ing on the streets may have taken an in­deli­ble toll.

A few months ago, Dy­lan found a room for rent on Craigslist that he could af­ford.

He moved in, but left af­ter a few nights. He couldn’t sleep in­side; it felt hot and claus­tro­pho­bic and “re­ally crazy,” he said.

“Is this some kind of deep psy­cho­log­i­cally rooted thing? It re­ally shocked me,” he said. “I’m go­ing to have to train my­self to go back to be­ing a nor­mal per­son.”

Or ac­cept that sleep­ing out­side, in the open air, un­der the stars is a won­der­ful thing, when it’s a choice not a ne­ces­sity.

Sandy Banks Los An­ge­les Times

DY­LAN FOWLER, 26, grew up in Chatsworth and wound up home­less. His life is get­ting harder be­cause of Los An­ge­les’ crack­down on tran­sients.

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