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By David Fallon

________

In 2012 I was hired as part of a program to provide outreach services to the homeless of Hollywood. It was our job to find the most vulnerable individuals on the street and to work to get them into housing. Not long after we began, we found a panhandler at a gas station near Griffith Park.

Dean was a wiry guy with tangled hair sticking out from under a grimy baseball cap. He had a long, grizzled beard and striking blue eyes that hid a fast wit. When he talked, he grew animated, with arms waving and face twisting. He was a storyteller who loved having an audience. He was also a drug addict who used just about anything he could get his hands on. Let’s be real, I need beer! his cardboard sign read.

“Go find Buddy up on the hill!” he told us because he wanted us to talk to his friend. He was also eager to get back to his hustling. In the early days of our work, people on the streets regarded us with a detached bemusement. They had been promised housing in the past by many other organizations. None of these panned out, so they had good reason to doubt us. We told Dean that we would come back to see him in a few days and went up the hill to find Buddy.

Buddy was tucked away on the top of a small hill amid untrimmed bushes. He was passed out on a towel, his body covered in sweat and smelling of urine. An empty fifth of vodka lay just out of arm’s reach. We tried to get his attention, but he could not be stirred.

“We’ll have to come back,” the team leader said.

Several days later, we met with Dean on the same street corner. He signed the paperwork to join our program and asked a bunch of questions: When can I get some money? You got any lawyers I can talk to? Where’s this so called housing going to be? How long is this gonna take?

Dean said he was a dishonorably discharged Green Beret on the run from the law in Texas. From what, he would not say. He told us his family had disowned him from a large inheritance. Dean also responded to internal voices and seemed to see things that were not there. It was often difficult to tell what was real and what was not with Dean.

“My own mother wants to take my money from me,” he said. “The bitch.” He had been on the streets for 20 years. To survive, he had taken to running drugs for gang members in exchange for free passage in their territory as well as free drugs. We made plans for him to come to our office to discuss the next steps, then left him alone to panhandle.

“Don’t forget Buddy!” Dean reminded us. This time when we climbed the hill, Buddy was wide awake and waiting for us.

“Hey y’all!”

Turns out Dean had told him about our program.

Buddy was tall and lanky with a big smile and hearty laugh. He was older than Dean by at least 10 years. His hands were massive, and he had once been a boxer. His body slumped from decades of alcohol abuse. He could not remember much of the last 20 years and would tearfully tell the same story over and over.

“I use to live in Vegas,” he said. “Life on the streets there is pretty tough. I ended up killing a guy because he was going to kill me. There was nothing else I could do. It was him or me.…” And by this time, he was in tears. The judge had let him off on self-defense, and he came back to Los Angeles, where he had grown up. None of his family wanted to have anything to do with him, so he started drinking.

“And never stopped,” was how the story usually ended.

Homelessness is a constant fight for survival and allies can mean the difference between life and death. Buddy and Dean were more than just allies. They shared their stories with each other, which is something you did not do on the streets, where information can be used against you. They talked about the things they wanted. For Buddy, it was a house and a car and a decent job. For Dean, it was women and motorcycles.  Buddy seemed like the kind of guy who’d share his last drink with a friend. Dean was the kind of guy who would take that drink.

One day when we went to visit, we met them at a nearby bus stop. Dean had his arm around Buddy and they were laughing hysterically. “We was just shootin’ the shit,” Dean said, pulling his hand away as we walked up. He was embarrassed by our witnessing this moment. While Dean constantly worked to portray the tough street thug, it was clear he had a tender side. And a soft spot for Buddy.

Because he was often drunk, Buddy was particularly vulnerable. Every time he got something new, like clothes or a pillow, he would wake up from his stupor to find it gone.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told us after someone had taken a radio he found. “I can’t spent the rest of my life drunk on this goddamn hill!” he yelled with tears streaming from his eyes as he pounded his fist into the grass.

Soon after, we sent him to a detox center in Pomona. He assaulted one of the staff. They kicked him out. We had no idea if we would ever see him again.

A few days later, it was Dean who brought Buddy back to our office. Somehow Buddy had made his way back to the hill where Dean had found him. He had no memory of attacking the staff member. In his mind, they had let him go because he had gotten a job at a nearby Burger King.

“I was doing my job, washing the windows, when the police rolled up on me,” he said in an incredulous tone. “I tried to tell them I was just doing my job, but they wouldn’t listen. They hauled my ass off to jail!” Pomona PD released him a few days later and told him to get out of town, so he made his way back to Hollywood.

“This guy keeps saving my life,” he smiled at Dean.

“You’re like a brother to me, man,” Dean said with affection.

Despite their differences, Buddy and Dean cared about each other. You could see it in the way they patted each other on the back, the way they shared their food with each other, the way they talked and laughed together. It was an unusual relationship to see on the streets. Most people are consumed with self-preservation to the point of open hostility toward others. It was not uncommon to hear about women of the street being raped by gangs of homeless men. In order to survive, most women on the street found a “husband” to take care of them. The price was often non-consensual sex or even beatings, but at least it was by one man instead of many. Buddy and Dean’s friendship on the street was based as much on the desire to connect as it was for self-preservation.

By this time, our team had cut a deal with a local motel. Its carpet was worn to the concrete, and the peeling walls were smeared with decades of unattended filth. But they rarely turned away a potential customer. We put both Buddy and Dean in this motel temporarily in order to help them work toward the next step.

Buddy stayed sober long enough to complete the process to get into rehab. Dean was another story. He agreed to take an injection of an antipsychotic in order to soothe the voices that plagued him, but he continued to smoke marijuana in his motel room. Bringing in a couple of hookers one night was the last straw for the manager, who called me directly.

“Get him out!” he yelled.

Before I could get there, Dean had an altercation with another motel guest, then cleared out. As he was leaving, he found Buddy sleeping in his room and took his clothes, his blankets, and what little money he had. When Buddy awoke to confront him, Dean slashed his face with a penknife and ran off. The manager called the police. Buddy told them where to find Dean. The police immediately knew who he was. They were more than happy to take him in.

When we later asked Dean why he had done this to Buddy, he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s life on the street.”

That was about right. We never heard another reason for why he’d turned on his friend so suddenly.

“If I ever see that piece of shit, I’ll kill ’im,” Buddy said. “Can’t believe he would do this to me.…”

Soon after, Buddy was taken to rehab, where he worked a 60-day program of recovery groups morning, noon and night. The program was a 12-step group, with a substance abuse counselor who met with each person one on one. Buddy made changes in his thinking and behavior with the goal of never taking another drink. Simply being away from it seemed to give him clarity. He focused on never going back to that hill. In his mind, just one drink would be catastrophic. “I know where it can take me,” he said.

While Buddy was in rehab, the housing coordinator prepared the paperwork for his housing placement. When he got out, Buddy was moved into a studio apartment in the heart of Hollywood. His recovery was remarkable in both its speed and depth. In fact, of the 65 people we housed, Buddy was one of two who had totally turned away from his old habits.

After the assault, Dean spent a couple of months at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, with the plan that he would come to our office as soon as he was released. When that day came, he was the most clear-headed I had ever seen him. He insisted that he was ready to be housed and that he would never bother Buddy again.

But Dean disappeared soon after he got out of jail. I searched his spots a couple of times a week but didn’t find him. A few months later, he appeared covered in a layer of black muck, sputtering manic stories of his drug adventures: how he exchanged sex with a old lady who allowed him to sleep in her car at night, how he befriended a local important gang member who treated him like a mascot, giving him free drugs because “he thinks I’m so fucking funny.”

Later, Dean appeared with an older woman. Her name was Beth. She was homeless as well but had a steady source of income. She wanted us to take Dean off her hands

A few weeks later, Beth showed up to tell me that Dean had drank himself to death.

“I tried and tried to revive him,” she said tearfully. “But he just stopped moving.”

The next day, I knocked on Buddy’s door. He was doing well in his apartment. He had set up a table, a few chairs and a lamp. Everything was kept neat and clean. He was attending meetings and talking about maybe going back to school or getting a part-time job.

I told him about Dean.

We sat together for a long time in silence. Buddy shook his head.

“Jesus,” he said.

________

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By Monique Quintero

The rain came down hard and fast on the September morning my family held the funeral mass at St. Mary’s in Whittier for my uncle Bobby.

Robert Daniel Quintero preferred to be called “Roberto” in his last years. We placed his urn, along with a potted cactus (to represent his beloved Tucson) and his framed portrait on a table in front of the altar. His weathered, handsome face grinned back at us. I had taken the photograph two years before; his long hair was pulled back, mustache and beard nicely trimmed.

Later that afternoon we brought his ashes to the Riverside National Cemetery. It drizzled until the sun broke through the clouds as his military honors ceremony concluded. As I watched my Dad search the grassy area for bullet casings that had fallen from the gun salute, it occurred to me that rain can be cleansing and also revealing. I realized that the unexpected passing of my uncle, though shocking and sad, was an end with which he was probably content. He was finally at peace.

A month before, Roberto would have been 65 years old. My family and I had sung “Happy Birthday” on his voicemail and texted messages when he did not pick up. My sister worried when he did not reply.

“He’s probably out with his veteran friends,” I said, “somewhere in Tucson where there is no cell reception.” I figured he was out hiking or performing a Native American ceremony.

The next day my Mom was concerned; she called the authorities and asked for a home check. A half hour later, my Dad’s cell phone rang. It was the Tucson police; they had entered my uncle’s apartment and had found him inside, deceased.

* *

When I was growing up, my uncle Bobby was a mystery to me. I rarely saw him. I didn’t understand why relatives whispered his name; I often heard my grandmother, Angelina, praying for him. I had the sense that he had no permanent residence, and that he traveled a lot. And yet I felt so connected to him.

One summer morning when I was 11 years old, I told my Mom I had a dream about Bobby.

“Well,” she told me, “today is your uncle’s birthday.”

In my young mind, my uncle was an “adventurer,” a “man of the world.” I was so proud of the Japanese doll that he had given to me. It was always exciting to receive a letter from him postmarked from some far off place; I kept them all in a special box. When he did show up for a visit, I was enthralled. Not until much later did I understand that his sporadic appearances were a sign of deeper problems.

Roberto grew up in East Los Angeles, the third child of four children. My dad Joe is first, second my aunt Herlinda, my uncle Adrian the youngest. My grandfather, Joe Sr., hailed from Yuma, Arizona, and was part Yaqui Indian. He was a hard worker and made good money as a brick mason, but often hid his earnings from my grandmother. He liked to drink and run around with other women. Sometimes he did not come home for days. When he did come home, he was often drunk, argued, shouted and beat his wife and oldest sons.

My grandmother Angelina did her best to protect and provide for her children. She made sacrifices to send them to Catholic school, while also instilling a respect for our Mexican-Indian roots. She was a curandera (medicine woman) and practiced healing with herbs and special prayers. But even my grandmother had her moments.

Wherever my grandfather was, she would stand at the back door and throw curses in that direction. He would leave her black and blue, but then she would put the children on the phone and have them beg him to come home. When my dad was 16, he pulled a kitchen knife on my grandfather and threatened to stab him if he did not stop hurting my grandmother. My grandfather eventually left my grandmother, started another family and moved back to Yuma.

High school proved a challenge for my uncle. He already had a problem with alcohol. He was constantly in trouble at school and at home. His antics culminated with “borrowing” his sister’s car – without permission or a driver’s license – and wrecking it. Even my grandmother, who always made excuses for him, was upset. Having no interest in attending college, and wanting to get away from home and East L.A., my uncle entered the U.S. Army after graduation in 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Japan.

When Roberto filed for some veteran’s benefits in 2013, I helped him write his four-page personal statement. That was when I learned of the psychological and physical trauma he had experienced during his Army years.

Not only was he constantly taunted as “The Boy from East L.A.,” he was beaten up for “being Mexican” by other soldiers at boot camp (where he was left for dead) and also while stationed in Japan (where he blamed “Japanese gangs” rather than deal with repercussions from turning in fellow soldiers). The head, neck and back injuries that he suffered from those assaults plagued him for the rest of his life.

Though he never set foot in Vietnam, my uncle’s assignment in Japan was to escort soldiers on leave from the action. He listened to their harrowing combat stories; he was there when they woke up screaming from nightmares and when they suffered flashbacks. Years later he himself was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the Army, my uncle had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Twice my Dad bailed him out for possession of marijuana. He grew out his hair and took on the ‘70s hippie look. When his girlfriend Camille became pregnant, my grandmother hoped he would settle down, but they eventually parted.

My grandmother wanted him to stay in Los Angeles, but Roberto moved around a lot. He took low-key jobs (bookkeeper, personal assistant) in remote California towns. He tried living in the Midwest, but didn’t like it. He went to Paris and worked “under the table” until his visa expired. He was never able to stay employed for long. After he left the Army, my uncle estimated that in 37 years he had held over 100 positions in 14 different career fields.

With no steady income, Roberto was prone to periods of homelessness and wandering alone. He was bad about keeping in touch. At one point my Dad figured he was dead. Bobby’s anxiety became such that he carried as many as three knives for protection. He would remain bedridden for days without picking up his mail, much less showering. He did see psychiatrists and was prescribed medications, but some left him vomiting and feeling like a guinea pig.

“During those times, rational thought was drowned-out by the racket going on in my brain,” he told me.

In 2005, my uncle found himself in a little town called Oracle, Arizona. He was homeless for most of the time, but ended up living in a trailer park surrounded by a bunch of other Vietnam veterans. His drinking got out of control and he chain-smoked. He was often very ill; he sank into a deep depression.

He was issued disability benefits by 2006 after being diagnosed as “bi-polar mixed with major depression,” and with degenerative disk disease. Friends urged him to apply for veteran’s health and compensation benefits, but his Army experience left him reluctant. He finally relented and was taken to Veterans Affairs in Tucson where a treatment plan was created for him. He completed a recovery program and was given housing in a senior apartment complex.

As Roberto continued his therapy, he had bouts of insomnia and nightmares. The bad memories from his Army days resurfaced and he was diagnosed with PTSD, along with other neurological disorders (cognitive dysfunction, self-isolation, paranoia). He tried to quit smoking but was unsuccessful. He had to use a cane to walk. He felt fatigued, even if he rested all day.

By 2008, Roberto was on 14 medications. He hated that he could not think clearly. His stomach was constantly upset. He began to look into alternative ways to relieve the bad side effects. A friend suggested he practice meditation and breathing exercises. He attended workshops on stress-relief and self-healing techniques.

Then in 2010 Roberto met a former Marine who facilitated a weekly Talking Circle for a PTSD treatment unit at the VA. Drawing from sacred Native American traditions, the group provided a safe, comfortable environment for veterans to share their stories and listen to each other.

Something clicked. He remembered a counselor had once told him, “You want to get better? Go help other veterans.”

He pushed himself to volunteer and help lead the Talking Circle. He did not want to relive his old nightmares, yet he found strength as he witnessed his fellow veterans healing through sharing. The Talking Circle also reconnected him with his father’s Yaqui Indian roots and the best memories of his mother practicing as a curandera. He started to participate in other traditional Native American ceremonies – the purifying sweat lodge, pow wows and the sacred burning of sage.

Life now had purpose and roots. With this, he let go of his resentments and the memories from his Army years.

He continued to pursue more natural and holistic remedies to treat his medical problems. When his doctors resisted, he petitioned the VA and was awarded the right to seek acupuncture sessions for pain management and to increase his mobility. Still he continued to drink and smoke.

“At least I don’t do heroin,” he said.

He and my Dad spoke several times a week, but we did not see very much of my uncle the last year of his life. He declined our invitation to visit and celebrate the December 2014 holidays. He was too busy with this various groups; by then he was leading the Talking Circle on his own.

I was worried about him at the start of summer of 2015; I did not like his appearance in photos that he had recently emailed. I thought he looked gaunt, his hair and beard grayer and thinner.

He assured me that he had never felt better and had just been taken off another medication. He also exalted the benefits of fasting, that he felt more clear-headed and energized. Some his last voicemail messages, though, rambled on and sounded garbled, as if he had been drinking.

Six days before his body was found, my uncle’s neighbors had gone to his apartment when they realized they hadn’t seen him for a while. He barely cracked the door open; he insisted he was all right. The Tucson Coroner’s office later told me that he had suffered a heart attack. He had probably been sick for a few days.

He had not seen a doctor in over a year; he had stopped taking medications on his own. His fasting had not helped matters, according to the Coroner’s office. He had avoided his VA case manager the last month of his life.

It is frustrating to think that if Roberto had just let his neighbors in or reached out for help, he might still be here. But that was my uncle.

* *

The last time I saw my uncle, I gave him a medallion imprinted with the words “The difference you make today counts in all our tomorrows” encircling the impression of an inukshuk, stones stacked to form the shape of a man. In Alaska, these stones were built by nomadic Inuits to help guide others travel across the tundra.

Roberto is wearing the medallion in pictures taken during his final year. My Dad brought it back to me after cleaning out his apartment.

It is now so worn and faded; he must have rarely taken it off.

___

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier and has been writing all her life. A graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Critical Film Studies, she has worked over 20 years in various areas of the entertainment industry. Since 2013 she has been dealing with a brain tumor and kidney cancer; she found that the writing process not only inspires creativity, it is also therapeutic and healing. She is determined to finish a full-length book project in the near future. Contact her atmoniquequintero@yahoo.com

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By Christian Lockwood

I once had a house with a white picket fence. In it, I lived with a wife, and two children. Life seemed pretty good. But the shell shock from a tour in Libya fighting the war on terrorism tore me up, and drugs and alcohol became a way of life from which I could not free myself.

That is how one warm August day in 2009, well into my self-medication, I awake on the seat of my pickup after another night of no place to rest my head. My pickup, my dog Batman, and my cell phone are all I have left. My wife and kids have been embarrassed by me for the last time. They have disowned me.

I am sweating profusely as most junkies who need a fix experience. The gagging has started. “I need a drink,” I say to myself. If I don’t get one I could die. I am in the DT’s. My skin is crawling as if overrun with bugs. I am drenched in my own bodily fluids. The hallucinations are starting now. It’s  as though I am being pursued by little green men coming from everywhere. A full blown seizure is sure to happen soon. I need a dose bad.

I scuffle across the street to get my medicine. I gag the entire way, only bringing up yellow bile. It’s 5:56 am and this damn storekeeper better not be late today. By 6:05 am, with no store owner in site, I’m getting sicker by the minute.

Finally, at 6:12 he drives up and notices me and my condition. He exchanges pleasantries with me and hurriedly opens the door to let me in. He knows what I need. The storekeeper doesn’t stop to turn the lights on and upon entry goes immediately to the shelf to pull down my elixir.

A pint of Jose Cuervo and a tall Coors are my usual liquid meals. I’m infamous here at this store. They know me all too well. I pay for my stash with change I’ve bummed from passing folks and leave. I barely get away from the storefront and I need to get the first couple of pops in me. The sooner I down it, the better. The first couple never stays down anyway. As predicted up comes the burning alcohol through my nose and mouth. My Boston terrier gazes up at me with a look of “Really?” Then he smells the frothy discharge and laps it up. Wow, I’m turning the damned dog into an alcoholic too. I need to sit down and let these first two swigs work. After a minute or two my gag reflex has given me a reprieve and it’s time now to completely bury my torments in life.

I was once a proud United States sailor with an impeccable service record and receive citations for Honor and Expert Marksmanship. In civilian life I  was a well-respected member of the Tri-County Gang Task Force and had a reputation as a tough cop who was known for fighting gang crime and drug interdiction. Now, in fact, this is more of a hindrance when it comes to copping my dope. Too many of these street people know me. Only my selected posse at Gibbons Park know me as Rocky, just another park dwelling bum like them.

Speaking of my posse, it’s time to get back to the park.  I finally feel fit enough to navigate my way back to my home, the park. I get to our favorite picnic table where we all hold court and share our harrowing tales about surviving the night before. We begin to pass our bottles between us as if in attempt to see who could out-drink who. Then the talk always turns to who has weed, and eventually someone comes up with some to smoke. Then it moves to crystal and soon we are all snorting meth off of a paint chipped picnic table.

Eventually it happens. Black-and-whites drive into the park from all directions; everyone runs but me. I am as if frozen in time. Was it that I was surrendering? Nope, really how fast can a man run with a little black dog tethered to his leg? A cop car stops in front of me and the officer jumps out and immediately opens the back door.

“Oh Jesus,” I say to myself. I know this officer.

I quickly drop my head hiding my face and obey every command. I am frisked, and out comes my driver’s license. The officer puts his hand on my shoulder and yanks me toward him forcefully.

“Lockwood?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s me bro,” I reply. I used to work Gang sweeps with this officer on multi-agency procedures.

“What in the world has happened to you?” my buddy asks. “You need help.”

My cop friend for some reason lets me go. My posse, on the other hand, is not so lucky.

Once again I am alone, the dog and I. It was time for another drink. I feel lucky. I stumble to my truck and upon trying to get into the driver’s door I see my reflection in the window. My cop friend’s voice rings loudly in my head as I stare at somebody I don’t even recognize looking back at me. I have checked out of life completely.

The day before a church guy had stopped by the park and gave us all sandwiches, talking “God” the entire time. We all pretended to listen because we were actually thankful someone was feeding us. He quoted the Bible and said something from the book of Romans that while we don’t want to do wrong, we are powerless to stop. He quoted scripture that didn’t make sense to me at the time. But it was all making quite good sense now.  I was a proud United States Military Veteran who was trained to adapt and overcome. But I can’t figure out why I am destroying myself when deep down inside I don’t want to.

I recall a saying I saw on a flier I saw at the VA Clinic. It said, “It takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help.”

The time has come. I need to ask for help. I pull out my dying cell phone and make one last call. They send someone to come to the park and pick up Batman and me.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that August day in 2009.  I have started a new journey in life. That’s who I am now.

____

*Christian Lockwood is studying at San Joaquin Delta College and Bible College at Fellowship Church Community in Stockton and aspires to be an ordained pastor and serve military veterans in San Joaquin County.

 

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