By David Fallon
We met Billy sitting on a blanket at a park in West Hollywood behind the Astro Burger. We were a homeless outreach team and he asked us to buy him a burger.
“We don’t really have the money for that,” the nurse said and handed him a snack bag of Cheetos from his bag. The nurse left me alone to talk to Billy.
“I’ve been homeless on and off for 15 years,” Billy told me. He was a short, skinny guy with an intense expression. “I have an accent cuz I grew up in the South.”
He was missing most of his teeth so it was difficult to understand.
“Makes it easier to suck guys’ dicks,” he laughed. At one time, Billy made good money as a male prostitute. He spent most of that money on a devastating meth habit, hence the missing teeth. He had a reputation on the street as someone to avoid. He was mouthy and prone to unpredictable outbursts.
As I got to know him over the weeks of preparation for housing, Billy opened up about his past. He talked about his mother who died when he was young. “She’s the only person who ever loved me,” he said sadly. “Then there was my step-monster who was an asshole that beat the shit out of me all the time for no reason.” His face turned red as he said this, and his body shook with rage. Because of this tumultuous upbringing, Billy had trouble trusting people. He had learned to take where he could, and when he could not get what he wanted he reacted by yelling and cursing.
Despite these challenges, Billy was one of the first homeless people we housed. He was cooperative with the housing specialist, and went quickly through the process. He moved into a small studio apartment outside of MacArthur Park.
Almost as soon as he was housed, Billy’s whole attitude changed. His situation became an example of the difficulties we faced in keeping housed the chronically homeless — people who are often mentally and physically ill as well as drug addicted.
A few days after moving in, he had an altercation with the manager, calling him a “dirty Mexican.” Our substance abuse counselor, who was an ex-gang member, was barely able to convince the manager to give him a second chance.
A few weeks later, Billy had a run in with a neighbor down the hall. He yelled at a couple of young black men when they were blocking the hallway. He received a black eye for his efforts. A month or so later, he was robbed after someone pushed into his apartment. A couple of weeks later, he annoyed his upstairs neighbor by banging on the ceiling and screaming obscenities. This neighbor, who was a brawny transsexual, knocked him down and kicked him till had several cracked ribs.
Each time, our team did our best to mop up Billy’s mess. Billy refused to file police reports for assault fearing retaliation, yet he could not stop himself from aggravating his neighbors.
Not long after his ribs were cracked, Billy called me in hysterics.
“Mmh suh mun mich!!!” he screamed. I held the phone away from my ear. When he took a breath, I brought the phone back.
“This diculous!” he shouted, devolving into more grunts.
“Billy, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” I said. “I need you to take a few deep breaths-“
“Get over here NOW!!” he yelled. “Some crazy guy is threatening to kill me. If you don’t do something about it, I’m gonna slit my throat right now!”
I went to Jenna, the program assistant, who handed me the keys to the van. Billy’s apartment was ten miles from the office, a trip that took a half hour on the streets of Hollywood.
“Whatever you do,” Jenna said, “don’t go alone.”
By this time of the day, almost everyone had left on home visits. Only Brenda, the peer counselor, remained. Brenda had never been involved a crisis before. She was good with the clients but grew upset when things were volatile.
“I need you to go with me,” I said. “Billy’s on a rampage.”
Thirty minutes later, we pulled up to his building. I parked and we walked around the back to knock on Billy’s door.
“Get in here!” he yelled from his small living room. Knowing better than to trap myself in a potentially dangerous situation, I stayed at the door and motioned for Brenda to stand with me.
“What’s going on Billy?” I said.
“The lady upstairs is a crazy whore!” he said, his hands waving. “I’m just minding my own business when she comes down and starts threatening me. I don’t feel safe, and I want to get the fuck out of here and move somewhere else.”
“Billy,” I said, “If you don’t feel safe, we can take you to a shelter…”
“Forget that!” he yelled. “I’m not going to a shelter. I’m not going anywhere!” Billy had a history of problems with the local shelters, which were often more dangerous than the streets.
“If you’re feeling threatened,” Brenda said, “let’s call the police.”
“Forget the police!” Billy screamed. “They just make things worse. The police can kiss my butt!”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s take you to a hotel for a few days so we can figure things out.”
Billy began shoving a few things into a bag.
“I need my wallet,” he said. “I need my wallet! Where’s my wallet?!” He tossed the blankets and sheets off his bed, and kicked a few ashtrays across his floor.
“I can’t find it! I can’t find my goddamn wallet!” His body convulsed and his voice raised to a frantic pitched.
“Somebody stole it! Somebody stole it!”
“Billy!” I tried to get his attention.
“I’m gonna kill myself!”
He bolted into the kitchen and pulled open a drawer. He yanked out a long kitchen knife and held it to his throat. His eyes were bulging as he tilted his head back. Brenda quickly exited the building. I closed Billy’s door and joined her with my cellphone in hand, dialing 911.
Brenda and I went to the front of the building to meet the police. She was shaky, and I was doing my best to keep calm as I had never witnessed a possible suicide attempt at such close range.
Several police cars pulled into the driveway. A half-dozen officers got out. We approached them, and the largest officer took us aside. I told him about the knife and about Billy having a history of being unpredictable.
“We’ll take care of it,” he said. All six officers drew their weapons. Two of them held shotguns. The officers folded into formation and started making their way down the driveway toward the back of the building.
“He’s not going to hurt you,” I said loudly. “This all seems unnecessary.”
“We’ll decide what’s necessary,” the big officer shot back.
I imagined the worst: Billy running out the door waving the knife, the cops gunning him down. As I was desperately trying to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, Billy came prancing out of the front of the building. He walked toward us holding his wallet and no knife.
“He’s over here!” I called to the police. “And he doesn’t have the knife!” The police turned toward us.
“Put your hands up, Billy!” Brenda yelled. At the sight of all those guns, Brenda and I put our hands up, too.
Billy lifted his hands in the air just as the police rounded the corner. They took him into custody without an incident. Brenda and I did not speak as we watched them take Billy to the nearest psych hospital.
Billy lost his housing soon after. The manager saw him with the knife and that was it. We put him in a local hotel while we tried to figure out his next move. He returned to using meth and ended up back on the streets.
Billy was still using on the streets when I left the program a year or so later. But while I was still on the job, we would roll up to that park where we met every once in a while. We would find him sitting on a blanket recovering from another binge. He would greet us with expletives and threats to sue, blaming us for losing his housing.
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