Armando Salguero: Los Angeles Hosts Glitz of Super Bowl Amid Homeless Epidemic

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LOS ANGELES — The tents filled with mangled lives, and despair and, yes, street drugs and those abusing them, are seemingly everywhere here.

Some of these tents look like they’re right out of a sporting goods store, except their intended use around a camp fire with a happy family and a hearty meal seems like something from another world — because none of that is what they’re being used for now.

Other tents are made of blue tarps and held up by wood or piping that was stolen and set beneath a highway overpass or next to a bus bench.

There are people living in these makeshift shelters.

They live with no electricity, no toilets, no stoves. This is a stone age existence in the 21st century, and it’s everywhere the eye turns in Los Angeles.

The Super Bowl is also here this week.

The NFL’s biggest game has brought its fans and banners and enough limousines and black SUVs to make it seem like there’s a party afoot in the City of Angels. But the tents are more prolific than the banners. Or the limos.

The endless number of tents and the souls in them put the parties to shame.

Anyone who hasn’t seen the depth of brokenness and privation in the tents but notices the game’s glitz and flash is truly blind. Because the former easily overshadows the latter in both number and importance.

“I know the Super Bowl is in town,” 56-year-old Jimmy says through a three-toothed grin. “The teams will be battling to claim the mountain top, right? But if you really want to see a battle, come back tonight when me and four or five other guys will be trying to claim that spot closest to that light pole over there.

“You sleep under that light pole, you’re less likely to have somebody come in your tent in the dark of night and cut your throat and take your shoes.”

A few yards away, Talia is off by herself weeping. She says someone stole her bicycle. And that was the only thing in the world she owns other than some costume jewelry around her neck and a wig boasting three or four different colors on her head.

“This sucks,” she says.

I ask her what I can possibly do to help her.

“Pray for me,” she says.

You should know I lived in New York City for eight years and in Miami after that. So homelessness and homeless people are not new to me.

But this place brings it in such massive numbers that it’s jarring.

By some pre-pandemic estimates, the number of homeless people in the United States was approximately 580,000. And that’s terrible wherever it’s happening, but it’s happening more in California than any other state.

Six of the top 10 cities with a large homeless population are in California.

The California legislature’s answer for addressing the problem has been pouring money at it. The state’s recent budget passed in July of 2021 allocated a record $4.8 billion over the next two years toward alleviating homelessness.

“I won’t see any of that money, guaranteed,” says Grouchy (real name Robert but he likes Grouchy more). “I live hand to mouth, just like everybody else. They call this the bottom part, man. Anything below Main Street, they call this below bottoms.”

Grouchy tells a story about how the Department of Homeland Security has been denying him an identification card and so he cannot get a job. He says that’s been going on for 30 years, even though that department was organized in 2002 and there are probably other avenues for him getting some form of ID.

While Grouchy is talking, a man named Vannhak is trying to piece together parts from disparate bicycles so he can sell one complete bike. And, no, he didn’t take Talia’s bike because I asked her.

Vannhak pieces together bicycle parts hoping to complete one bike and sell it. (Photo by Armando Salguero)

Vannhak’s family is originally from Cambodia. His father fled the Khmer Rouge, and they ended up separated all over the United States, including in Gaineville, Florida and Fresno.

That wasn’t Vannhak’s big problem.

Crack was. And is.

“I’m cleaner. Cleaner than I was,” he says. “I’m doing less than I was. It’s not something I need every day. I can go without. I can go with. I feel sober right now, you know. It kind of sucks, actually. But I don’t feel as bad as I used to.”

These people are all living across the street from the Hilton Doubletree, one of the NFL’s media hotels that is charging over $300 per night.

Vannhak has been there close to two years. And he says it’s generally safe, except if you set your tent over by the bushes where some guy, who actually lives in the bushes, likes to set things on fire.

“Most of the time, we eat three times a day,” he says. “There are missions down there. You got to know the spots where they hand out food. On Saturdays, a lot of churches and stuff hand out food.

“But, I can’t lie, there’s also some days we go hungry.”

Grouchy predicts Super Bowl Sunday, when millions will gather in their homes with friends and family around trays of food, might be one of those days.

“Nobody’s going to remember us that day,” he says. “I get it. Doesn’t make me mad. Not their fault.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero


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  1. Nice column. The thing that gets me with the homeless problem is everyone thinks its all mentally ill people. If you own a house you pretty much have to take along the expenses that comes with that (power, phone, insurance, water, etc.), but you must have a job, a car and everything else. Basically, I can see why some people say screw that, I am not doing all this work just to give all my money away. They don’t realize you don’t have crap to do sitting on the street all day so how do you pass the time? Get drunk/high and then plummet to rock bottom. I feel the kids.

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