A letter to the cyclist who passed the Atwater Bridge over the Los Angeles River

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 1, 2019 - - The belongings of the homeless are left on the Los Angeles River on February 1, 2019. Many homeless people living on an island, in the background, in the middle from the river they move to higher ground before a storm hits.  Homeless people living along the river remember their fellow homeless friend Geoff Garland, who was killed late last year in a murder suicide in Atwater Village.  (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The belongings of the homeless are left near the Los Angeles River. Many live on an island in the middle of the river and move to higher ground before a storm hits. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

On the morning of September 15, I received a message on the communication platform used by the homeless advocacy organization I work with. She said that C., an associate of ours who lives on an island in the Los Angeles River, needed to contact her case manager about her general aid and food stamp benefits within the next 24 hours. I agreed to go find her.

A little later, I got a follow-up message: C. is dead.

This is how the homeless die, suddenly, but not unexpectedly. Homelessness is a terminal condition if left untreated, and C. is one of nearly a dozen acquaintances who have died on the streets in recent years.

Another outreach volunteer and I headed down to the river to offer our condolences to C.’s partner, T. We found him at his usual spot, south of the new horse bridge, which connects Atwater Village and Griffith Park. Huddled against the metal barrier, blocking one of the two lanes of the bike path, we listened as he recounted the events that led to C.’s death. Chest pain on Monday, a trip to the hospital, his rapid decline, the children separated with whom he had tried to contact, the last sad moments of his passing. All this is conveyed in a flat, almost indifferent tone, mute evidence of a life so full of horror that even the sudden death of her lover does not elicit any outward expression of surprise or strong emotion.

These were the circumstances in which you, dressed in spandex and biking south along the river, yelled at the three of us to get out of the way, to which I responded with predictable vulgarity.

I was surprised when you came back to insist that I apologize for my foul language and for forcing you to change lanes. You seemed genuinely sure that you were the hurt party, and I figured you would wear that for the rest of the day, telling your friends about the confrontation, using it as an example of our continuing civilizational decline.

Believe it or not, I’m also the type of person who could yell at someone for blocking a bike lane, or littering, or any of the hundreds of other acts that degrade our civic cohesion and make our shared neighborhoods worse. People should not block bike lanes or ride scooters on sidewalks. People should not litter or scribble on bus benches, light fires in trash cans, or leave broken heroin needles and bottles for others to step on. People must not be allowed to suffer in the streets while the richest society in history revolves around them. The sick should not stop receiving treatment, the poor should not be left without food.

Things shouldn’t be like this. I took your behavior as evidence that you, like many of my neighbors, view the homeless exclusively as nuisances, similar to the bad traffic on 5th or our most recent oat milk shortage.

Perhaps this was unfair. Maybe you didn’t see that my partner and I were helping a homeless community member, even though we wore t-shirts that identified us as outreach volunteers. Perhaps his comment was, as he insisted, completely civilized. If I was wrong, then an apology is owed to you and you have it. But I do not apologize for prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable members of society over the desirability of the prosperous and comfortable.

The citizens of this city are furious about the homeless crisis. They should be; it’s a daily shame that we allow it to continue. But focusing our frustration on the symptoms and not the causes of this crisis is cruel and foolish. Sweeps and special control zones, these things obviously only push the problem a few hundred feet further. You wanted us to move off the bike path, but T. has nowhere else to go.

The solution to this problem must come from those powerful enough to effect change; it is obvious that the non-housed lack this capacity. Maybe I did you an injustice. If so, come with me for a weekend to the Los Angeles River and meet some of the people who live along your bike route. Otherwise, if you see me some other day on the riverbank, trying in some way to help T. or someone like him, I suggest you step on the brakes and pass quietly.

Daniel Polansky is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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