‘The Soloist’ Strikes a Homeless Chord

The other night I watched for the first time, “The Soloist.” A remarkable movie based on Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s friendship with street and homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers. I had never seen the movie before because I had personal experience with Lopez, the homeless and skid row. I thought I knew the story, so I didn’t need to bother. I was wrong.

Here’s what I mean. I was working as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in the early part of 2000 when the then-Sheriff, Lee Baca, proposed to combat the out-of-control homeless problem by way of a summit.

The Homeless Summit was going to be attended by the leading stakeholders in the area including the mayor of Los Angeles at the time, James Hahn. There were state leaders attending as well along with representatives from the governor’s office. It was a big deal. The LA Times wrote an editorial applauding Baca for his foresight.

Baca also proposed a unique homeless shelter that was an inside/outside encampment. Homeless people indicated, just like in the movie, that they didn’t want to live inside. They liked living outside. Whether that be right or wrong, Baca opted to include the homeless mentality into his shelter, so he created an environment that was more like an outdoor camp with enclosed tents. He offered the deputies as security. The summit was well-attended but nothing concrete came from it. Where’s the money going to come from, was the refrain at the time. Still is the refrain, actually.

I was fortunate enough to help with the summit and was most gratified for personal reasons. I was temporarily homeless when I was in my late teens and early 20s. A night here. A night there. Never for very long. And in my day, it was different. It was saner, if you can believe that.

Nowadays, the situation is exasperated by the numbers – some estimate the homeless population in Los Angeles County is as high as 90,000 – and the mentally ill. Even here in So Pas we have a homeless issue. It’s a relatively small scale but still an issue.

As the homeless population migrates away from downtown, they come to communities like South Pasadena. The City Council along with all the community stakeholders are trying to deal with the issue.

One of the things I learned with the Sheriff was that law enforcement is the first stop for the homeless. (Just ask So Pas Police Sgt. Shannon Robledo). And the county jail was the second stop. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was true then. They would be booked in and almost immediately be released. Minor offenses. Just trying to clean up the streets. It was called “catch and release.” The county jail at the time was the largest de-facto mental health institution in the nation; many of them homeless.

Back to Lopez. By the middle of the decade, Lopez had made a name for himself with the Ayers situation. His columns led to a lucrative book deal and that was soon followed by the film.

After the Ayers story became known, I was at a function one day at the Midnight Mission in downtown L.A. with Lopez and the then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A homeless man came up to Lopez and criticized him for exploiting Ayers. He yelled at Lopez for using Ayers for fame and fortune. The confrontation happened just outside the meeting room, but even the meeting heard and momentarily stopped. The homeless man then swiftly left the building. Lopez ran after him, protesting his innocence. I never did know the outcome of that confrontation.

Still, I thought it was a good film and a powerful message of hope.

The homeless issue is not going away. Not nationally, not statewide, not in Los Angeles and not in South Pasadena. The good news is everybody recognizes the issue and people are trying to do something about it. Talk soon.

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Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.