On the morning of September 15, I received a message on the communications platform used by the homeless law firm I work with. It said C., one of our employees living on an island in the Los Angeles River, should contact her caseworker about her general relief benefits and food stamps over the next 24 hours. I agreed to look for her.
A little later I received a follow-up message: C. is dead.
This is how the innocent 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 the last few years.
Another outreach volunteer and I went down to the river to offer Cs longtime partner, T., our condolences. We found him at his usual spot just south of the new horse bridge that connects Atwater Village and Griffith Park. Squeezing against the metal barrier and preventing one of the two tracks on the bike path, we listened as he told us the events leading up to C’s death. Chest pain on Monday, a trip to the hospital, her rapid decline, the alienated children he had tried to contact, the last sad moments of her passing. All this he passes on in a flat, almost indifferent, toned, dumb proof of a life so full of horror that even the sudden death of his lover produces no outward expression of surprise or strong emotion.
These were the circumstances when you, spandex-clad and cycling south along the river, shouted at the three of us to get out of the path, to which I responded with a predictable vulgarity.
I was surprised when you returned to insist that I apologize for my bad language and for forcing you to change lanes. You seemed really sure you were the victim, and I imagined you had it with you the rest of the day – told your friends about the confrontation and used it as an example of our ongoing civilized decline.
Believe it or not, I too am the kind of people who can yell at someone for having blocked a bike path, or for garbage, or for any of the hundreds of other actions that degrade our bourgeois cohesion and worsen our common neighborhoods. People are not allowed to block bike paths or ride scooters on sidewalks. People should not throw or mess up swear words on bus benches or start fires in trash cans or leave heroin needles and cracked vials lying around so other people can step on. People should not be allowed to suffer on the streets while the richest society in history swirls around them. The sick should not go untreated, the poor should not be deprived of food.
Things should not be like that. I took your behavior as proof that you, like many of my neighbors, only consider the uninjured as nuisances similar to poor traffic at 5 or our recent shortage of oat milk.
Maybe this was unfair. Maybe you did not see my partner and I helping a member of the harmless community even though we were wearing shirts that identified us as outreach volunteers. Maybe your comment, as you insisted, was completely civil. If I was wrong, you owe an apology and you have it. But I do not regret that I prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable in society over the convenience of the affluent and comfortable.
The citizens of this city are furious at the homeless crisis. They should be – it is a daily disgrace that we allow it to continue. But focusing our frustration on the symptoms rather than the causes of this crisis is both cruel and foolish. Sweeping and special enforcement zones, these things obviously do nothing but push the problem a few hundred meters down the road. You would like us to move out of the bike path, but T. has nowhere else to go.
The solution to this problem must come from those who are strong enough to implement change; it is obvious that the innocent lack this capacity. Maybe I did you an injustice. If so, come out with me one weekend to the LA River and meet some of the people who live along your bike route. Otherwise, should you see me another day on the river side and somehow try to help T. or someone like him, I would suggest you pump the brakes and pass in silence.
Daniel Polansky is a writer living in Los Angeles.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.