When someone asked me, “Hey, did you hear that Johnny’s gone?” I thought that he had finally decided to go into a housing program. Johnny was one of the homeless that I talked to every day. I remember telling the person, “Man, that’s good news!” Then he said, “No, you don’t understand. He’s dead.” It was quite a shock.
Johnny had been homeless for a long while. Years ago he had lost his job as a janitor and was never gainfully employed again. He always believed that some day one of his siblings would rescue him from the streets. The economy had taken its toll on them, too. They couldn’t offer him any support. One day turned into two, then two months, two years and so on.
I remember all too well trying over and over again to get him to agree to go into housing. “Are you going to sign up today?” I would ask. “I’m thinking about it,” was his reply. But he didn’t. He had become comfortable on the street. His world existed within the boundaries of six or seven blocks in Santa Monica.
Johnny’s legs were swollen and his feet were so sore he could barely stand. Because of this condition he finally agreed to go into a housing program where he could receive medical treatment as well. It was all set up and Johnny had agreed to go “inside” in just a few days. Those of us who knew him were anticipating that day, but the time for him to go came and went, and he was still in his same spot. We were all trying as hard as we could to help; the Santa Monica Police Department’s HLP Team, park rangers, workers from four different agencies, even a worker from county mental health, but Johnny just decided that he didn’t want to go into treatment. Two weeks later he was dead.
Johnny was one of the nicest guys I have ever met. Even with all of his adversity I had never seen him out of pocket, or acting out in any way. We carry a variety of granola bars to give out to the people we talk with on the street. Johnny really liked the peanut granola bars. Even when we got a little low on supplies, we always tried to keep at least one hidden away just for him. He would always end our conversations together by saying, “Thank you, praying for you.”
You probably saw Johnny, too. His stuffed animals were his trademark. For years he sat with them near Reed Park at the corner of Seventh Street and Wilshire Boulevard in front of the 7-Eleven. Then he moved down to Palisades Park near Arizona Avenue. His last location, where he was for his final months, was near the Senior Center in Palisades Park. He sat on the bench facing Santa Monica Boulevard.
Johnny’s stuffed animals and action figures were his most trusted allies on the street. They were his medium for conversation and interaction with the community. Occasionally, he would fall asleep and someone would grab one of them, never to be seen again. But he had so many people that liked him in town that he was constantly getting more. One morning when I went by he exclaimed, “Look, someone gave me a Superman! I fell asleep and when I woke up, Superman was here!”
A celebrity who jogs in Palisades Park stopped me right after it happened to ask where Johnny was. When I told him that he had died, he quickly replied, “What happened to him? I looked for him last week. I had a stuffed animal for him.” We have talked about Johnny several times since then. His concern was the cause of death. I told him that no one that I know had heard the final word as to the actual cause of death, but it appeared that he had a heart attack. He may have been a diabetic, it might have been a blood clot, something. The one thing that we both knew was that Johnny could hardly walk.
One of the biggest issues out here on the street is that if someone is resistant to services there is very little that we can do. I have wondered many times since his passing what would have happened if Johnny would have simply agreed to go into a care facility or received treatment, if only for a week or two?
Johnny was well known and well liked. He was one of those guys that you were really pulling for. When word got out that he had passed away, City Hall called us to verify that he truly had died. Police officers were calling. Agencies were calling each other. There was a buzz in the homeless community.
We are all sad to see Johnny go. I wished that we could have done more for him. Johnny you are greatly missed.
Ron Hooks is the founder and executive director of West Coast Care, a nonprofit. WCC is part of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Joint Homeless Outreach Program. Since October 2006, more than 1,000 homeless have been compassionately helped to transition off of the streets of Santa Monica by reconnecting them with their families, placing them into housing and/or treatment programs. Learn more at westcoastcare.org.