Possibly the most “invisible” celebrity in Santa Monica is political satirist Harry Shearer, best known as the voice of numerous characters on “The Simpsons” TV show. Shearer and other cast members reportedly earned $400,000 per episode until the “tough economy” forced them to accept $300,000. (Somehow they’ve managed to eke by.)
Since 1983, Shearer has been host of “Le Show” on KCRW, a brilliant hour of satire, music and sketch comedy. Harry signs off each broadcast by referring to Santa Monica as “The home of the homeless.” But our transient problem wasn’t always so severe.
Around 1978 marked the seemingly sudden emergence of “bag ladies,” middle-aged and older women who wore heavy makeup, bright lipstick and, even in hot weather, layers of clothing. A tragic sight to see, they slowly pushed shopping carts filled with bags containing all their worldly belongings to who knew where.
What had happened was, with unlikely help from the ACLU, Ronald Reagan closed numerous mental facilities in California. For Reagan it was a perfect cost cutting tactic, while for the ACLU it was a civil liberties victory against involuntary confinement.
Almost overnight the streets of Santa Monica were populated with the homeless, many being emotionally disturbed. It was common to pass a homeless person engaged in a heated argument with him or herself. In fact, when the tiny Bluetooth phones first became popular, I’d often mistake a person talking on one for a homeless person bantering with ghosts from their past.
Homelessness only increased throughout the ‘80s. Newly married, my wife and I often helped some poor souls who slept on the grass near our apartment building with money, food and clothing. One afternoon, 25 years ago this month, my connection to homelessness became even closer.
Back then I regularly played pick-up basketball in Venice. (Before I got so old that I could get injured just watching a game.) One day I invited some teammates back to my apartment for a beer.
As the group was drinking and reliving the games’ highlights (more imagined than real) I noticed one buddy had disappeared, Kenny a 20-something black man. I figured he left without saying goodbye, that is until I heard the shower running.
Tentatively, I knocked on the bathroom door and just as tentatively Kenny opened it. With the shower door open and water spraying everywhere, Kenny had a towel around his waist and shampoo still in his hair. It dawned on me that poor Kenny was homeless. Momentarily stunned, I encouraged him to try to keep as much water as possible inside the shower.
After the group left I was anxious to straighten the bathroom as my wife was due home from shopping. But apparently I didn’t do a great job and exasperated by the dirty towels, my wife did a load of laundry. Given that she was often critical of how I dressed, there is a punch line to this tale.
Three years later in Los Amigos Park, I was doing some writing when I noticed a bearded black man engaged in a heated argument with himself. It was Kenny. Much as I tried to be inconspicuous, he quickly noticed me. Surprisingly, he stopped arguing immediately.
As Kenny walked my way, I worried how I was going to turn down his likely request to take a shower at my apartment. “Remember me?” he asked gregariously. “Of course,” I answered rather awkwardly. Sizing me up, I was taken aback by his next question. “So, how long have you been homeless?”
I fumbled for a moment. “Uh, actually I haven’t been homeless that long.” Almost patronizingly Kenny responded, “Well, good luck,” and returned to arguing with his unseen demons. I was an odd mixture of guilty, relieved and insulted.
As for that punch line, here goes. Thinking my wife would be pleased that our bathroom had been spared use as a public shower, I shared my recent encounter with Kenny. “You see,” she joked, “the way you dress even the homeless think you’re homeless.” (I suppose it won’t come as a shock that we eventually got divorced.)
Fortunately, in recent years there has been considerable progress in securing housing for the homeless in Santa Monica. Councilmember Kevin McKeown, and city employees Setareh Yavari, Julie Rusk and Jessie Gonzalez, among others, have worked tirelessly. And Councilmember Bobby Shriver has made great strides on behalf of housing at the VA for homeless vets, of which there may be as many as 100,000 nationwide.
Being right after Independence Day, it’s especially hard for me to reconcile how we patriotically send our GIs off to war only to look the other way when so many become homeless. Hopefully, soon we won’t be in any of these seemingly endless and pointless wars. And won’t that be the best July 4 of all.
(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared July 6, 2012.)