Who are Santa Monica’s homeless?

I get asked this question quite often. Who are they? In other words, is there a particular economic or ethnic group that makes up the majority of the homeless population? I usually answer, “You will probably be surprised.”

The other day I was moving some boxes around in my attic and I saw Gary’s diploma again. When I saw his prestigious diploma mounted on that beautiful wooden plaque, I couldn’t help but wonder where he was and how he’s doing.

Gary was sharper than most. His memory was absolutely unbelievable. His attention to detail was impeccable. He had earned his doctorate at UCLA. But all his talents, gifts and education couldn’t save him from cocaine addiction, then homelessness.

When I first met Gary, he was carrying around a cardboard box that was beat all to pieces. It was slightly bigger than a file box. I kept seeing him with this torn-up box and finally asked what it was all about. He said that he had been hauling it around for awhile but was afraid that he would eventually lose it, too. He said, “This is all I have left in this world. It’s just papers and stuff. They don’t mean anything to anybody but me.” Then he asked, “Will you keep it for me? Just hold on to it for a week or two until I get a place?” I answered, “Yeah, but only for a week or two.”

Gary was also looking for somebody to be his payee. You know, someone to receive his disability check every month then help him manage his money. I thought it would be easy because of the way he had impressed me with his professionalism. So I thought, “Why not, I will give it a try. After all, how hard could it be?”

The first check that I received for him was a shocker. When I saw the amount my first thought was that he must be getting some back pay. It must be several months’ worth — $3,200 is a lot of money. I asked Gary, “Why is your check so much? Do they owe you money?” “No, that’s what I get every month,” was his reply. He was getting professional disability. I had never met anyone who received it before.

Gary once had a thriving practice in Beverly Hills. He was in demand. His patients were some of the richest and most famous people in L.A. He once had all the trappings of success.

Years ago a doctor friend had invited Gary to a party. It was there, in a drunken state, that he tried crack cocaine for the first time. Gary said, “There are some people who just can’t handle it. Predisposed, I suppose. I am one of them. Within six months of my first hit of crack cocaine I had lost everything. My practice, my license to practice, my wife and kids, cars, every nickel and every dime. If anything had any value at all, it is gone.”

I was his payee for only a short time. It was a nightmare. Gary could find more ways to get his hands on the money than you could imagine. I would give him money in the morning and he would need more by the afternoon. He was still an addict. He was smart. I was naïve. He fooled me. He had all these elaborate plans that took money that somehow failed to materialize every single time. He was “maintaining” as they say on the street. He was using every single cent of his disability to get what he needed to stay high as long as he could. He didn’t need a payee, he needed an enabler. He was moving from area to area, finding that unsuspecting person who could get his money for him.

It didn’t take very long to figure out what he was doing. We had a showdown one day. Gary confessed to everything. He was just working me to get what he needed. He said that he guessed if he didn’t have the disability money he could probably get clean. But he liked it (crack) too much, and it was working for now.

I found it all hard to believe. Gary’s story is still unreal to me. How could someone who had achieved so much have fallen so far? He was at the top of his game. He was the cream of the crop. It was a scary scenario.

The last time I saw him was one afternoon at the hospital. A few days earlier he had called me from a phone booth in extreme pain. He was gasping for air as he talked in short breaths from the tenderness in his abdomen. After my 20 minute plea, he finally agreed to go to the hospital. At the hospital, I found out that he was only a few hours away from death, his appendix had ruptured. When he got well he walked out of the hospital. I have never heard from him since.

Who are they? I answer it like this. They are somebody’s sister, somebody’s brother, somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter. In my time working with the homeless I can honestly say that there is not one socio-economic group that I haven’t worked with. Homelessness does not discriminate.

Don’t place all the homeless into one ideological box. What’s on the surface can fool you.

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. Learn more at westcoastcare.org.