Taking Action with the Homeless
By Stephen Johnson
Whole Life Times – August 1996
I got home the other night, flipped on the TV and caught the lead segment on the news. My heart sank as I listened: Two skinheads took a machete to an African-American boy in Lancaster…. if it were not for the quick efforts of his 17-year-old female cousin, the youth would have bled to death….” The irony is that the family moved from the inner city to shelter him from the gang violence permeating their neighborhood. Although this kind of occurrence has been rare, the reporter indicated, residents in that area fear that this is just the beginning.
Is this just the beginning or a return to conditions that were more prevalent in years past? I once na•vely believed that race relations and social conditions were improving forever. I remember the exhilarating experience of hearing Martin Luther King speak at USC 30 years ago. In the midst of his speech there was a bomb scare and the audience was required to disperse outside of the auditorium. Dr. King climbed on top of the base of the statue of Tommy Trojan and continued talking to us through a public address system. His promise for the future buoyed my spirits and was a salve for the despair dividing our country over the brutal Vietnam War.
On a darker day, Martin’s life was snuffed out by an assassin. Those were rough times, but Dr. King had inspired us with his message and I could only pray that he was correct that better times were ahead.
The Los Angeles riots occurred and we cautiously recovered. However, we barely made it through the Rodney King trial without a resurgence of mayhem. People still remain at odds over the outcome of the O. J. Simpson trial, an event that riveted us to our TV sets for months while straining our already frazzled nerves. And, sadly, almost daily it seems, another black church in the South burns to the ground. Why is it that we are so intent on going backwards? Have we lost our way?
The impact of this modern social crisis on communities rich and poor is profound. The most dangerous people in the world are those who are not emotionally bonded to family, community and humanity as a whole, and those who have acquired personal power without understanding the source of that power and the value of every life.
In an effort to commit to working with disadvantaged men and men of color, the Men’s Center has shepherded a project entitled “Bridges to Brotherhood.” This is an alliance between men of color and white middle-class men. We want this to be a clear sign that the men’s movement is addressing some of the salient issues confronting our culture today.
Homeless activist Ted Hayes has worked closely with us on the Bridges program. Hayes is the director of Justiceville-USA Village Dome for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. He has attended our Sacred Path retreats working with homeless men and others.
Hayes views “Bridges” as a movement of atonement and restoration. “At the retreat, we recognized the need for privileged men to work with lower-income, less privileged men and mentor them into more productive lives,” Hayes said.
We hope that men from all walks of life who participate in “Bridges to Brotherhood” will come away with a better understanding of one another. The purpose is two-fold: to expand the multicultural composition of the Men’s Center and provide mentoring support to homeless men in the inner city.
Homelessness is on the rise. According to the Shelter Partnership’s most recent study, as many as 83,00 people are homeless each night in Los Angeles County, an increase of 9% from the previous year. According to a survey conducted by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness, urban encampments of homeless people are rampant and growing fast near freeways and bridges, rivers and railroad tracks, as well as on the sidewalks of the city. The study found that two-thirds of those living in encampments (30% of the homeless population) were homeless for at least one year, and 20% for over five years. In the downtown area, 75% of the homeless people are black men. Clearly the present system is not working.
Many young men in this country have few role models or opportunities for personal relationships with successful, mature men. They are lacking in guidance and initiation into the adult world. Youth at risk most commonly turn to peer leadership and are prone to acting out of a hyper-macho identification with what they perceive as masculine.
Our young men are left to fend for themselves without inspiration, leadership and the tools necessary to find their way in an increasingly hostile environment. We can see the dysfunctional outcome from this cycle of abandonment of our young men through gang participation, unwed pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, and the unending stream of abuse and violence. Forty percent of black men, for instance, are in prison, on parole, or on probation. Homicide is the second leading cause of death for American males ages 15 to 34 and is the leading cause of death for young African-Americans. The homicide rate for American men ages 15 to 24 from 1988 to 1991 was 37%. All other countries around the world had less than 5% comparable homicide rate. From a strictly financial consideration, it costs $36,000 to incarcerate a man in California each year. An endless string of statistics is available to verify the need for immediate attention to our young men.
Ellis Cose, in his book A Man’s World: How Real is Male Privilege – and How High is Its Price? writes, “Viewing the male experience primarily through a prism of ethnicity and race can obscure those issues that affect all men. In some respects, however, race remains relevant. White men as a group… have traditionally occupied the preeminent rung on America’s status ladder. African-Americans have often been made to wonder whether black men had a place on the ladder at all. Any honest discussion of male privilege and power must at least take note of the racial disparity.”
We cannot continue to let these issues to remain unaddressed. At the Men’s Center we have been mostly a group of white middle-class “privileged” males who have gathered for the past 10 years to explore what it means to be a man. We mostly have been interested in healing our father wounds and trying to figure out what women want. But, there is a growing concern about the rampant gang influence that has spread to epidemic proportions, the widening disparity and pockets of hatred between the races, increased domestic violence, and the plight of homeless people.
Presently, a council from the Men’s Center is volunteering time to work with men from the Village and surrounding inner-city community. The combined group, which now totals 20 men, is participating in bimonthly council sessions at the Village to discuss everything from job opportunities to parenting, to relationships and related topics. While communication is the focus at present, future plans also include job assistance.
Through Bridges to Brotherhood it is our intent that men from widely divergent backgrounds will find this a safe haven to explore how to work together to heal themselves, their families, and their communities. We want to make things right between men from all walks of life. We want to bridge the gap between us, to gain a greater understanding and acceptance of one another, to break down the color barriers and work toward a better life for us all.
–The Men’s Center of Los Angeles, a non-profit counseling center for men with offices in Woodland Hills and Beverly Hills, has been working in alliance with the Justiceville-USA Village Dome, a first-step transitional affordable housing project for homeless people for the past two years. The village is located in downtown Los Angeles. For more information about this project, call (818) 348-9302.
–Stephen Johnson, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Men’s Center and has a private psychotherapy practice in which he works with individuals, couples, families and groups