Author: Joe Brizzolara / May 2, 2018
Near the corner of 5th and Central on Skid Row’s eastern border, a sanitation worker asks Kaleb Havens if he’s accomplished what he set out to.
“The first steps of accomplishing something. Communication. Lines opening up.”
Kaleb Havens works at the Hippie Kitchen, a soup kitchen run by the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, down the street and was on Day 41 of a 46 day hunger strike. The strike was done to bring awareness to the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles and to put pressure on the City to provide more permanent supportive housing.
Communication is something Kaleb excels at. Even after days of minimal calories, consisting of chicken broth and pedialyte, he attacks subjects earnestly, and with passion. He’s a man on a mission.
“Through inaction, we let unregulated capitalism create these conditions. And I’m not one of these people who says we need to get rid of capitalism. I will just say it’s worked a lot better before than this. Like in the 50s and 60s when we had great social programs and a safety net and college was immensely more affordable and job training was a lot more accessible.”
Kaleb Havens on Christianity as a source for Social justice:
“I think it can be. I think it should be. I think when the Roman Empire [co-opted Christianity] and made it its own, that was more to Rome’s benefit than the mission of Christ. I think that the message of Christ has gotten watered down a lot over the years. I think at its core, it’s very much about social justice. And about standing up for people that don’t have a voice, for neighbors that go without.”
Kaleb Havens on the experience of being homeless:
[In dialogue with the reporter]
“How much your phone charged right now? Percentage wise? 88%? You charged it this morning right? You’re going to charge it tonight? What if that, in itself, was a homeric journey, to find a place where you can sit and keep your phone charged, without being hassled or told to leave.”
“When was the last time you used the bathroom? An hour ago? At your place, at the office? At your place? What if that was its own journey everyday? It’s own new problem. ‘Ok so today, where am I gonna s**t where I won’t get arrested?’ And that becomes its own project. That’s your whole morning. Just figuring out where you can use the bathroom. Or your whole evening, cause there’s only about 6 restrooms, 9 or 6 public restrooms overnight between 5,000 people who live on the streets.”
“How many gallons of possessions would you guess you own? Everybody down here limits it to 60 gallons of possessions. There’s a reason. Because if you have more than that, anything in excess of that, technically, can be thrown away at any time on the streets. Cause they can come by and do a sweep and say you have to much s**t here and you have to pick 60 gallons and we’re gonna throw away everything else. Nobody owns more than they can move by themselves every 2 weeks because of street sweeps, cause you can’t ask for help cause everyone else is moving their shit on your block.”
“I have the umbrella, not so much for the sun. I do use it for the sun, sometimes. What I use it for most is at night, when these blue lights are buzzing. Bzzz. At night.”
“You can look at a lot of studies that show blue light is the worst thing to submit someone to, especially if they’re suffering from substance abuse or a mental illness. It’s not peaceful. It’s not natural. Bzzz. I do the umbrella, just so I don’t have to look at it. That’s why a lot of people get under their tents, people who stay out here cover their face or put their hood up, cause even at night, you can’t, it’s not peaceful. There’s no rest.”
“My skin ages. I just cleaned my nails, and an hour later I look like a coal miner cause of all the debris that’s coming off the street.”
“Your life expectancy is 75 in this country as a normal adult. It’s about 48 if you’re experiencing chronic homelessness.”
While on his Hunger Strike, Kaleb was contacted by the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is currently being talked about as a potential candidate for president in 2020. Garcetti recently announced in his State of the City address that districts in Los Angeles that open themselves to emergency homeless shelters will get the benefit of sanitation teams dedicated to cleaning up areas where encampments were once located.
“Homelessness can’t be swept away — we must give people a place to stay,” said Garcetti. “We’re not going to wash down sidewalks only to see an encampment return a few days later. That doesn’t help a single person get off the street and it doesn’t help clean up a neighborhood for good.”
Operation Healthy Streets is a cleanup program in Skid Row, first started in 2012. City officials notify homeless residents of the date of cleanup and, with the L.A.P.D. in tow, evict those who do not leave by that date.
Kaleb was himself in danger of being forced to move for a scheduled sweep, something he was unwilling to do.
“People are sometimes arrested, or have their things thrown away, when they fail to move for the operation healthy street sweeps. So when they told me I’d have to move, that was something on the table, but they just swept around me all three times. They didn’t end up arresting me. We had a big protest the first time. The sargent told me by order of the Mayor they were told to just sweep around me and do an optional cleaning on the street, so it didn’t end up going that way. I think that’s good. I think that means our leaders are listening to what the most vocal members of our community are saying our needs are. But there is a lot of space between listening and hearing and taking action. So we’re working on that journey.”
Along with making sure the strike was uninterrupted by the sweeps, Garcetti contacted Kaleb personally. The mayor shared that he himself had participated in a hunger strike in the past and that he was committed to improving the lot of Los Angeles’s homeless population.
While Kaleb appreciated the outreach by Garcetti, he seemed unconvinced that the mayor was willing to put his full weight behind eradicating homelessness.
“His job is to seem receptive.”
Kaleb on Misconceptions of Homelessness and Skid Row:
Fears of violence and theft in Skid Row are largely unfounded according to Havens.
“I walk down the street here a lot. I’ve never been shot. I’m not saying there’s not gun violence down here, everyone i know down here’s who’s died from violence was engaged in the drug trade. And i’m not casting blame. I’m just saying if you’re trying to help down here, and you didn’t snatch somebody’s stash like last week, i wouldn’t be worried about getting shot.”
“I’ve been out here for 41 days, everything I own is in full view of everybody and not a single possession has walked off.”
And the people living in Skid Row are not so foreign as many might perceive them to be.
“No matter how much difference you think might exist between you and someone who is experiencing homelessness, you are one bad day away from being that person in a tent who you cross the street to avoid.”