“I do countertops, laminate and marble. I learned it from my brother.” Christopher is waiting for a free haircut at Mary’s Kitchen in Santa Ana, California where you can get a shower, a meal and wash your clothes.
He’s 38 and striking. He leans into a chair and smiles easily. Dimples pop from his cheeks, his teeth are a straight, white row. The woman also waiting in line behind him can’t help but notice. “Damn, you’re handsome.” Christopher looks down for a second and shrugs.
He pulls out an old leather wallet and shows me pictures of his children. “That’s why I work so hard.” Christopher is tucking away boxes of food to go which he’ll bring back to his wife and two children who are living indoors so long as he can pick up work. They were in a car but he says it’s looking up. “We’re in a weekly motel right now.”
Born in Los Angeles with six older brothers, Christopher describes growing up in a gang run neighborhood. “We just ran around. It was gang infested. Full of drugs. We just did what everyone else did. I didn’t learn anything about how to live a right life. But I’m learning it now.”
He looks me in the eye and has his work boots on in case he gets a call. Working keeps him going. “Either you want it or not.” His approach is one of hard work and faith. “People lose their homes. They get discouraged and give up.”
For him homelessness was a gradual progression. Academics didn’t come easy with dyslexia which he didn’t know he had until high school. Struggling to keep up and watching his older brothers drop out, and seeing drugs sold regularly outside his door, Christopher says he briefly lost faith in himself. “I got discouraged. I lost my will and got involved with drugs.”
He stopped working and lost his support networks. He found himself on the street. Christopher already had a divorce behind him and a different set of kids to support. He was drowning in debt and drugs and let himself go.
Now he’s clean and believes he can make it back into a home and regular work.
But the statistics make it less than likely.
The Los Angeles area has the highest homeless population on the west coast and it’s growing-up by 5.7% this past year with roughly 47,000 in the last census. Affordable housing has collapsed. Older low income apartments have been torn down and newer units which cost more rise in their place. The city plans on spending 138 million dollars to house the homeless but Christopher wants something more illusive–a job where he makes enough to pay his own way. “Disabled people need help. I just need work.”
He’s been homeless with his family for roughly a year. He has them to care for and sends support to his former wife and their children as well. Housing and Urban Development defines anyone without a stable address as homeless. Christopher says he’s glad there are places where he can get some food to stretch his checks. “We run out sometimes and the kids get hungry. This keeps us going. They remember me here because I come down and help out whenever I can. I worked for weeks here fixing stuff up, cleaning, whatever they needed done- and now it comes back to me.”
He is the band leader for hope. Many here have lost it. A married couple traveling across the country are going back home to Alabama. “There’s no jobs out here nor places you can live neither. Going home doesn’t sound good but we can stay with my mom and at least survive. It’s better than here.” They don’t want a picture or their names released. “Nah, we just waiting for a check and leaving.”
Christopher nods as they walk by. He’s from here-there is no other home. “I grew up here and it’s what I know. My kids were born here. We’re doing a little better day by day. When I see homeless people with two arms and legs I think laziness.”
Many have the same feeling about the homeless, even those among the growing ranks. But many, like Christopher work more than 30 hours per week and are still without a stable home.
In his case, he’s certain it’s temporary. “I’ve just got to prove myself. Once I get a full time job and more work we’ll be alright. But I’ll remember these people.”
It’s time for his haircut. We shake hands. “You do right and right comes back to you.”