November 17, 2018

Homeless in Koreatown

You can’t knock on a tent, so I had to yell. I wanted to meet the people inside the blue tent and hear their story. I had seen several sidewalk tents on my way to the Jewish Journal offices in Koreatown, and the rain storm had made me especially curious about how the homeless were faring.

I told the man who answered that I worked at a newspaper and wanted to hear his story. The man, Gary Ellison, age 42, from Chicago, was lean and balding with brownish skin and strong features. His eyes were warm and friendly. He was definitely happy to see me.

Gary tried as best he could to untangle the entrance flaps to the tent. As I crouched awkwardly to enter, he put an old grey jacket on a sitting area so I’d be more comfortable. Behind another flap was a dark-haired woman sitting cross-legged on the ground, hugging a blanket. Her name was Cierra Bartholomew, age 23, also from Chicago. Cierra had large brown eyes, olive skin and a gentle demeanor. She had laid out Christmas lights on a little rug in front of her, which created an amber glow inside the tent. Behind her was her boyfriend, Rick Rock, who was sleeping.

The sound of rain falling became like background music to our conversation.

Gary was eager to talk. He was raised by his mother in Lemont, a suburb of Chicago. He didn’t know his Dad, meeting him for the first time when he was 12. “He never respected me as his son,” Gary said. The same was true for his younger brother, who only met the Dad when he was on his deathbed.

But Gary’s mother loved him dearly. He still speaks with her whenever he can. He pulled out a few old pictures of her and proudly showed them to me.

Gary is good with his hands. In his 20s, he made a decent living working on barges at Illinois Marine Towing, before a bar fight put his life on hold. A knife stabbing had severed his main artery and he underwent open heart surgery that incapacitated him for over a year.

He moved to Las Vegas in his 30s and worked as a mechanic. One night, at a 7-11, he met Karlina, a single mother of two. They fell in love and got married.

He made enough money to get an apartment and support his new wife and her kids. But he says “she ran around” on him. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and she was gone,” he said. “She broke my heart.”

With his heart broken, he left Vegas for Los Angeles about three years ago. Unable to find work, he entered a homeless shelter in Costa Mesa but had to leave because he says people would steal his things. “There’s bad stuff going on in shelters,” he told me. “I prefer the streets.”

But not all streets are created equal. Before moving to Koreatown about three months ago, he had pitched his tent at MacArthur Park, which he says wasn’t very safe. Thankfully, though, MacCarthur Park is where he met his future best friend, Cierra.

“We’re both from Chicago,” he said. “We understand each other.”

They consider their new location on New Hampshire Ave in Koreatown a blessing. “The Korean Consulate is right there,” Cierra said. “That keeps us safe.”

As far as the police goes, “If we respect them, they respect us,” she said. In fact, officers have come by occasionally to give them information about shelters and other places that might help them find more permanent housing.

For now, they’re banking on their old tent to protect them from the rain and the elements. It does a decent enough job. I got a little wet, but that’s because I was close to the entrance. Cierra, who was inside and bundled up, seemed reasonably cozy.

I asked them if they had any plans for the future. Cierra said she’d love to open a “dispensary” where she can lawfully sell medical marijuana. Gary would love to do carpentry or any other handy work. He dreams of building a house. He told me he has a Facebook page that he hopes will help him make connections so he can get back on his feet.

Cierra is reluctant to get into a shelter because she doesn’t want to be separated from Rick and Gary. Apparently, the three have built a strong friendship.

Before I left, Gary sang me a song he wrote, called “Homeless Man.” It’s about a homeless man looking for work, who's always dressed in a suit and tie.