The Land of Opportunity

One thing that has struck me as both shocking and depressing as I have travelled between San Francisco and Los Angeles is the shear numbers of homeless, vagabonds and mentally ill in the land of opportunity. The disparity between rich and poor is widening here in the US and along with it the homeless population has boomed.

One of our first run ins with the communities of rough dwellers was at Emma Woods State Park. Whist sat round a camp fire just off a Californian beach out of the bushes emerges Long John Silver on a bicycle. The homeless man is half pedalling half hoping, using the bike as a wheeled crutch, he makes his way into the campsite to gather water. Not long before the sun sinks below the watery horizon a sheriff and policeman come and warn us that there is a large gathering of homeless people in the river bed just yonder the bushes and we are advised to move away from the area.

Not a five minutes further up the beach a good mile stretch of road side parking was stacked back to back with RVs. Now these things aren’t your average European summer campers. At the cost of a medium to large sized home these mammoths of the road are the size of buses, some literally have balconies. Yes balconies on an RV. From within their rose tinted mobile homes they are oblivious to the other world just round the corner.

The following evening for the first time I use the social or cycle community network known as Warm Showers where by kindly strangers who are cycle enthusiasts offer you bed and board for the night just for the fun of it. Its a great community. So George and myself find our selves in suburban America, the utopian dream; white picket fences, pristine lawns and two car garages. It is a strange scenario, out gracious hosts have to work late so we are quickly let in, shown the fridge where we can find some home made hummus and given a few ice cold beers. For the next few hours we wash, lounge and watch a film in someone else’s home. Almost like cat burglars, we feel like we are somewhere we shouldn’t be. And when Michelle returns from a long day at work she finds two strange interlopers in her house. Very bizarre.

Over dinner we mention the homeless problem not thirty miles away, and just as the sheriff told us we are told “lots of them choose to live like that.” Its a response we have heard numerous times when George the empathetic social worker brings up the social problems here. For me this is not a fair answer and sells these people short. Many of them have mental or physical disabilities and it is not surprising that once in the depths of homelessness here with little hope of escaping the poverty many turn to drugs; this then leads to further problems or crime….

We continue south towards LA, the road takes us through the likes of Malibu and Santa Barbra before reaching the trendy shore front of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. These are fantastic beach fronts, choc-a with bars, restaurants and designer shopping spaces (that’s what trendy people call a shop). Venice Beach is like London’s Camden with all walks of life plodding along the promenade. But all the while on a cusp of grass there, on some sand here or literally asleep in the middle of the pavement lie, live and gather the swathes of homeless. Poor-rism is tourism in bad taste but in the states you cant help but see poverty with a back drop of wealth. One district in the city has literally been over run or left to the will of the streets, Skid Row, in 2005 hospitals and law enforcement where discovered to literally be dumping their charges in the area and it is here that a significant population reside on the streets.

Los Angeles, is a city that I have never had an urge to see and have always been told to give it a miss. But this city is iconic, possibly one of the most influential in the world and is just so god damn colossal we had to take it in. If you were to cycle from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the eastern limits you will literally be in traffic and surrounded by concrete for over one hundred miles; its sprawling out of control with over twenty million soles residing within the greater LA area. It doesn’t have a particularly good feel to it as a hole it is just a repeated sequence: Starbucks, McDonald’s, carpark, concrete building, mall, a few houses: Starbucks, MacDonald’s……one street had over one hundred thousand numbers to it!

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To get a sense of the place and a good view we ride up to Griffith Observatory which overlooks the city scape and being in the Hollywood Hills we can peer over the Hollywood Sign. From this view point you can see just how far it extends but it seems to grow, as the sun goes down in the west lights start to flicker on the opposite horizon and you can see the glowing extent of the concrete mass. Its a great spot and sunset up there comes highly recommended from yours truly.

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We stop into a local burrito joint on our way back to our hostel. Outside a respectable working lady offers to watch our bikes. So we pop in and eye up the menu. George gets a hankering for a chocolate milk shake so pops out to the corner shop. He is taking his merry old time about it and I’m half way through dinner before he is steered into the place by a local. He is advice to leave it alone, last week someone was hacked up with an axe in this parking lot. I suspect a touch over sold I suspect but we heed his warning.

It transpires that a gentleman asked for a dollar but George gave his change to our bike security girl. The fella took offence, called George a racist and was extremely aggressive. Aggression (just verbal) was met with aggression but George joined me for dinner after been jostled in doors. A few minutes later the women comes in shaken and panicking telling everyone that he pulled a knife on her. They barely raise an eyebrow let alone call the police. Its just another day on the streets.

San Diego is no angel either. On my last morning in the states I’m up at the sparrows fart to make a “garage sale” at an out doors store. In the early hours when the daily drivers and pedestrians are no where to be seen all that is left is the men and women living their lives on the streets and they are many. There just seems to be no social support in place to help these individuals and certainly no care for the mentally ill. I don’t know if the average citizen chooses to turn a blind eye to this issue but something needs to be done to support the community.

I will end this one on a more positive note, a triumph. So slightly hungover I find myself cycling through San Diego to reach the REI store and its garage sale. I arrive to find voluntary street dwellers, eager beavers who camped out over night to get first dibs on the goods. Its a garage sale of returned items and the pickings can be good. I myself am in the market for a tent for I broke my tents back when we decamped at the Sheriffs instruction to avoid the river bed community. I’m a few hours early and a fair way back in the queue but when the gates open its comical. As people are let into the enclosure where the goods are laid out they break into a run; its like Oxford Street on Boxing Day, carnage. After a good mocking of the people in front we queue mates move forward, I find myself close to the line, the gate is open, I then seem to be striding, no power walking, before I find myself at full canter. Tents here I come!!!

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