"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I FIRST MET JAY BRADY AT THE COFFEE BEAN IN THE STRIP MALL ON VENICE BLVD. AND MOTOR AVE. IN WEST LA early in the year. I was chipping away at a story on my laptop one evening in a seat outside the storefront when, after quietly observing me from his table between drags of a cigarette, a man bearing a strong likeness to the actor Nick Nolte in deep character-actor mode asks me from across the patio, “Excuse me, are you a writer?” Turns out I am. And turns out he is too – the proud author of Home Sweet Homeless, an autobiographical account of his life living on the streets that he wrote, despite the considerable handicap of actually being without a home when he wrote it.

The second time we sat down together at Coffee Bean was slightly more planned. I brought my voice recorder, along with a flood of questions that had been accumulating in my mind since the day I saw a homeless person as a child, and first registered the fact that there were people in the richest country in the world with nowhere to live. He brought a dog-eared copy of his book for me to read, and a lifetime of memories that I understand, but don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully comprehend.

Tell me about Home Sweet Homeless.
It’s one man’s travel of going cross-country, being homeless with his wife, doing swap meets and meeting other homeless people across the country, like in Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas. This is where I saw more people and got a broader view at the fact that this was not just Los Angeles, or New York having a homeless situation. It’s in a couple of bookstores on consignment. It got a good review, and that blew it up and got people’s attention. I started the project on a whim in 1996. I never took up writing until I was in my mid-40s. I just started writing on the [3rd Street] Promenade to pass the time.

What’s your background?
I grew up in Pacific Palisades, a very affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles. My father was a screenwriter for Warner Bros. He wrote 77 Sunset Strip. My grandfather had a textile company and I was vice-president. We made very good money in the ‘70s. I came from a good, educated background, a very non-prejudiced background. I was always taught to treat people as equals. Maybe that’s why when I became homeless the injustice hurt me more.

How many homeless people do you estimate come from from relatively well-off backgrounds?
A lot of people, actually. A lot of people had problems where they were discarded by their families, or they had financial situations they invested money in at a time where it wasn’t the right thing to do, and they lost their money and became homeless.

What do you find to be the most common reasons for being homeless?
If you slice it down the middle, most of it’s just plain alcohol and drug addiction. The others could be from family problems, financial tragedies, clinical depression. That was my situation. I had to deal with the death of my parents very suddenly. I became clinically depressed and didn’t handle it well. The bottom line is, if you’re homeless that means you’re basically not doing anything. And a lot of people, to escape that mental situation, probably do drink a little bit too much because of the pressure of having no hope. When you’ve lost all hope, it’s hard to deal with without losing your mind. The thing that scares me about being homeless is the fact that I could lose my mind.

How does the local shelter system work?
They have cold weather shelters that are daily from December 1 to March 1, so after that you’re thrust back on the street. You have to get on a waiting list [for a regular shelter]. It’s a program where if you’re on SSI you give them 60% of your money and they put it away like a bank and give it to you when you leave. At the end of the six months you usually have enough money to go out and get an apartment. But singles are going for $900. If you don’t have a job to perpetuate the money that you save, what are you gonna do? You’re not gonna take four or five thousand dollars and get an apartment and not have any income that will balance out your living expenses and apartment. And most homeless people don’t have very good credit. You can get two or three people to go in [on getting a place together], but that’s hard too, because most people don’t have my point of view when it comes to getting off the streets. They’d just as soon stay on the streets, spend their money, because things have become so hopeless in their minds. I’ve known a few people who went into a shelter for instance, saved their money, got a job and got back into society. It can be done. But there’s not enough shelters to help the mass majority out.

What do you think could realistically be done to help the situation?
Well, they have lots of closed-down army barracks, for instance. They could open those up. The people that are willing to get help, they could train them for jobs. The ones that aren’t willing, you can’t do anything with them. The terminally mentally ill – the ones Reagan let out of the hospital in the ‘80s – they have no chance. You can only feel for them because they have no brains. They can’t figure it out. Reagan closed quite a few mental institutions down. Homeless people don’t have enough effort to really get to any place to make a difference. They’re not fed properly, they’re crashing behind buildings, they don’t get enough sleep. They just don’t have it in them anymore. If you’re sleeping outside at night, trying to stay non-visual, you’ve got the police to deal with, you’ve got people that will come up and slit your throat for money, you have other homeless people, so you’re ducking and dodging all the time. They look at the homeless as lepers who are deserving of their plight, and that’s not true. And until something powerful happens – hopefully a movie, because everything in this country is visual, where they can actually see these injustices going on – then maybe we’ll come to a little bit more of a realization that something needs to be done about it. That’s why it would be great to have a Dennis Hopper or a Mickey Rourke or a Nick Nolte in a serious role about homelessness. It would catch peoples’ eyes.


Unknown said...

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