[EDITORIAL] The Other Side of the “Triangle”
CORRECTION: The author’s name was misspelled in this story as Jordan. The author’s name is spelled Jordyn. We regret the error.
Blanketed in the strong smell of coffee and an air conditioner amped up high, I experience instant relief from the California heat just inside Starbucks’ doors. I wonder how this must be for the person I am meeting for coffee, Shama, who lives at the homeless encampment right across the street at the Vermont Triangle, a median at the intersection of Vermont and Prospect avenues and Hollywood Boulevard.
She comes back from the restroom and informs me that seeing her messy-haired reflection in the mirror explains why everyone in Starbucks is looking at her strangely. Her embarrassment demonstrates the significance this editorial: the story of an individual who wants the Los Feliz community to do nothing more than recognize her humanity.
I have appreciated the consistent updates from the Los Feliz Ledger on the Triangle. I have read the perspectives of local business owners, politicians and organizations, all of which demonstrate a commitment to improving Los Feliz and finding a solution to homelessness here. I am saddened, however, by some comments about making the homeless uncomfortable and pushing them to another location as a means of solving “our” situation. Here is another perspective.
Shama has lived at the Triangle, which she calls the “Island,” for 1½ years. She feels fortunate to have found this location. Although the Los Feliz Ledger reported that Jeff Zarrinman, the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council’s treasurer, believes that the homeless “like it dark,” which is meant to account for the rocks thrown at the Triangle streetlights, Shama says she prefers the light.
As a woman of color in particular, the constant stress over her safety, she says, has been alleviated by the visibility of the Island. Perhaps one aspect of this perspective derives from the fact that the homeless are not a homogenous group or identity, but a collection of individuals who have a shared experience.
Although some other streets and cities may have room for her, Shama has stayed in Los Feliz because the Island has become a home full of people she considers friends and family, offering warmth in comparison to other encampments where she has lived. This does not mean that Shama wants to be here. She does not. However, given her options and life history, Shama considers the Island a blessing.
When Shama learned that a 2013 Los Feliz Improvement Assoc. article published on their website referred to those experiencing homelessness as “vagrants,” she expressed a state of despondence that often plagues her because she is not a vagrant—no one is—and no one person can represent an entire group of people that have been stereotyped and pigeon-holed with such blatant negativity.
In contrast, I can say with certainty that Shama is brave and strong, always holding on to herself despite situations outside of her control that keep her on the streets. She speaks poetically, although she laughs at me when I point this out. She was also open to talking to me, a stranger, with candor and patience. I admire her for that.
Shama is a survivor, weathering the heat, hunger, danger and harassment that comes with homelessness, all of which I can never understand as someone who has not experienced it. I know, however, that I am one unexpected circumstance away from homelessness. We all are.
I would hope that all Los Feliz residents would see people like Shama as members of our community that are currently at a disadvantage, rather than a problem of which we need to rid ourselves. Shama invests in Los Feliz by trying to keep the Island as clean as possible. In fact, cleaning the surrounding area with a broom is the task I see her performing the most. I have also watched her step up to care for others that live on the Island who might be in immediate need or crisis.
Shama has also comforted friends that were discriminated against during job interviews because they are homeless. She has endured harassment by residents of Los Feliz who are not homeless and has been judged to the point that she feels self-conscious when drinking coffee with me at Starbucks, as though she is an outsider.
Although investment should go both ways, Los Feliz can prosper most from equity as opposed to equality, meaning that investment should be allocated according to the unique nature and extent of a person’s or group’s disadvantage. I realize the story is oftentimes framed differently, but I hope that hearing about Shama can help bring a different narrative to the table.
Back at Starbucks, I ask Shama what she wishes Los Feliz residents could do for her. She responds with such a simple, yet powerful plea.
“I just want to be seen without judgment,” she says.
The next time you pass by the Vermont Triangle, please remember Shama’s simple request. With this in mind, try not to think only about how the homeless may negatively affect Los Feliz, but also how our interactions and biases can impact the wellbeing of people like Shama.
A more humane community is always a better community.
Rachel is a graduate student at the University of Southern California and has lived in Los Feliz for five years.