By: Katherine Wang
You’ve seen the rich stroll the streets with their designer bags and fancy sunglasses, but have you notice those other kinds of people who walk around with their life belongings packed in a dirtied suitcase, donning mismatched, hand-me-down rags? Have you seen this other community of Santa Monica?
There are two sides to every street, including that of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. The Promenade is where the rich play and the hungry and homeless reside.
It is a strange scene; fashionably dressed tourists and locals walk along side the ragged, unwashed bodies of impoverished men and women. These piteous, drab figures stand out against the background of shiny fronts of luxury brand stores. Such a model is a stark contrast of rich, corporate America and the underserved masses.
Passersby generally pretend to not notice the sorry condition of these understated residents. Scores of them strode by these men and women without a second glance. Understandably so, some of these poverty-stricken persons have such a grotesque appearance that one would rather flee from their presence than help them.
But one Asian man in particular is either noticed with pain or deliberately ignored by pedestrians. He stands in the middle of the street, sometimes leaning against one of the fountains. His hands are nothing more than useless stumps; they look as if they were staved off in some horrible accident. Between these maimed limbs, he cradles a roughly scribbled sign that pleads, “Please help me. I can’t find a job like this.”
Nevertheless, only a few persons with kind enough hearts and strong enough stomachs drop coins into the plastic drink container in front of him.
On the corner of Arizona and Third Street, a woman with stringy blond hair and wearing a dirty gray sweatshirt holds her sign in front of large clothing store.
“Spare some change,” she cajoles two friends chatting near the streetlight. They ignore her.
“Sir, I need to feed my family,” she says to a gentleman walking up. He walks faster.
“Anything, even a nickel or a penny,” she tells others. They act nonchalant and pretend to look away.
The woman’s voice is first gentle and winning, but soon grows desperate and angry.
A toddler, sweet in his pale blue jumper, is pushed in stroller by his daddy. Specks of light from bright storefronts dance in his big, shining pupils. The soft beach breeze ruffles his airy, thin brown hair.
Meanwhile, an old woman nearby sits hunched over on a bench. She holds her sides as if she is in pain, or perhaps she is just cold. Her clothes are stained brown with dirt and sweat. Her hair is matted and streaked with white and gray. She sits like so for the rest of the night, alone on the bench. No one comes over touch her, to put a blanket over her, or to ask her what’s wrong.
The skin on her face is brown and rough like wrinkled leather, from being exposed daily against the unmerciful elements. She was prematurely aged like many others in her kind of living circumstance.
Many homeless people often walk stooped over or limp with some ailment. Many of them are afflicted with some kind of handicap or medical problem. In 2001, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that approximately 22% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness.
Incidentally, many on the Promenade sit in wheelchairs. A woman with epilepsy rolls about the sidewalk with a piece of cardboard declaring her disease. She chats animatedly with a stranger, cheerful in spite of her condition. A war veteran now sits in a wheelchair in front of a large chain bookstore. He shakes the coins in his cup. The clink, clink of metal upon metal melts into the buzzing noise of the crowd.
Hunched under filthy blankets in dark corners and crouched against the pillars between storefronts reside these men and women ravaged by poverty. Some are plagued with illness and lack the healthcare, some are escaping domestic violence. Others suffer from mental disease or from an addiction disorder. All for some reason or the other were unable to seek help and their money problems have spiraled into homelessness. These people loiter aimlessly on the street and watch the events play out on the Promenade with curiosity or apathy, and occasionally loudly vocalized anger.
The site of this impoverished community is flushed with successful businesses and frequented every day by visitors. The Promenade is even more popular than the city’s Main Street, especially with tourists who have deep pockets. At night, the sidewalk is filled with people enjoying the cool, casual atmosphere. The weather is just right; a perfect combination of gentle wind and warm, misty ocean air. Unlike some beach towns, Santa Monica tastes just right, tart with a little saltiness and muggy without too much moisture.
On the weekends and during summer nights, Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire, Broadway fill with bodies of cars and people heading in the direction of the beach and pier. People come out with their families and friends to eat a nice dinner, watch a movie and shop for brand-name clothing. Pretty young girls from Brentwood and Beverly Hills hang out with their friends there. They can be seen in their coordinating short skirts which dance over their slim, youthful legs and sparkly heels. Couples enjoy a romantic evening al fresco and families bring their children and dogs out for a stroll.
Tanned and tall Italians, dark-haired and olive-skinned French men and women, and petite Japanese and Korean tourists wander in and out of the chic restaurants and upscale clothing stores. They want to buy American clothing and see the beautiful American people like on the big screen.
But perhaps they and the locals too do see the shame of America—the societal negligence that has flourished into a bludgeoning homeless community in an otherwise pleasant city like Santa Monica. Maybe the existence of this community underscores the jaded truth—the richer are always getting richer while the poorer just get poorer. But in reality, it is ignorance that is the real American shame.