By Yahui Liang, J Camp Live! Staff Writer
A first time visitor to Los Angeles, I am awestruck by Santa Monica’s Palisades Park. The towering palm trees, the golden sand, the blue expanse of ocean that stretched endlessly – it looked as though everything was pulled straight out of a postcard. But I never realized just how many homeless people there were. After all, they were never featured in the photographs and movies. Yet on the short walk from the Visitor’s Center to the pier, there were more than 35 huddled bodies, sleeping across the street from high-rise hotels and parked Mercedes-Benz.
Some loitered by the bathroom to wash their battered bodies and tattered clothes. Others dozed under flowering bushes and gnarled trees to find shade from the mid-morning sun. One homeless couple, a man and a woman, napped together on a spread-out quilt – a lumpy bag acting as a pillow – and from far away, one could almost mistake them for being normal lovers enjoying the ocean breeze.
Many of the resident park goers know all too well the plight of the homeless who share this area. Joseph Maltie, 54, comes to Santa Monica Pier every weekend, like dozens of other tourists, to relax on the grass and read the Sunday issue of the Los Angeles Times. Yet only a year ago, Maltie was a regular fixture at this peaceful park above the pier, one of the many homeless who sleep among the sight-seers and underneath palm trees.
Maltie, who is of Creole, African American and Cherokee origin, was born in Pineville, Louisiana. The eldest son in a family of eight, he was responsible for helping his sharecropper parents. “Times was hard,” he said. “You had to pick 100 pounds of cotton all day, and all you’d make was four or five dollars.”
He said he was 18 when his father was murdered. He joined the navy to escape a life of poverty and hardship, and for two and a half years, he was stationed in San Diego, working as a “fireman” – an electrician.
But things soon took a turn for the worse.
His life started to unravel. He ended up in jail and experienced a breakdown while in the navy. Maltie was honorably discharged and sought refuge in alcohol, a factor which led to the end of his marriage. He eventually moved back to Mississippi, but came out to California in 2005 to find a daughter he’d never met.
But his struggles continued. He would camouflage vodka by pouring it into a water bottle and toting it onto public buses, leading to arrests, he said. Maltie became one of the homeless, caught between the Veterans Administration hospital outpatient program, the Los Angeles prison system, and the streets. He would sleep on the Santa Monica pier with the other “regulars,” huddling under the shadow of glitzy high rises and trendy stores.
On Sundays, he ate the free lunch that was distributed by community members, and he frequently took advantage of the pier’s bathrooms, reputedly one of the nation’s best. But wandering on the streets, even in beautiful Santa Monica, took its toll.
“I got tired of being homeless, tired of being in and out of jail,” Maltie admitted. “I didn’t want to end up a statistic. So when I got out of jail last summer, I had a new attitude.”
Maltie now lives in transient housing in Inglewood and attends classes to stay sober. “I’m attending my A.A. meetings, staying sober, staying out of jail. Everything’s good.”
He hopes to find a job soon and will continue to search for his daughter. Most importantly, he wants to return to the V.A. center to educate other veterans and help them achieve a stable life.
“I don’t forget where I been,” said Maltie, leaning back against his blanket and glancing at the huddled body nearby, “out there homeless, riding buses and being cold. It was real hard.”
But for many of Santa Monica’s homeless, life remains harsh. Few are as fortunate or strong-willed as Maltie has been, and struggles abound.
Alicia Merkerson, 50, is one woman who still calls Palisades Park her home. Born in Detroit, she used to be a dance teacher before switching over to cooking for Chili’s and Hooters. After she lost her last job working as fry cook at Los Angeles International Airport, she had nowhere else to turn to but the streets.
“First of the month, I find a room at a cheap hotel until the money runs out,” she said. Then she returns to the shelter and Palisades Park, though not reluctantly. “Once you see this,” she explained, pointing to the beach, “it’s hard for me to go anywhere else. It’s majestic.”
Unlike many of her homeless peers, Merkerson is full of hope and energy. She walks around all night, sleeping only during the day, and even jogs around the park from 3 A.M. to 5 A.M. Afterwards, she visits the shelter, which serves 50 other women, for a shower and breakfast.
“At the shelter, they use Michelle Obama’s recipes. It’s the best,” she said of the first meal she had there.
Yet Merkerson is not content with only eating good food; she wants to cook it too. Soon she will start studying in a French cuisine course in Venice Beach, and she plans to find work in California Pizza Kitchen. Currently, her dream is to rent a room in a Malibu house, but her ultimate goal is bigger than simply getting off the streets – she wants to open her own food stand on the pier.
However tough her own struggles have been, Merkerson never forgets to help others, such as 58-year-old Joseph, a homeless man she met at the shelter. She buys two sundaes – one for him and one for herself – from McDonald’s, and the two sit on benches enjoying their dessert and friendly conversation.
“I’m just enjoying the view and the music,” she said with a smile. “It’s a good day.”