Opinion That ‘homeless person’ could be someone’s son. Mine, for instance.

(Lia Liao for The Washington Post)
(Lia Liao for The Washington Post)

Shannon Jones, a former journalist, is a real estate agent in Long Beach, Calif.

When you’re going to Little League games or helping with homework, you never think that one day the son you’re raising will be homeless, that you’ll spend a whole morning searching for him in homeless encampments and on bus benches.

And yet on a recent Sunday, that’s exactly what my husband and I found ourselves doing.

Just a few days before that, I was in a group of people who were discussing “the homeless” here in Los Angeles, as if they were one big, indistinguishable group — “the homeless” causing problems in this area or that area.

I thought about saying something, pointing out that you shouldn’t use such a broad brush to describe homeless people, that these are individuals, each with their own story. But by the time I thought of what I might say, the conversation had moved on. I’m embarrassed to admit I said nothing.

I’m not usually at a loss for words. But homelessness makes people uncomfortable, particularly in my world. I’m a real estate agent, and homes are my livelihood. And yet my son is homeless.

I wonder when people see him on the street, when they see him sleeping on a sidewalk or a bus bench, do they know he has a story? Do they care? Or do they just walk by, not really seeing him, perhaps looking the other way? I hope they offer him a smile or a kind word. I try to do that when I encounter other homeless people, because I know that they are someone’s son or daughter, maybe someone’s father or mother, cousin or friend. And they all have stories.

To understand my son’s story, you have to go back in time a bit, because he has been homeless before: as a young child.

Twenty-one years ago, when he was 8, we met our son and adopted him. He was a chubby-cheeked little boy with an impish sense of humor. He could be stubborn and difficult, but he was also kindhearted. He once found a baby hummingbird and patiently nursed it back to health, feeding it with an eye dropper of sugar water until it could fly away.

After adopting him, we learned that our son had serious learning disabilities and mental illness. We fought for educational and mental health services for him. He had karate lessons and beach vacations and tutoring — everything you might expect for a middle-class kid. He also had therapy and medication. Despite his challenges, we hoped that he might have a bright future.

But what we didn’t know was how deep the scars ran. When we met him, he was in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, but before that, he had been living on the streets, begging for food. We’ll never really understand his early history, but it wasn’t filled with “Sesame Street,” Gymboree and birthday parties.

The process of his becoming homeless as an adult didn’t happen overnight. It occurred gradually, then suddenly. He’d always told us that as soon as he turned 18, he was leaving, and by the time he was an adolescent, we were okay with that. When the time came, he moved about 50 miles north of Los Angeles to the Antelope Valley.

There was a group home, a shared apartment, another group home, a sober-living facility, a brief incarceration, a few rehab facilities, a residential treatment facility, some more group homes and then briefly, during the pandemic, a stint back at home.

That didn’t work for any of us. Then came more group homes and a whole series of flophouse motels with vouchers through his mental health service provider. Then he ran out of options. Or at least options that he would agree to.

He started sleeping on benches. We thought that after a few nights on the street, he would agree to rehab, would agree to take his psychiatric medications, but that didn’t happen. And then he called us from the hospital. He’d been beaten up and had a broken nose, a broken eye socket and a brain bleed.

We thought maybe that was the bottom — now he would agree to get help. But instead, he checked himself out and went back on the street.

For years, most of his communications with us have been requests for money. I prefer to send food, to provide clothing and supplies he really needs. But at least when he was asking for money, I knew where he was. Recently, when weeks went by and we hadn’t heard from him, I became increasingly worried.

That’s when we found ourselves on a Sunday morning driving to the Antelope Valley. We searched the streets and used Google Maps to triangulate the places where we knew he’d spent money.

A security guard recognized his photo but said he hadn’t seen him for a few days. A bundle of clothing and blankets in front of a store looked promising but turned out to be someone else’s son. At homeless encampments near the train tracks, they said they didn’t know him. In a park, my husband approached a man who didn’t recognize the photo but pointed at another bench. The sleeping figure there turned out to be a woman.

My husband approached another huddled pile of clothes nearby, softly calling our son’s name. The figure stirred and looked up.

We’d found him. It felt like a miracle. I thought that perhaps now he would be ready for a fresh start. He was bedraggled, and he had nothing with him but the clothes on his back.

Understandably, he was hungry. We went to Pizza Hut, and as he ate, I saw how thin he was under the ragged layers of clothing, and how the sun had bleached his mustache. If I’d passed him from across the street, I wouldn’t have recognized him.

We went shopping for him — new clothing, shoes, socks, underwear, a red ball cap, toiletries and a toiletry bag, and a backpack and a duffel bag to carry it all. We went to Verizon to get a new phone and have it activated so we could communicate with him again. I bought headphones for him so he could listen to music, which he said helps calm the “demons” he battles.

We checked him into a motel so he could shower and change, and paid for several nights to give him time to connect with his mental health caseworker, who could then help him get into rehab or find another place to live. We took him to the grocery store and bought food to fill the little refrigerator in the motel room. We told him to stay there, to rest, and we contacted his caseworker about next steps.

For the first time in weeks, as we drove back home, I felt a little hope.

A few days later, he was back on the streets. And not answering the phone.

I’m worried again, I told my husband. I keep calling, and he doesn’t pick up. We could go and try to find him again, my husband said. Maybe we will. But what then?

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