Dangerous, lost souls expose the inhumanity in L.A.’s homelessness policies, and illustrate why “housing first” often fails

Part One of an occasional series: Bryan’s story

Feb. 17, 2020 Santa Monica Police Department mug shot of Bryan Dibucci. He was living in “permanent supportive housing” when he assaulted a woman on the street. It was the latest of many arrests over 25 years. Courtesy SMPD.

A big part of the reason most Angelenos retain a sense of empathy for homeless people, despite the mayhem that the crisis has unleashed in so many communities, is that we encounter them every day. Homelessness is no longer confined to Skid Row. It is everywhere. We cannot look away even if we want to. For all the talk about people becoming desensitized, the fact is that we witness human suffering all the time. This is new in Los Angeles, and we are still trying to come to grips with the consequences.

At the same time, residents have watched with mounting frustration and even anger as homeless people cycle in and out of the hall of mirrors that some have come to refer to as the homeless industrial complex. They see people who desperately need mental health care or addiction treatment, and often both, shunted from program to program, site to site, nonprofit to nonprofit, only to end up right back where they started, often in worse condition than when the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and the nonprofits got to them in the first place.

Here’s the thing: Politicians, city and county officials, the nonprofit sector, and most of the media insist that homelessness is first, last, and always a “housing crisis.” It’s an overwhelming drumbeat that defies both common sense and millions of people’s lived experiences. The problem is that, beyond individual interactions and nonprofit PR Angelenos rarely hear actual stories of homeless people’s experiences. We all know something is terribly wrong but we cannot muster the evidence to prove it.

The all aspect report is setting out to change that. In the coming weeks we’ll profile homeless people from different parts of L.A. The stories will be based on combinations of personal experience, research, and interviews. While we leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions two basic themes are worth noting. First and foremost, the stories expose the sheer inhumanity of the homeless bureaucracies and nonprofits. The city, county, and state have spent twenty years and billions of taxpayer dollars to create a bureaucratic Frankenstein’s monster. While LAHSA and nonprofit executives enjoy six figure salaries and the perks that come with “doing the right thing,” the lack of actual on the ground services and support, much less continuity and consistency, are common themes in homeless people’s lived experiences. It’s enough to make reasonable people wonder if the City and County aren’t in some ways hell bent not on solving the homeless crisis but sustaining it. Second, the stories show the extent to which “permanent supportive housing” is rarely permanent or supportive, and often barely qualifies as housing.

Part One of the series is about Bryan Dibucci, a homeless man in Santa Monica we got to know over the last several years and who agreed to have his story told. We start with his story both because of how long he’s been homeless in L.A. and Santa Monica — over a quarter of a century — and because it captures so many of the recurring themes in our failed efforts to staunch the bleeding.

Bryan’s story

I first met Bryan four or five years ago. He’s in his early 50s, rail thin with piercing brown eyes and a smile that comes easily in conversation — that is, on the rare occasion he is in full control of his faculties. Which, unfortunately, isn’t very often. He got into the habit of posting up on my street in Santa Monica in the afternoons, leaning against the same tree for what I came to refer to as his “five o’clock meltdown.” He would unleash streams of profanity that nearly stripped the paint off of nearby buildings. He was particularly fond of the n-word, which he deployed liberally and in combination with various other racial and sexual epithets. He was nothing if not inventive. His episodes lasted anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more, extended verbal assaults on the psyches of the people who live on the street — including the retirement community across the street.

The episodes apparently were not recent developments in Bryan’s life. According to a Los Angeles Times story way back in December 1996, he was arrested for verbally and physically assaulting a Black man in Westwood — including the use of “racial slurs” as the paper reported. Other previous arrests included assaulting and biting a man in the neck in 2013, public exposure and urination in 2007, and attempted breaking and entering in 2011.

His face was beet-red from screaming, veins popping out of his forehead and neck like he was the world’s skinniest Incredible Hulk impersonator.

There are not enough layers of soundproof glass and insulation in L.A. County to muffle Bryan with a full head of steam. Between families, the retirement community, and a nearby park there are plenty of sensitive areas in the neighborhood. It’s just not a place where someone should be screaming, much less profanity and racial invective, day after day after day. One day during a particularly rancid rant I finally confronted him (Santa Monica police have long since stopped responding to most complaints related to disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct or even minor physical assaults. People rarely call 911 for such emergencies). His face was beet-red from screaming, with veins popping out of his forehead and neck like the world’s skinniest Incredible Hulk. He didn’t miss a beat when I approached and told him — through his screams — that he couldn’t stay on our street anymore. Though he continued screaming he did move on, nodding his head to indicate he understood. In a quick flash of a moment I saw in his eyes that he felt badly for his behavior.

It’s bad enough to witness another human being in such psychological and emotional extremis, screaming at demons only they can see. To realize they know what they’re doing and the effects it has on other people, and still can’t stop, to recognize that behind the mask of madness is a soul in agony — that’s when your heart breaks.

Life on Heartbreak Street

Indeed, heartbreak is the only word to describe Bryan’s life, and the lives of tens of thousands like him languishing on the streets of the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in human history. After I talked to him he stayed away for a few days, only to return one weekend for a new meltdown. Back outside I went. This time he actually smiled and nodded in recognition when he saw me approach. There was still plenty of screaming but there was also a sort of rudimentary nonverbal communication. I said something to the effect of, “Look, I know this isn’t your fault but there are families with kids in this neighborhood, and that’s an old folks’ home right there.”

Again he nodded, and this time put a hand over his mouth to muffle his own screams. Which is when I experienced one of those moments in L.A.’s homeless humanitarian crisis when you lose all hope, when you start to feel broken inside yourself. Because here’s the thing: There were no bad guys in the situation. When he’s not in the throes of a psychotic episode I learned that Bryan is a nice guy, an artists. There was no malice or ill intent on his part or mine, nor would there ever be. He wasn’t screaming because he hated me or my neighbors, and I didn’t confront him because I was angry at him. No one was trying to hurt anyone and no one was trying to prove anything. Bryan, me, the families nearby, other neighbors who’d confronted other homeless people in our community — there wasn’t a bad bone among us. It was a matter of a mentally ill individual trying to wrangle his demons and a neighborhood trying to sustain a modicum of civilized society. In a very real way everyone in the situation was trying to do the right thing, to do good.

When it comes to homelessness L.A.’s political class literally have made it impossible for regular people to do good …. There is nowhere to turn.

But when it comes to homelessness L.A.’s political class literally have made it impossible for regular people to do good. As he stood there, screaming and waving his free hand at me, I had to get in his face and yell at him. I had to. Again, not out of anger or rage, but because there was no other choice. There simply was no other way to communicate with him. I had to yell at him to have any chance at communicating. I had to threaten there’d be consequences if he kept coming back. I had to put myself in danger in order to resolve a situation that was borderline unresolvable, because of the system we have created. There was nowhere else to turn. There was and is no City or County service provider that can actually handle actual homeless people in distress on the streets. Those billions of dollars and thousands of employees may as well be in another country on the other side of the planet.

And so with no ill intent I became a bad guy, getting in his face and forcing him to leave a rare place that his addled mind told him was safe (safe places are enormously important to homeless people, for obvious reasons). This is what the City and County of Los Angeles, the State of California, have wrought: “Sorry, man, I know you’re experiencing a corner of hell the rest of us cannot even begin to fathom, I know that you’re experiencing a degree of suffering I personally cannot imagine. I know that what you really need is shelter, a warm meal, and a kind word from someone who knows how to help you. But in the meantime you’re gonna have find somewhere else to descend into the Ninth Circle.” It was as cold-hearted as it gets, and I felt as low as one can go. But in a very real way it was him or the neighborhood.

This is the reality our political class has wrought, and the perverse incentive system it in turn begat. Our City’s, County’s and State’s ineffectual, frankly corrupt approach to homelessness forces regular citizens into situations where we have to choose a side. It amounts to an artificial rift between groups of people — housed and unhoused — who otherwise should be trying to help each other. People who in a rational world would help each other. Instead, the current system forces them into constant conflict that wears down everyone except the politicians and profiteering nonprofits. The results make everything worse. Homeless people are far more likely to continue committing crimes and residents are far more likely to be victimized. Everyone loses.

Our City’s (and state’s) ineffectual, frankly corrupt approach to homelessness forces regular citizens into situations where we have to choose a side.

Consider that even Bryan, in the depths of his psychotic episodes, was trying to help me help him. Indeed it’s likely that part of the reason he came back was that it was one place where someone actually had engaged him like a human being in a meaningful way for the first time in a long time, even if it started out confrontationally. And yet because of the current state of things, face to face with a fellow human being in an acute moment of distress there was nothing whatsoever to offer him except a bottle of water and, “Get out of here.” The result, inevitably, was greater risk for the community. Greater risk that Bryan would hurt someone else, and of course greater risk to Bryan himself.

As time progressed we got to know each other somewhat. He no longer posted up on my street for his daily meltdowns. I’d see him around town and we’d talk. He’s from Michigan, from a family of some means. He’d been an aspiring artist when one day he had what he described as his “whoops.” In his early 20s he began experiencing hallucinations and hearing voices. He did not talk much about his family except to suggest they didn’t know how to deal with his spiraling mental illness. He’d been living on the streets of West Los Angeles and Santa Monica for more than 25 years. During that time he committed myriad offenses.

A shot at redemption

On the morning of Thanksgiving 2019 I was walking out of the grocery store with some last minute sundries when I bumped into Bryan. He was a different man than the one I’d encountered on the streets over the previous few years. He had a new set of clothes, his skin had cleared up, his eyes looked bright. He looked like the guy I’d had that one conversation with that one day.

He called my name and rushed over. He said, “I got an apartment!”

He threw his arms around me and we embraced like old friends. At the time it was a bona fide Thanksgiving miracle. He invited me over to see his new place the following week, and I eagerly accepted. After languishing on a waiting list for years (he never was clear how long exactly) he had been accepted for a unit at Step Up On Second, a nonprofit that provides services and permanent supportive housing to homeless people.

Step Up on Second, Santa Monica. File photo

At least, they provide it in theory. There was no security guard or door person in the building. Step Up on Second residents simply buzz in visitors. I could have been carrying a backpack full of drugs or other contraband. I could have been armed. A few dazed residents roamed the lobby and hallways like zombies in the cold open to a horror movie. Inside, Bryan’s apartment was reminiscent of a jail cell — four barren white walls with a small window on the far side, a half galley kitchen with a mini-fridge and microwave. The worst part was that his window overlooked the patio of a restaurant and bar next door. Bryan, who like many homeless people is an alcoholic in addition to his mental illness, described what it was like to lay in bed on weekend nights for hours, listening to people drinking and having a good time. “I can hear the clink of the glasses,” he said. Indeed, while we talked the conversations and laughter from the patio were audible in the room. Meanwhile, in the space of an hour he downed five beers from a six pack. I drank the sixth even though it was 11am on a Wednesday.

He said he didn’t know any of his neighbors. When asked about the services he was receiving he said there were none. When we asked him how long he spent inside every day he replied, “As little time as possible,” while chugging a beer. Indeed, within two weeks of our visit he was once again out on the street, melting down as usual, albeit a couple of blocks away. In the ensuing weeks I would hear him from time to time and see him wandering the streets in different parts of Santa Monica. After his initial bout of enthusiasm he seemed quickly to revert to his old ways. I cannot verify it factually but it seems all but certain he never received any of the promised services.

Then, one day in early March 2020, when the world was hearing the first rumblings about this virus called SARS-CoV-2, a headline from the Santa Monica Daily Press appeared on my news feed entitled “Crime Watch: A misfit.” Out of idle curiosity I clicked on it, and there was Bryan’s mugshot. He’d been arrested in February for assaulting a woman in broad daylight, hitting her in the back with his fist and then “standing behind her ranting and yelling erratically.” He was arrested for assault and — wait for it — public intoxication.

An apartment did not save Bryan Dibucci. It did not prevent his next meltdown or his next violent assault. If there was one service that someone like Bryan should have received it was alcohol counseling. But no, billions of dollars and thousands of employees at hundreds of nonprofits can’t even muster that. L.A. is a city in which celebrities who are threats to no one but their publicity teams detox in Malibu luxury while homeless people who are an immediate threat to themselves and the communities in which they reside don’t get so much as an AA meeting every day or two. It’s unconscionable.

An unconscionable system

There is no other word for it. Bryan hasn’t been around the neighborhood in a long time. It’s possible he’s in jail. It’s possible he made his way back home to Michigan. It’s possible he’s committed worse offenses. It’s possible he’s dead. It’s possible we will never know. What’s beyond dispute is that the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, the County of L.A., LAHSA, and an entire ecosystem of handsomely-funded nonprofits had 25 years — a quarter of a century — to help Bryan Dibucci. And they failed, just as they have failed countless, probably hundreds of thousands, of others.

Remember Bryan the next time a politician expounds on the benefits of staggeringly expensive permanent supportive housing. Keep his rap sheet, and the people he victimized over the years, in mind when someone like Councilman Mike Bonin asserts there’s “no connection” between homelessness and crime. Keep him in mind and in your prayers. For Los Angeles has become a metropolis of Bryans, all of them running from their own personal demons like Robin Williams’s tragic Parry in The Fisher King. Above all, keep your sense of empathy no matter what he may do. Even if he does the worst.

Because if you lose that, the bad guys win.

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