• Ursula Vari

CHRONICLES OF AN LA PHOTOGRAPHER DURING THE CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN: HARVEY'S WISH



On March 16, 2020 I became unemployed like millions of others due to the COVID-19 virus. My services as freelance photographer and as yoga teacher were no longer considered essential. With two dogs in a one bedroom apartment living modestly didn’t seem like the ideal set-up for the unknown future. I spent the first couple of days of the lockdown in a daze, trying to make sense of it all, just like you. Eventually, I shook it all off. I grabbed my camera and I ventured out keeping my six feet and washing hands frequently with the eventual squirt of eucalyptus oil. Painters paint, musicians make music, writers write and photographers tell stories. And that’s what I do. I am not here to please anyone. I am just here to express myself the only way I know how, through words and still images, chronicling my process.


*

I left my car at the intersection of Cesar Chavez Ave and New High Street and headed up on Broadway. I could see the row of tents strategically set up by the overpass along Arcadia Street. It was mid-day and the sun was strong keeping the inhabitants of the tent settlement indoors. I didn’t anticipate seeing anyone, knowing that the coronavirus would keep even the homeless population away from gathering. I turned onto Spring Street, by now deep in the El Pueblo Encampment - as the place is known. Across the freeway, a block away I could see the City Hall’s looming white tower. I had no fear walking down Spring Street along the row of tents. The pavement was clean, the tent residents’ belongings carefully organized on shopping carts and in the base of dollies, some even with an ice chest. At a short distance, a brand new apartment building with its colorful wall reached toward the mid-day sky. There was not one soul around. Not one car - just birds talking on the fenced-in patch of green grass behind the row of tents. That’s when the flap opened and I saw a middle-aged man appear from his dwelling. He made his way to the small hand mirror attached to the fence, in his hand a threadbare toothbrush and disposable razor. He surveyed me with suspicion. I asked him if I could take his photo. He said he preferred that I didn’t. I told him I understood. Then I asked for his name.


Harvey was well-spoken and one could tell that this man cared about the impression he made on others. Although homeless, he was clean, his eyes clear, his words carefully chosen. He lost his home to a fire that started at his neighbor’s house and after a series of mishaps the insurance company swindled him out of payment and he was left to sell whatever became of his charred house. With that money Harvey bought an RV and lived in it until his impaired vision no longer allowed him to drive. He has been on the streets for 16 years. He told me so much, so much about the broken promises the city made to him and the residents of the El Pueblo tent settlement, he told me the time he lived at the city shelter confined with many others in his shoes. The shelter where he got severe bronchitis and a fungus that took 6 months to cure. He prefers living on the street rather than back at the shelter. As the Honorary Mayor of the El Pueblo tent settlement - as his homeless peers refer to Harvey- he made a suggestion to LAHSA (LA Homeless Services Authority) to use county lots to buy and place small cabins sold by a company named Tuff Shed. A reasonable and relatively inexpensive solution to end homelessness in the city- but no one listened to him. He recalled the time representatives from the county came to visit the tent settlement and promised the residents applications to the colorful low-income housing next door. Harvey and his peers are still waiting for that. I looked him in the eyes and I saw a man, failed by society, failed by the system and taken in by the streets. I asked him what he needed. He thought for a while. I wished I could have given him what was on his mind at that moment, but as things are going I might become his neighbor at some point in the future. Eventually, he looked up and said “body wipes” and toothpaste, deodorant, canned food and sweets…sugar-free sweets. Harvey is a diabetic, he doesn’t take insulin and is very careful about what he eats. As we went on with our conversation, Robert, a man in his sixties joined us. He came for council. He wanted updates on the coronavirus from Harvey and he too expressed deep concern about the city’s plan to shove them into shelters and makeshift warehouses. His fear of becoming sick in such close proximity to others permeated his words. Harvey, with his cool tone reassured Robert that they aren’t going anywhere and I understood them.


As I scanned the row of tents and the clean street, their neatly packed belongings and Robert’s immaculately clean white shirt I understood that for them loosing their street means losing their freedom, losing their health and losing their life. After some time I promised Harvey I would return with the provisions her requested the next day. No, I will not be able to help all the residents of the El Pueblo tent settlement but maybe I can get Robert and Harvey to feel that they matter, that they are thought of. Heading down Broadway, in a city filled with fear over the unknown due to COVID-19, I found humanity and gratitude. I found that we are one and the same, and that the only difference between me and Harvey is just that roof over my head. And that very roof is just as impermanent as the clouds over New High Street…

More to come.

All images © 2014-2020 Ursula Vari