Blog was written by Kerry Morrison, Exec. Director of Hollywood Property Owners Alliance and Home For Good Los Angeles’ Business Leader’s Task Force Member
On the second night of the Hollywood Homeless Registry, back in April 2010, my team member and I were deployed to walk the big block surrounding Hollywood High School. I remember feeling a bit disappointed that we were walking in such a well-lighted area, because I didn’t think we would find many (if any) homeless individuals to interview. I was really hoping we’d be walking along the freeway, or in a dark corner off of Santa Monica Boulevard.
Imagine my shock when we encountered a dignified elderly gentleman sleeping on a bus bench in front of Hollywood High School, on the NW corner of Highland and Sunset. He was wearing a pink athletic jacket and was sleeping sitting up – a truly uncomfortable position, both for airplanes and bus benches. I and my partner, Fabio Conti, owner of Fabiolus Café on Sunset Boulevard, approached him gently and woke him up.
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Kerry. We are out tonight walking up and down the streets of Hollywood hoping to talk with anyone who is homeless.” He looked at me with penetrating blue eyes as he struggled to come to an alert state. “I am wondering if we could spend a few minutes talking with you? We are trying to survey everyone who is homeless to figure out how we can help you.”
Right from the get-go, he assured us that he did not need help.
Fabio and I looked around at the 4 a.m. landscape. It was chilly and damp. He had a bicycle parked nearby with big black trash bags draped from the handlebars. I sat down on the bench with my clip board. “Would it be okay if I asked you some questions? Could I ask you your name?”
“Helmut.” He said, with a crisp German accent. “I am Helmut Hermans.”
And so it began, the story of Helmut Hermans: how an 80 year-old man ended up living on a bus bench after being evicted from an apartment he lived in for over 40 years just a few blocks north.
On the Vulnerability Index, the instrument embraced by Community Solutions (formerly known as Common Ground, the catalyst behind the 100,000 Homes campaign), Helmut was #1 out of the 250+ we surveyed and photographed over that three night period. He was ranked as first on the list of those most likely to perish on the streets of Hollywood unless we could get him into housing.
Over the next two weeks or so, several of us would visit him almost daily. Mostly it was me, or our good friends at PATH, People Assisting the Homeless. As is the case with those who settle into their life of homelessness, there is a resistance to deviating from a life that has become somewhat routinized and predictable. I would say to Helmut, “Helmut…you simply cannot live out here on this bench for the rest of your life.” He would chuckle and say, “you are so kind, but I have survived the winter, and now it will become warmer, and I will be fine.” I looked at 80 year old Helmut, and thought about my own father, who had just passed from melanoma six months prior at a similar age, and could not stop thinking for a moment about the parallels. Helmut didn’t realize it, but failure was not an option, and he had met someone who was bound and determined to bring him inside.
Fortunately, in Hollywood, we had the seedlings planted of a team that would grow to make huge inroads on matching people to permanent housing. I knew that if Helmut was willing, our dear friends at GettLove would bring him in off the street into a SRO hotel on Wilcox that could serve as a home-base for us to keep him stabilized, safe and under our watch until we could find an apartment.
And that is exactly what transpired. We found Helmut wearily pushing a shopping cart of his belongings at Selmaand Ivar one morning in May, and he was exhausted. (Think for a moment how you would feel if you had lived outside for eight months, sleeping on a bus bench through rain and cold, eating breakfast at McDonald’s and relying on the kindness of strangers for other comforts???) We surrounded him, myself, our BID Patrol officers and Sonny from GettLove and made him a deal: “how ‘bout if you just stay the weekend at the hotel to get some rest, and then you can leave and go back to your bus bench?” He thought about that…and agreed! Hurrah!
Clearly, there is more to this story. But the purpose behind this vignette is to acknowledge that our dear friend Helmut Hermans, born 81 years ago in Germany, passed away on August 11th of this year in his sun-drenched brand new apartment on Bonnie Brae Avenue (Helmut is pictured above in his apt. on Bonnie Brae in November 2010). I was in New Jersey visiting my son when Sonny from GettLove called me with the news. And all I could think about was this: how bittersweet was the end to this story? On the one hand, our friend Helmut had passed, but on the other hand, he lived 10 months in his own apartment with a south-facing window and a TV and a brand new bed and a place to make soup and store his vitamins (one of his hobbies)!
On Monday, October 3, 2011 at 10 a.m., several of us will gather on Highland, near the bus bench that served as Helmut’s home for nearly nine months, and acknowledge his life and his passing. Who knows how much the months sleeping on a bench accelerated his demise? We are grateful that he spent his final months inside. We are also thankful that we have a community that is coming together to do all that we can to restore dignity and hope to those who are the poorest of the poor on the streets of Hollywood.