Orton Begley was living in the shadow of the bridge again, ready to move on. He gave up his apartment—the apartment he wanted so dearly when I first met him on Skid Row. He was moving back to Arkansas to reunite with his family as soon as he got his next disability check. He had me wondering: Should I follow him?
I had been following Orton for some time. When I first met him in the summer of 2013, I was new on the job, gathering stories of people served by a nonprofit housing provider for the homeless.
I had already built a career working as a voice for those who had none: abused kids, foster youths, inner-city students, formerly incarcerated people, and people living in poverty or with HIV/AIDS or mental illness. Orton (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy) was one of hundreds I was following from the streets to housing. My job was to write stories that would be used to raise money and awareness and humanize the experience of homelessness: what it meant to have no roof over your head, no place to pee, no place to bathe. I was to witness and record what it took to move from homeless to housed.
That first day of the project was blistering hot. The word was out on the streets—any homeless person who had a valid ID could complete an application for an apartment until the forms ran out. There was a stack of a few hundred in the tiny office of an old building on Skid Row. The line stretched around the block and down the street as a small army of social workers and case managers in the lobby made sure each application had been completed and each person interviewed. There were men and women of all ages and shapes and colors.
I’d been told there might be anger and disappointment. I’d been warned: Don’t wear black because bed bugs like dark colors. Don’t accept hugs or share selfies because lice love head-to-head contact. Don’t go anywhere without hand sanitizer because being homeless means no place to wash hands or anything else. I tiptoed around bundles of belongings, cringed when a tousled teenager left behind a bloodied pillowcase, sat and listened and shook hands with men and women who invited me to chat while they waited. I was surprised: Everyone seemed so cheerful, so certain they would be selected to have a home. It didn’t seem to matter that there were only 36 units available that day or that it might be years before another new or renovated building opened.
Orton was one of the 60 or so who qualified to be considered. If he made the final cut, he would earn the key to a small apartment in a new three-story building that took several years and millions of dollars to establish amid the chaos of Skid Row. Since it was subsidized permanent supportive housing, the government would pay most of Orton’s rent—the place would be his forever if he wished—and the organization would provide additional on-site social services and resources.
I was invited to meet Orton a few days after he learned that he was on the list. The sidewalks on the way to the social services clinic where his social worker would introduce me to him were punctuated with puddles and splatters. There was a morning breeze, and I sidestepped soiled wads of paper that rolled toward me like tumbleweeds. The front door was marked with a small sign, and the walls of the cramped lobby were celery green. Someone—or maybe everyone—smelled bad. The security guard checked my ID before I was buzzed in and directed to a stairway at the end of a narrow hallway.
When Orton arrived he was dressed neatly in shorts and a T-shirt. He looked unassuming—tanned and fit. His teeth had been knocked out on the streets years ago, but with his white hair combed and a schoolboy backpack on his shoulders, he might have been on his way to an AARP movie matinee. It took him some pacing and coaxing before he settled on the edge of a chair pulled to the corner of a desk.
He told me his story in a thick Arkansas accent, his clear blue eyes piercing me then darting away. After a particularly rough tangle with his father, he strode across the yard and thumbed his first ride. He was 13. His mother had already fled in a panic, not thinking to pull him along with her. Orton had been homeless and on the move since then.
I watched him walk, plastic bag over his shoulder, long sure strides, through the roil of Skid Row sidewalks. He looked calm; he looked fine.
His first encampment was along a river, tucked safely under a bridge in Florida. A pair of itinerant fisherman gave him an old cooler and a few basics: a rod and reel and a handful of hooks. He sold fish to tourists until something told him to move on. That something would later have a name: schizophrenia. Orton walked the Appalachian Trail north, then back south. He worked odd jobs, sometimes joining farm crews that drove from field to field. He followed the harvests and the commands of his voices to the West Coast. He took a liking to Los Angeles, where he carved out a spot in the brush at the edge of the Hollywood Freeway in downtown. Later he walked to the edge of the San Fernando Valley and set off by bus for San Francisco to walk the Golden Gate Bridge. Then he hiked the Pacific Coast Trail back to Los Angeles. The long ride through the Central Valley and the long hike back became an annual outing. In between he trekked through the city, collecting bottles and cans to sell for recycling. “That’s how I make my money,” he told me. He added that there was another benefit as well: “It’s not nice for you to hear that I sometimes had to eat out of the garbage. I’m sorry for saying that.”
By the time I met him, Orton had been homeless for more than 35 years and was approaching his 50th birthday. He was ready, he said, to have a home. “I want this more than I have ever wanted anything else in my life.”
Of all the people I was following, Orton stood out. It might have been those blue, blue eyes, or it might have been worries for my own son, who lives with schizophrenia. If I were gone, would he be as calm as Orton, walking alone through city streets and on silent trails?
Checking in with Orton’s social worker at the clinic, I heard about his progress going through the required paperwork, his application for mental health disability, his commitment to taking psych meds. He had people looking after his well-being. He had a diagnosis. He had medication. His voices could finally take a break.
Just before Thanksgiving, Orton got his keys—one key for the security gate, one key for his apartment. There was a grand opening celebration for the building with media and official tours. I wrote up stories and led camera crews and reporters through the apartments, introducing them to residents, including Orton.
His mental illness meant he qualified for a monthly disability check to pay his rent, stock his refrigerator, and buy new clothes. He got a cellphone and reached out to those he felt connected to. I was flattered that he called me once in a while. He said he was doing OK. He said he had liked having lunch with a reporter who’d written about him, because they’d had fried chicken.
Orton invited me to the dental clinic to see him being fitted for dentures. He was excited: “I want to go to the grocery store first thing. You just don’t know how much I miss crunching on a carrot.” He invited me into his small, white-walled apartment to see his new rug, his new life. There was a CD player, a sofa, and a coffee table. He bought a poster, the words “Los Angeles” printed across a map studded with palm trees. Orton was home, and it made the happy-ending idea look possible.
Endings are just the first part of beginnings, though, and Orton had more to go. He told me things were not perfect. He struggled with loneliness: “The silence bothers me more than anything else.” To soothe his isolation, he returned to that spot in the shadow of the bridge, at the confluence of the 101 and the 110 freeways. He slept in the cool, soft earth, enveloped in the rumble of traffic. He fed a cat that haunted the scrub and the dust. When Orton returned to his apartment after those nights under the sky, the silence was still there, as tall as the walls, as white as the clouded night. He called me a few more times to confess that he was not doing so well. He had invited neighbors and ne’erdo-wells in, only to find himself marveling later at how low people would go: “Toilet paper, spoons, cans of food from my cabinets—they steal me blind, just clean me out. Stole my new CDs, my wallet. Yeah, some, they go right for the wallet.”
Orton soldiered on, struggling to adjust to his new life. He’d had hernia surgery. “Doctor told me it’s from reaching into dumpsters to get cans for recycling,” he said. “Even now, I go out.” I watched him walk, plastic bag over his shoulder, long sure strides, through the roil of Skid Row sidewalks. He looked calm; he looked fine.
He told me he had reconnected with his mother. She invited him to live in a double-wide trailer back in Arkansas. Heck, he could almost buy a trailer himself with his check coming in now. It was time. The loneliness and the thieves were getting to him. The reporters and officials from city hall who wanted a minute with him every time there was a tour of the apartment building—they bothered him, too. And he didn’t say it to me, but I heard he was done with me waving him over to introduce him to people he didn’t know.
If I had looked at my motives at that time, I might have seen the unfairness of making him a showpiece. He didn’t see himself as a success story. To him, it was all just a trespass across his privacy, a loud and constant shaming. He didn’t want his apartment and all the things that came with it anymore. And road workers had cleared away his spot along the freeway.
He bought a bus ticket east and moved on. I wondered why it hadn’t worked. I believed to my bones that the solution to homelessness was having a home. I was naive about the complexities of it all, maybe too proud of myself for telling Orton’s story. I was embarrassed when he walked away.
I considered quitting my job and following him. I wasn’t interested in Arkansas or wherever his roots were calling him to. I was entranced by the thought of giving up the struggle to make some kind of a difference. What if I broke free like Orton had done—tossed dreams and expectations aside and moved on? I imagined leaving my car on the Hollywood Freeway, there at Silver Lake Boulevard where traffic always comes to a halt and you can see the high-rise buildings downtown glinting above the blossoming trees. I thought about walking away to follow Orton home. But I just went back to work and wondered how he might be.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.