The Bums of Los Angeles

Last week, Ian had an interesting post on homeless of downtown Los Angeles. It’s an ok start but his analysis plainly lacks the study that the subject requires. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m an expert but my first taste of the power of the internet came in 2005 when I uploaded a photo of the second dreadlocked mullet I’d found on as many coasts. It was quickly seen by more 20,000 times. I’ve since learned that they call it a “beaver tail” in the business. After I took the photo I saw the lady on the right drape it around her neck like a scarf.


The downtown homeless are the product of a perverse version of the survivorship bias. Santa Monica- a beach paradise, is less than 15 miles away. Even a crackhead would feel the magnetic pull of the coast. Downtown gets stuck with the ones that couldn’t figure out how to get there. Basically the deranged, the destructive and delirious.

If you travel west through Los Angeles, you can actually see the spectrum of homeless competency laid out as you get closer to the ocean. It’s best illustrated by panhandlers out to make money in a city designed around the car. There are no pedestrians! Mid-city, the homeless stagger into the streets and try to cajole change from moving vehicles. Only when you get to Beverly Hills do you start to see the first semblance of notion of performance art. There’s a crazy black lady who entertains the paparazzi in front of a parking garage near a medical building that does a lot of plastic surgery. (You may have seen her on TMZ.) Then as you continue through Westwood (UCLA) you see an occasional guitar or instrument. Finally in Santa Monica, they begin to have pets, sunny dispositions and hilarious political platforms that they shout from bullhorns.

Although Ian mentioned the legless guy downtown who walks with his hands, he missed the one dressed like a pirate and demands you call him Captain (or something like that). There’s also a guy who lurches out around corners and aggressively barks like a dog. He’s apparently had bad experiences with people’s pets because he barks between cries of “how do you like this, huh?” Most importantly, he ignored the one who ordered a vodka and water at the iHop I was at near the Staples Center. When they asked him to stop loudly muttering curses, he yelled “I will not! I wheeled myself in here and I can wheel myself out.” There’s the guy who passes out headshots of himself, the one who doesn’t like dogs who pee in the grass because “people sleep there,” and the one I saw get maced in the middle of a farmers market.

I’ve never been to Detroit or Pittsburgh, but I’m pretty sure Los Angeles has the worst bums in the United States. And of that, downtown has to have some of the most impressive. The best part is that it couldn’t have happened to a city that cares more about chickenshit little things like parking tickets and street sweeping. In Koreatown, the homeless set up tents in the middle of the sidewalk and cook themselves breakfast each morning on portable grill with impunity. But if you so much as spend an extra minute in an hour parking space, they will cover your car in tickets.

Freakonomics did a quorum on what to do if you’re homeless last November and unfortunately all the answers were lame. But if you ever found yourself homeless, the first thing you should do is find a way to get to Los Angeles. So long as you aren’t crazy, you could hustle your way back to solvency so fast. There’s no competition like you’d face in San Francisco – who knows how to do the silver robot thing? There’s no crippling weather like say Boston or New York. There’s not the institutionalized culture of giving which you’d think would be a bad thing but it’s actually crippled the ingenuity of the homeless in Los Angeles, leaving them to lay around or wander like helpless zombies.

The market, as they say, is completely open to disruption.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.