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Thank You, Steve Lopez

By Frank Gruber

May 4, 2009 --  I owe this column to Steve Lopez, the celebrated columnist for the Los Angeles Times -- for two reasons.

The first reason is that last week I saw "The Soloist," the movie based on Mr. Lopez's columns, and subsequent book, about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the homeless, mentally ill musician Mr. Lopez first heard playing a two-stringed violin in Pershing Square.

As a local columnist, I both relate to Mr. Lopez and hold him in a category of awe.  When Mr. Lopez first came across Mr. Ayers, Mr. Lopez was desperately seeking an idea for a column. 

I know the feeling, but I must admit that even during a slow news week in Santa Monica I have it easier than Mr. Lopez.  It's easier to engage the parochial interests of 86,000 Santa Monicans, than it is to find topics of universal interest to the millions who live in "L.A."

As it happens, the central topic of "The Soloist" is homelessness, which has long been, according to the City's surveys of residents, the number one issue for Santa Monicans.  Mr. Lopez himself gave a talk here in December about his experiences with Mr. Ayers, and what he had learned from befriending him (a talk I described then as the "best ever" meeting or lecture I had attended in Santa Monica).

I recommend (and commend) the movie, but although the filmmakers, by shooting on the streets of skid row (with many "real" people playing themselves), projected the reality of the streets in a way the written word cannot, I more strongly recommend Mr. Lopez's book.  (I also recommend a little video on the L.A. Times site that shows the real
Messrs. Lopez and Ayers celebrating Beethoven's birthday.) 

One reason I prefer the book is that Mr. Lopez is more droll than the frazzled character played by Robert Downey Jr. in the film.  But the most important reason the book is better than the movie is that the book better expresses the time that had to pass before Mr. Ayers would "come in from the cold" (and every other weather condition) and accept the apartment Mr. Lopez found for him at the LAMP community on skid row.

In the book, Mr. Lopez focuses on two competing strategies to help chronically homeless mentally ill people like Mr. Ayers.  Mr. Lopez cannot understand how the dedicated people at LAMP can allow Mr. Ayers to sleep on the streets.  He wants them to be more aggressive in bringing him in for "treatment" -- whatever that may be.

The LAMP people point out that Mr. Ayers will resist that approach for a reason -- that he's been subjected to "treatment" before and hadn't liked it.  He has great affection for Mr. Lopez, but that affection cannot, for a long time, trump the suspicion he has that Mr. Lopez is going to connive him into a coercive environment.

When in the end -- in real life, and in the book and the movie -- Mr. Ayers comes inside on his own volition, that seems to validate the "go slow, let him find his own way" approach. 

But I don't buy it -- at least not 100 percent of it.

The law says, as the LAMP people point out, that unless a person is a danger to himself or others, he can't be committed to treatment against his will.  This civil liberties-inspired law, however, has not had the impact its proponents predicted: they expected that freed from coercive treatments of the old Dickensian mental hospitals, the mentally ill would accept treatment at community-based centers.

State and county governments never built the centers, and it's not clear the mentally ill would have used them; instead, the law has saved the state a lot of money since the mental hospitals were closed decades ago.  The law in fact allows the state to ignore the plight of people sleeping on the streets, even though, by any reasonably humane definition, sleeping on the streets is inherently dangerous.

(I should point out that abandoning the homeless to their own devices has not actually saved money for the society has a whole.  That's because the costs chronically homeless people cause the public safety and emergency medical systems are more than what it would cost to house them and bring them into the regular medical system.  This was a point City staff and City Council Member Bobby Shriver emphasized when the City Council received an update on the City's homeless services at the April 14 council meeting.)

What I have argued for previously ("Pride_and_Despair," September 10, 2007) -- and what it seems Mr. Lopez was also advocating -- is that the authorities take a more active role in bringing homeless people in for treatment.  Courts should recognize that sleeping on the streets is dangerous, and warrants a 72-hour hold. 

It's not that public health authorities should use these 72 hours to force medications or other coercive treatments on anyone.  The time should be used to make human contact with mentally ill (or alcoholic or drug-addicted) chronically-homeless people.  Bring them in, let them clean up, give them good food and, most important, talk to them and hear what they have to say.

Become their friends.

Does anyone believe that Nathaniel Ayers would be living in an apartment at LAMP if Steve Lopez had not become his friend?  In effect, he did in a non-formalized manner what I'm advocating, but few homeless people have the likelihood of making a friend like Mr. Lopez who -- he admits with wonderful candor -- had his own reasons for pursuing the relationship.

But of course, programs like these would entail our spending much more "upfront" money on preventive care and outreach and housing and facilities.  That won't happen in California so long as Republicans have a veto over the state budget.

But note that there are two obstacles to what I'm proposing: from the Left, opposition to changing the civil commitment laws, and from the Right, opposition to taxes.  Once again, Californians are caught between the extremes of our politics.

* * *

The second reason I owe this column to Steve Lopez is that yesterday his column in the Times was about dangerous conflicts between cyclists and non-cyclists on the beach bike path. 

For 20 years or so I've been riding my bike on the bike path, but I don't recall ever writing about it because in Santa Monica the dangers of it are strictly "dog-bites-man" non-news. 

But now that Mr. Lopez has focused on the dangers of mixing walkers, roller-bladers, joggers, and dogs with cyclists, I'll make a suggestion.  Which is that until the City can build a parallel pedestrian path north of the Pier, it's hopeless to ban non-cyclists from that stretch, especially now that that is the only way to walk or jog to the new Annenberg center (other than on the sand, of course).

Instead, the City should post realistic rules, rules that would have a safety-logic that would be easy for the public to understand.  For instance, non-cyclists should stroll, jog, blade, etc., single file.  (Yesterday a group of walkers on the path were strolling four abreast.)  Dogs should be prohibited.  (Dogs and leashes: very dangerous.)  No motorized devices (e.g., Segways).

But simply banning non-cyclists will never work.

Thank you, Steve Lopez.


This coming Saturday evening is shaping up as the busiest evening on Santa Monica's cultural calendar in quite a while. 

I'll start with where I will be: at Barnum Hall, for the concert of the year.  The Jacaranda Chamber Music Series, which usually offers its concerts at the First Presbyterian Church on Second Street, is concluding its two-year celebration of the music of Olivier Messiaen with a spectacular event at Barnum.  The concert, called "Signals on High," will, among other rarely heard but sure to fascinate works, present the US premiere of a long-thought-lost piece for 200 performers that has only been performed twice previously: Messiaen's "Song of the Deported," which he wrote after World War II for Radio France to commemorate the liberation of the concentration camps.  For more information and tickets, go to:

If local history rather than music is what you're looking for next Saturday night, you can join the Santa Monica Conservancy at the Annenberg Public Beach House for a celebration from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., with dessert and jazz, marking the center's opening and the preservation of the historic pool and guesthouse that remain from the Marion Davies beach house.  For more information and tickets, go to:

Last but not least, and if you go early you may be able to fit this in to either of the other two events, Santa Monica artist and doyenne of the local art scene Bruria Finkel will be having an opening of a show of her work at the Track 16 gallery at Bergamot Station, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.  Her works will be shown with those of Connie Zehr.  For more information, go to:

And this busy evening will follow the annual
Santa Monica Festival which will take place as usual at Clover Park from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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