6 Feet Back From Life: A Homeless Man's Photo Essay On Life During Coronavirus
I was pushing through the alley when I saw these two girls talking with masks on while standing at a safe distance from each other. I was struck by what a good photo it would make. In fact I just stared at them, framing the shot in my mind. The girls glanced at me and went back to their gossiping. I took out my camera and said I was a photographer and would like to take a photo of them. Although they didn't hide their pronounced lack of interest, they said, "OK, just stay six feet back." — Bumdog Torres
When the lockdown went into effect, I was homeless in the Fairfax District. My homelessness wasn't a temporary thing. I've been homeless my entire adult life. It's a lifestyle choice. That's why I was nicknamed "Bumdog."
Some guys were asking me once, "You smoke dope?" I told them no. "You drink?" "No." "Then why you be bumming everywhere?" "Because I'm a bum." They laughed and started calling me Bumdog. The name stuck.
Self-portrait. When the lockdown became official, one of the first things I did was tear up an old shirt I had with my name in Hebrew into a makeshift mask — BT
I didn't have any problems. There was a garage doorway in an alley I slept in at night. Every morning I got up early before anyone showed up, walked into West Hollywood to shower at the Saban Community Clinic, then went about my business. For money, my hustle was to sell custom T-shirts or DVDs of two feature films I made while living on the streets. In the past year, I had taken up photography and I would sell prints of my photographs for $10 each. It was a little change here and there that got me by.
I didn't have many expenses, just food and coffee shop money, which is what I would spend every day while I sat in Coffee Bean or Starbucks for a few hours, charging all my devices and editing my photos and videos.
My sleeping spot under an awning. — BT
Since I live in Los Angeles, I don't really have to worry about "weather." The weather here rarely gets extreme and even then, not for very long. When it got bad with rain or cold, friends of mine would offer to pay for a hotel for me to stay in, but I always declined. If I couldn't deal with the weather, what was the point in being a bum? Besides, in case of rain, I would sleep under a building's carport. Around 5:30 a.m., before the workers or security guards arrived, I would get up, walk a few blocks in the rain to a cafe, and stay there until it stopped raining. Even though it was unusually rainy this year, it was all pretty manageable.
The coronavirus talk made little impact on me. It was like hearing a hurricane or snowstorm might hit Southern California. It's not that I didn't believe it or had any false sense of security. I simply had no consciousness of what it would mean to me. I was either gonna get sick or not get sick. Seemed as simple as that, until I learned otherwise.
Working at a Starbucks while it rains before the lockdown. — BT
The flattening of my learning curve would start on March 16 when the governor and L.A. mayor announced the city and state were being locked down. All of a sudden the coronavirus MEANT something to me. I could no longer go to a coffee shop to get out of the rain. In fact, I couldn't go anywhere out of the rain. Libraries, gyms, restaurants, and community centers were all closed to the public. How was I supposed to charge my things? How was I supposed to work on my projects? How am I supposed to stay out of the rain? Rain that the forecast said was supposed to last another 10 days.
On the first day of the lockdown, I'm walking down the street and realize: The hourly weather said there is a 100% chance of rain in a few hours. Where do I go? I can't even buy a taco at Jack in the Box and stay there and watch the rain. People are told to stay home and not go anywhere. And if you don't have a home, stay where you are and die. And try not to cough on anyone in the process.
I made it over to the Coffee Bean at 3rd and Fairfax. Although they didn't allow anyone to sit inside and had removed all the chairs from the patio, there was an awning that I could stand under for want of anything better to do. As I stood there, the rain started coming down. I wasn't getting wet but I was getting damp. I was depressed, stressed, and tired, standing there and breathing all the damp air. I started feeling sick. Thinking another 10 days of this and I'll be dead — not from the coronavirus but good, old-fashioned pneumonia.
I needed a roof over my head. I hadn't felt like that in decades, but now I had to get a place to stay. That was the only conclusion. I called up a friend who had offered to put me up in times of need, which I had always declined, and he got me a room in a nearby hotel for a week.
That gave me time to acclimate myself to the situation and access my options: I couldn't stay in the hotel. It was too expensive. I was eventually going back out on the streets, there was no escaping that. One thing I kept reading online was that even newspapers were telling their reporters and photographers to stay home. But they still had a lot of photos of the homeless. If they didn't want to risk the lives of their valuable employees to take the photos, how about risking the life of someone completely valueless to them? Me.
I could take photos of the streets from a homeless person's perspective (although to be honest, many of the articles I read are pretty accurate descriptions of homelessness, albeit from the outside in). I contacted a few news outlets but the only one that returned my email was LAist. They wrote back and gave me the greenlight.
LAist profiled Bumdog Torres in March 2020: The Life And Times of Bumdog, LA Artist And 'Career Homeless Bum'
After 12 days in the hotel, I have finally adjusted to this brave new world, but not just as a bum, as "BUMDOG: PHOTOJOURNALIST!!!"
My corona health regimen: hot herbal tea, with Airborne and lemon thrown in to wash down the raw garlic. Six feet back indeed.
Derick sits in front of a Coffee Bean on Fairfax Ave. while Julio works on his computer at another table. Because there is nowhere to sit, Derick brings his own chair with him. This picture encapsulates what the lockdown means to the homeless. We aren't locked down, we are locked OUT. Locked out of libraries, McDonald's, Starbucks, community centers, gyms, you name it.
We all used to hang out at this Coffee Bean, charging our stuff and using the internet. Now we have to find one place to hang out, another place where we can charge our stuff, ANOTHER place to get internet. Coffee Bean still has its internet on so if we need it we all just stand (except for Derick) in front of the shop until we get too tired or our phone/tablet/computer's battery dies. Julio needs the internet because he is a writer who makes money with his self-published horror novels on Amazon.
A portable restroom in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. One of the biggest challenges of the lockdown is the fact that most of the public bathrooms are now closed. The Jack in the Boxes, McDonald's, Starbucks, and even gas stations no longer allow you to use their bathrooms. The city talked about putting up more Port-a-Potties and washing stations for the homeless, but this one on Beverly is the only one I've seen.
The only open bathrooms that I know of are the ones in Pan Pacific Park and the La Brea Tar Pits. Although there are several bathrooms in each, technically that means there are only two public bathrooms spots within a five-mile radius, and that's not just for the homeless, that's for everyone. More and more, I'm seeing people get out of their cars in alleys and piss behind a trash can or their car door. Come this summer, these streets are gonna get rank.
Rock and his wife Shae, who is five months pregnant, live out of a Lincoln Continental. Rock is a chef who was working at Denny's when the lockdown happened and he was let go. They are waiting for their stimulus checks in order to save up enough money to get situated in Florida before the baby is born.
Laura Daley sleeps in and around the Saban Clinic on Orlando Ave. even though she no longer uses the clinic. This is her way of protecting herself from the coronavirus.
The professor is one of the most knowledgeable men I've ever met on the street. He is from somewhere in Eastern Europe and he is an old-fashioned encyclopedia of information. You always walk away from a conversation with him well-educated. If you live in the Fairfax District you've more than likely seen his endless shopping carts wrapped up in plastic. There he keeps his books and magazines. He recycles for money. He explains to me that the price of oil has collapsed since the COVID-19 pandemic and it's now cheaper to make new plastic than recycle it. Many of the places that he sold his recyclables to are now closed.
Mark and his dog Lulu. He is a native New Yorker who was living in Las Vegas when the lockdown shut down all the casinos. He quickly drove to L.A., and days later, L.A. was locked down. Now, he is semi-homeless, living in his van and semi, stuck here for lack of anywhere else to go. Originally a dancer, he has gotten into video and has several cameras for it. He says he will be in L.A. for a while until the rest of the country opens up.
Funny Bone and Scotty. These guys are usually camera shy, especially Funny Bone, but it was early in the morning and when I told them I'd give them $5, their faces lit up.
Arthur in front of the #wegotthisla sign on Beverly Blvd. Arthur usually sleeps on the bench on Fairfax and Beverly. I coaxed him over to this mural for five bucks, so I guess this is something of a series now.
D-Rock Deeds fixes a bike by candlelight. He believes he had the coronavirus before. He describes it as almost dying from an LSD high. He refused to go to the hospital, and after about 10 days, he got it out of his system. However, a week later it came back with a vengeance, completely incapacitating him.
D-Rock with his girlfriend, Kristen, in an abandoned building that Kristen fixed up with furniture she dragged in from the alley. They have a fridge, get their power from the next building and internet from a Coffee Bean across the street. Kristen believes she caught the coronavirus at the same time D-Rock had it. Her illness only lasted a couple of days, and then she was alright. The squat that they are in will be demolished in a few months. They have been on the waiting list for an apartment for several years. They hope with the crisis, the process will be speeded up in time before they must leave.
Nighttime with Steve who parks behind a business on Beverly Blvd. He also believes he caught the coronavirus at one point. He describes being ill with all the symptoms, which were made more painful due to his asthma.
Myisha refuses to go into one of the shelters that are being converted in the various parks. She stays in one of the public bathrooms with all her belongings close to her during the night. She is hoping to get a hotel room through Project Roomkey until her Section 8 comes through.
A discarded facemask over a painted happy face on the street.
Bumdog's cart next to a sign put up by the city warning against touching the crossing signal.
Photo Editor: Chava Sanchez.