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6 Feet Back From Life: A Homeless Man's Photo Essay On Life During Coronavirus

A Black woman in a brown sundress wears a gingham mask and stands on the street with her arms crossed. Another woman has red hair in a ponytail with her back to the camera.
(Bumdog Torres for LAist)
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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.

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A self-portrait.
(Bumdog Torres for LAist)

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.

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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.

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My sleeping spot under an awning.
(Bumdog Torres)

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.

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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.

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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.
After 12 days in the hotel, I have finally adjusted to this brave new world, but not just as a bum, as "BUMDOG: PHOTOJOURNALIST!!!"

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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.

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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.

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What questions do you have about Southern California?

Photo Editor: Chava Sanchez.