Thomas Rebman is a middle school teacher and a veteran who has been traveling across the country to raise awareness about homelessness by living as a homeless person. You may have already read about him as he’s appeared in local news outlets several times during his tour. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with him while he was living homeless in Skid Row, an area of Los Angeles that is notorious for its high concentration of chronic homelessness.
Where are you right now and what’s it like there?
I’m about two blocks east of Skid Row on First. I’ve been on Skid Row for about four days. I came here to highlight mental illness among the homeless, because I knew there was a lot of it here. But I had no idea how much. Los Angeles really is a completely different animal than any other city I’ve visited. The amount of mental illness I’ve seen on Skid Row is shocking.
You don’t know which comes first: mental illness and substance abuse leading to homelessness, or homelessness leading to mental illness and substance abuse. Sometimes it’s one way, and sometimes it’s the other. But I can see how homelessness could cause mental illness. Spending time on the street, I don’t think you can escape without some scars.
You’ve gone homeless in several other communities before this one. What were those experiences like?
My first stop was Pensacola, FL, and in Pensacola, it was very difficult for me to get services, because of how spread out they are. My second was New Orleans, where I saw a very empathetic police force, but also a lot of the criminal element practicing their trade in the homeless areas. Next I stopped in Houston. I fully expected to see a lot of progress in Houston, because they have reduced chronic homelessness by 50 percent in three years. But I tell you, the number of homeless people I saw on the streets there was overwhelming.
What have you been doing there on Skid Row?
When I go homeless in a city, I basically just live my life and try to survive on the streets and try to find a job. I go to every one of the service providers, and I talk to them. I kind of just see how much empathy the service provider has for their clients. And as I’m walking around, I’m asking the public questions about homelessness, and I get a sense of how homeless people are being treated by the public by how they treat me.
Where have you been hanging out?
All over. Between Third and Seventh pretty much, but I’ve gone as far north as Los Angeles and as far south as…well, way past Skid Row…
Have you been getting around mainly on foot?
I’m completely on foot. I did catch some rides yesterday, because I went and saw SkidRoBot doing some painting, so I did thumb a ride and caught the bus back to Skid Row.
Where are you sleeping?
A different spot every night. Last night I was at the corner of Fourth and….um… I’m sorry, the streets all blend together…
Are you sleeping outside or in a shelter?
I haven’t stayed in any shelters yet. Although I have gone to shelters for meals. Today I went to the Los Angeles Rescue Mission and got a shower this morning. I started all of this with zero money, and when I go to a new city, I bring whatever money I earned from in the last one. I got here with $9. So I basically eat at the food shares that are in town, and sometimes people give me food on the street because I’m talking to folks.
Why haven’t you stayed in a shelter yet?
Well, the first night I didn’t stay in one because I had to learn the rules, like when I had to line up to get into a shelter. Last night I didn’t get into one, but I probably will tonight, because I don’t enjoy sleeping on the street.
What’s it like sleeping on the street?
I don’t know if I can put that into words. Let me say this before I say anything further: I don’t think that I truly experience homelessness, because the hardest part of homelessness is having nothing and no hope. I’m not really homeless, because I can end this experience at any time. But I try to live as close to the experience as I can. Lying on the sidewalk last night, I covered up with a moving blanket that was given to me by some movers from the back of their van. When you’re lying there, it’s so lonely. You can’t imagine. It’s so scary. You can only sleep three hours a night, and you’re always sleeping with one eye open. You suffer from sleep deprivation. So during the day you just feel like you’re in a fog all the time.
Is it frightening?
Frightening is not the word. Last night there was an accident, where two cars collided and bust a fire hydrant and everything. I don’t think anybody within two to three blocks slept. Not to mention the criminal element. I try to find a spot where there’s the least chance of someone bothering me. I keep my arm through the strap of my backpack as I’m sleeping. I have been stolen from, and I have had physical altercations—not coming to blows, but you know, being grabbed and that kind of thing. But fortunately never while I was sleeping.
How do people treat you, people who just assume you’re a homeless person? Do they treat you differently?
Of course. They treat me completely differently. And they treat me differently depending on the community. You can really tell a community’s level of empathy after interactions with the hundreds members of the public. Here in Skid Row, they gave me a blanket and the subway gives away free ice water, and there are people out here feeding us. And all the times I’ve asked to use the bathroom, I’ve at least received a respectful response.
Do you think that’s because people in LA have been dealing with the phenomenon of chronic homelessness in Skid Row for generations now?
Of course, that’s what it is. People here are educated about homelessness. They understand it. Maybe not the whole L.A. County, but the Skid Row community definitely understands it.
What’s the saddest thing you’ve encountered during all your experiences?
I met a young lady in Ocala, Hailey, who was 18 years old. Her only crime was her mother died. She never knew her father and didn’t have any other family. So she was immediately on the street. And this was a girl who grew up in the Midwest. She had no idea what she was in for when she went into the shelter. So every night was a scarring experience. She was not a street person, and she did not grow up in an urban environment. I passed her over to a woman, my friend Diane in Ocala who started Homeless Improvement Solutions. She took her in, and I think Hailey went back to college. I think she’s back on her own now, but I haven’t spoken to her in a few weeks.
So the sad story has a happy ending?
I think so.
What in your experience gave you the most hope?
It’s the littlest things at the right time that give you the most hope. Even though I am not truly homeless, this is wearing on me, believe me. If you saw a picture of me a year ago, you would not believe how much my skin has aged and the wrinkles and all. So I remember a particular instance when I was unbelievably down.
In that one day, just taking a shower made all the difference. Before I took that shower, I didn’t even want to eat. I was that depressed. All the drama I had to go through walking miles to eat and being told no at every turn when I asked to use the bathroom. Having people telling me to get a job when I’ve been looking for one all day.
After the shower, I was ready to face it.
You can find Thomas Rebman on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hungryandhomeless.