'Gimme my food or I'm gonna '

It was serious before he grabbed the oversized bottle of Tabasco by the neck and yelled "Gimme my food or I'm gonna F@#$ing beat you."

He's new to Westwood Village, as are many of the homeless people who've begun to linger there in the past couple months. Every day it seems there are new faces begging in Westwood and on the Westside along Pico Blvd. It's not just the numbers that have increased, but the aggressiveness. Although most still hold signs, or ask for change, others make requests that border on ultimatums. A polite "I'm sorry" isn't enough. They yell at people, follow people, and even challenge vehicles in intersections.

The incident with the oversized bottle of Tabasco at a Westwood diner wasn't a case of a hungry man desperate for a meal. Food had been offered. A generous individual purchased the homeless man breakfast. This wasn't a doggie bag of leftovers, or an extra burger on the way out the door, but the specific food the homeless man chose. He stepped up and ordered it, but he didn't want it. When the food was served, he said he wanted the money instead. A choice between food and nothing resulted in a threat and a demand for food that was never denied. A glass bottle went up. A voice was raised. The server was about to be bashed upside the head.

"Gimme my food or I'm gonna F@#$ing beat you."

This sort of thing happens every day throughout LA. However, I've encountered it in Westwood and on the Westside much more in the past month than in any other during the past seven years. A Los Angeles Police Department statistic hints at a possible reason. It appeared in a Los Angeles Times story on April 25:

The crackdown [in downtown LA] has corresponded with a drop in downtown's street dwellers, from 1,800 last September to fewer than 750 last week, LAPD statistics show.
That's more than 1,000 homeless people who moved somewhere other than downtown. Most of them are still homeless wherever they are. Did some of them hop on buses or walk to the Westside, to Hollywood, to Silver Lake? It's not unlikely.

The increase in aggressiveness I've witnessed is unfortunate, yet, I can't wag a finger at anyone to assign blame. Although I'm not happy about the Pied-Piperesque approach that seems to have driven them to my neighborhood, they came here of their own volition. It's hardly comparable to the inhuman practice of dumping indigents downtown, even if the results are similar. The problem wasn't solved. It was moved.

Fortunately, no one will read about the homeless man with the oversized Tabasco bottle in the newspaper tomorrow, or see a report of the incident on the evening news. Nothing happened. He threw his food and the bottle in the trash and stomped out of the diner.

And while it's entirely possible he wanted the $5 and was foolish enough to think that this complicated scheme was the only way to get it, I've decided it wasn't about money, or food. It was about a man who felt pushed around and needed to push back, if only to remind himself what that felt like. He should have been grateful, and that's why he wasn't.

* RELATED: 60 Minutes aired a segment Sunday, May 20, 2007, on hospital dumping in Los Angeles, by Anderson Cooper.

* SIMILARLY NOTED: Curbed LA's Josh Williams makes a similar observation. And David Markland at Metroblogging Los Angeles points to a blog post by Don Garza about "why the $250,000 toilets in downtown LA are important."

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