Updated: Oct 18
Some of the most frequently asked questions I get about personal safety here in Los Angeles are related to homeless people.
((( Whew ))) it is a tough and complicated situation.
I've seen things I wish I could unsee:
The young trans kid strung out and sitting for hours picking their face raw in the reflection of an empty store front. Soles of unprotected feet blackened from the city's grime. A dead body and the stains from their bodily fluids where they seeped into the sidewalk.
I've heard things I wish I could unhear:
Screams at 6am from the camp around the corner as they come down from their overnight high, the verbal replay of a rape suffered by a woman as she rocks herself in at the Metro station, the soft fragile thank you from a girl I gave money to when I spotted her scrounging for food.
I've smelled things I wish I could unsmell:
I leave this one to your imagination.
So when this question comes up, I take a deep breath. Homeless folks are already so demonized, I don't need to add to it. However, there are legitimate questions about safety that one might need to manage from time-to-time.
When people ask me about homelessness in Los Angeles my bottom line response is: Homeless people are not my enemy. A society that allows people to fall through the cracks like this, is.
In the meantime...
The neon lights of Hollywood Blvd reflected off of the sidewalk as I waited alone on a dark corner for my early morning bus. My heels hung off the edge of the curb as I gently stretched my calves in preparation for the gym. This served a double purpose of allowing me to keep an eye on the empty sidewalk as the city slept.
As I continued my calf stretching, my eyes explored the neighborhood. Not in fear, but maintaining curiosity – one of the foundational principles I teach about situational awareness in Asphalt Anthropology. It was my curiosity, not fear, about my environment that allowed me to spot him from half a block away.
He was either mentally ill or under the influence of something, walking erratically and in my direction. Upon spotting him I did one of my sure fired go-to tactics: I stepped behind a light pole for concealment. Past experience with unstable people in public spaces has taught me that by merely disappearing from their line of sight, I’m forgotten about and they move on.
In this case however, what happened next led me to believe my once tried-and-true-never-fail tactic may have actually set him off.
The man was now no longer walking erratically. Instead he was walking directly, and steadily in my direction. As he got closer he began asking me questions. His voice remained low, almost a whisper as he calmly asked,
“Why are you here?”
“Why were you talking to him?”
“What were you saying about me?”
In my early morning, still-bleary eyed and half-awake state, I didn’t pay much attention to the content of his words. I went on auto-pilot, using tactics that have helped me dodge trouble over the last four decades in cities around the world:
Maintaining distance – at least one to two body lengths from me
Using my environment – keeping a trash can in between us no matter how he moved
Setting boundaries – I usually start out with a cheery, “No, thank you”
Using a firm tone should the initial boundary fail – “Nope, we’re not gonna have this conversation”
NEVER taking my eyes off of him and NEVER giving him my back
These are all pretty basic skills that have never failed me.
His voice remained chillingly calm as he persisted with the questions. My own internal panic grew. My tried-and-true tricks weren’t working and I was having to work hard to manage my own fear.
It was only then that I realized I wasn’t truly present and listening to what he was saying. Instead I was relying on past tactics that had worked for me before.
When I started to pay attention to the content of his words, I understood he was in an entirely different world… literally. His questions sounded like he thought I was a space alien here to harm him. In that reality my tried-and-true tactics were useless.
Just as I had started to leave, he stepped towards me.
I raised my hand and unleashed my pepper spray in an unyielding stream directly into his eyes.* Slowly, slowly, slowly he turned away from the stream.
Serenely standing in place, he turned and made a full 360*. As he faced me once again, his eyes slowly blinked as he calmly, deliberately reached into his bag for something. Even then I waited too long, frozen in shock that all my tried-and-true tactics failed.
It was the flash of the butcher's knife that released me from my frozen state. That’s when I did the only thing left to do: run.
I’ve been a martial artist for over forty years and have taught self-defense during most of that time. In the last few years I founded and developed Asphalt Anthropology to focus on street safety. Many of us are aware that the statistics indicate 20% - 25% of crime happens by a stranger on the street. Yet the fear of street crime has an outsized impact on our psyche that impacts our day-to-day life decisions.
One of the biggest flaws regarding street safety is thinking you need to be on high alert all the time and that a “Top 10 List” of any sort will help you.
From Moscow to Madrid, from Gaborone to Helsinki, what has helped me dodge trouble and avoid threats has been flexibility and adaptable thinking.
To manage yourself in these situations you must cultivate first cultivate flexibility and adaptable thinking. Because, as you saw, when I relied on my top-go-to tactics rather than stay present and react to reality, they failed.
I screwed up. Don’t do that.
* Remember kids! Pepper spray doesn't work on everyone, so always have a back up plan!