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One block away from rehab

For a man living on LA streets, an offer of long-term help

One block away from rehab

John Simpson (Sophia Lee, edited by WORLD)

Last week, I wrote about a man named John Simpson who loves movies and musicals, has been homeless for five years, and struggles with alcoholism. Let me now tell you about our efforts to get him help.

When I first met Simpson last January, I had a hard time befriending him. He cringed whenever I got too close and sometimes nodded and shuffled away when I called out to him. One time when I stooped down to meet his eyes, he kept looking askance until he finally asked me politely, “Could you step back, please?”

I realized then that this was a man who does not feel comfortable being seen or known. And Los Angeles makes it easy: Simpson lurks by himself in the background digging into trash bins, and people intentionally look away. Nobody likes remembering that this city is full of people who need help—we’re all too busy trying to help ourselves, and LA has too many people who are one paycheck away from becoming homeless themselves.

Nobody likes remembering that this city is full of people who need help—we’re all too busy trying to help ourselves.

As for Simpson, he’s long believed that he’s beyond help. Even the way he talks about himself shows deep self-contempt. “I’m just a total drunk,” he often told me. “That’s all I do: I drink and recycle and drink. I should be dead, I think.” And whenever he said that, he widened his eyes, as though surprised that he’s still alive. After five years of subsisting mainly on alcohol, sleeping several hours a night on hard concrete, and roaming the Venice neighborhood alone with his thoughts and obsessions—how, indeed, is he still surviving?

When my boyfriend David and I first started talking to him, Simpson told us we were the rare persons on the street who ever noticed him. Several times he asked, “Which group you guys with? Are you Mormons?” We’re Christians, we told him, but added that’s not the only reason why we talked to him.

“We just like you, John,” David said. “We like talking to you.” 

“Well,” Simpson muttered. “I don’t know why. I smell. I haven’t taken a shower in three years.” But I could tell from the way the corner of his mouth turned up that he was pleased.

Then one evening, we saw Simpson walking around with a nasty, blood-encrusted gash across his left cheek. “What happened?” I gasped, and he shrugged, “Don’t remember.” He was so drunk that all he remembers is waking up with blood dripping down his face. He mentioned all this as a casual passing remark, but as I asked him more questions, his expression turned serious, as though reality was slowly sinking into his liquor-addled consciousness.

“Wow,” he said. “I must have been really, really drunk, to not even remember what happened. Something horrible could have happened.”

I got serious then too: “John, it’s time to stop. You can’t go on like this much longer.” 

Simpson looked down, off to the side, looked everywhere except my eyes. “I know, I know,” he mumbled. Later he told me a doctor once warned him that if he keeps drinking, he’ll die. “That was 12 years ago,” he said, and I couldn’t tell if he meant it with pride, with awe, or with deluded optimism that he would be able to survive 12 more years.

Two weeks after that accident, David asked Simpson if he was ready to get off the streets. To our surprise, Simpson said yes. So David called a friend who runs a residential rehab center on Venice Beach and found out there was a bed open. That week, we asked Simpson again if he was ready for change. Again, he said yes and added, “But I’ll have to stop drinking.” David then told him about his friend’s rehab center, and asked if he’d be open to entering the recovery program. 

“Uh, how much time do I have to consider?” Simpson asked. 

“How about a week?”

I could see the inner conflict in Simpson’s eyes. He stood there for a while, pondering. Then he said abruptly, “Yes.” 

We were taken aback. “You mean ... you’ll go to rehab?” David asked.

“Yes, yes, what else does ‘yes’ mean?” Simpson snapped, then caught himself and made a chuckle. He paused: “A bed would be nice.” Another pause: “I’m pretty sure I can quit drinking now.” He then told us that he’s already been to rehab twice. The first time, he graduated from the program, found a job, started drinking again, and lost that job. He later entered a second treatment center, but voluntarily left it before finishing the program. But maybe third time’s the charm?

David told Simpson to meet us at 3 p.m. that Sunday by the rehab center, which was only about a block away from Simpson’s makeshift bed on the sidewalk. “I’ll be there,” Simpson promised, and I wrote a reminder on a piece of paper for him. He shoved it into his pocket, and said, “I’ll stop drinking right now.” Then he glanced at the 8-ounce bottle of vodka by his sleeping bag, and corrected himself: “Um, I’ll quit drinking tomorrow. Let me finish that vodka I have left first.”

We showed up that Sunday after church with a pulled pork sandwich for Simpson, but we were almost 30 minutes late because of traffic and bad planning. When we finally got to the rehab center at the beach, we saw streams of people enjoying the sun and ocean breeze, but no Simpson. We wandered through the throng of sun tanners and strollers, looking for a bearded man with a limp—but no Simpson. After a while we gave up the search and left the sandwich and a note by his belongings. I felt dejected and guilty: Did we miss him? Did he show up but leave disappointed when we didn’t arrive on time?

Turns out, Simpson never did show up. The next time we saw him, he was so drunk that he forgot David’s name, but was lucid enough to say he was worried that we were mad at him for not keeping his promise. By then the gash on his left cheek had faded away, and so did the memory of danger, of his once-clear desire for a bed, for change, for life.

And so Simpson lingers still in his corner on the sidewalk of Venice, sipping the hours away ounce by ounce in vodka. Every night, a rat still scurries over him, and when he’s conscious enough, he worries—briefly before passing out—that it’ll one day chew his toes off.