Welcome to Homelessness: Feeling Safe with Papa Bear

Homeless on Venice Beach

For the first couple of weeks of living homeless on the Boardwalk of Venice Beach, California, all I’d do was walk up and down between Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier. I didn’t know what else to do. With nowhere to go, I didn’t feel safe sitting around the other homeless people spread throughout the park. I had my guitar, and I pulled a small shopping cart, which ID’d me instantly as among the homeless. I didn’t dare trust anyone because I thought all homeless people were drug addicts, thieves, and troublemakers.

Occasionally, I’d sit inside one of the Pagoda’s, which are resting areas for the walkers. I’d play a song or two and surprisingly, I might make a couple of dollars here and there. That allowed me to be able to walk to the $.99 Cents Only store, about a mile away, to buy some sardines and crackers or cheap vegetables or fruit. I wasn’t starving, but I was so alone and exposed. The journey was uphill all the way to Lincoln Blvd. and I’d drag the guitar and cart with me. It was exhausting.

Because I didn’t trust anyone around me, I had no idea how I was going to get out of this situation. I knew I had to eventually trust someone in order to find out how to get help. But who could I talk to? Until I found the answer to that question, I continued to wander up and down the Boardwalk. I’d drain myself so I’d pass out on the sand at the end of the day, ignoring my fears as much as possible, which wasn’t much.

A Peaceful Gentle Soul

Then one morning someone came into my life. I’d call him an angel, but he’d say differently. Two nights before this, I had been robbed while sleeping on the sand alone. The next night, I was afraid to return to the sand. A woman who everyone calls Grandma found me crying on a bench. She invited me to stay with her in her tent until I could get one of my own. I was too exhausted and scared to turn her down.

The next morning, a man whom everyone calls Bear (short for Papa Bear), asked me to assist him to set up his display. I now know that it was his way of getting to know me because he never asked me again after that. He always had plenty of helpers to assist him. His display was all about Marijuana. The big draw of it was a huge Blunt sticking out of the mouth of a large stuffed puppy. People would stop to take pictures of themselves puffing on it, and tip him for the privilege. It was pretty lucrative.

Schooled in the Art of Venice Beach Life

While setting up the display, we had the most intriguing conversation. He told me how the Family got along on Venice Beach. How everyone respected everyone else. They’d come to the aid of each other no matter what. They watched each other’s backs. They shared whatever they could with each other and basically, they treated each other like family, which was why they called themselves that. Also, if there were fights which broke out among them, eventually they’d make up and keep going. No hard feelings. That’s because he and Grandma would act as go-betweens for any disputes. It worked like a charm. But don’t let anyone from outside the family start something. That was war, and the whole family would get involved.

Papa Bear schooled me on places where help was available. The very thing I’d been thinking about for some time. Places to get showers, hot meals, social services, employment help, etc. He knew them all.

Also, where not to go because of high crime, tweakers, violence, etc., among the homeless. He knew the police officers by name. If I fell into contact with them, I was only to mention his name and I’d be looked after and they wouldn’t bother me. The police respected him. Later, I found out that whenever they wanted information about someone on the Boardwalk, they’d ask him or Deuce, the Mannequin Man.

Belonging to a Family

By the time his display was set up, I felt so much more at ease about being homeless on the Boardwalk. I knew that I belonged to the family and things would from then on be different. It’s true that Papa Bear, along with everyone else, drank and smoked heavy cigarettes and weed. But, considering what others did on the Beach, the Family was almost genteel.

After a while, I was able to purchase a little one-man tent for myself. I moved out of Grandma’s tent and she helped me find a place for myself there on Wavecrest street. The only spot available was next to a huge trash container, which had been placed by the curb next to the building. Deuce and Ben had their places set up between the trash container and the building. But there was not enough room for me. So, I set up my tent in the street on the opposite side.

That was the first time I’d seen Papa Bear upset. He yelled at me for quite a while for putting my tent there. After gathering a couple of guys together, he searched the Boardwalk for some construction cones to put around my tent. He said that any drunk driver “without a lick of sense” could come down the street and run me over. I thought he must have been drunk to suggest it. One could see my shiny blue tent from a mile away. Little did I know at the time that this very scenario had already happened.

Tragedy on Wavecrest

Wavecrest is a one-way street going away from the beach into Venice. That’s why the street is fairly safe with no traffic except the occasional apartment dweller pulling in to the complex garage across the street. One night, a drunk driver who raced down the street the wrong way, jumped the curb and ran over a member of the Family. He was killed instantly and the driver drove off as a hit-and-run. Luckily it was all caught on camera and he was later caught. But the Family, of course, was never the same.

Papa Bear took over being the spokesperson for the Family in dealing with the police, the media, and the homeless inside and outside the family. It was a pretty big fiasco until Papa Bear had an idea to erect a memorial for their friend. There was a service held and everyone calmed down once the perpetrator was caught. That was when Papa Bear became known throughout as the one to go to when in a crisis.

Click here to read part one and part two of this series.

Allison Whitfield

Allison C. Whitfield


Allison Cherise Whitfield, author of "the Shelter of the Shade Tree", writes from an inside point of view. Having experienced homelessness in San Jose, CA, Venice Beach, CA, Las Vegas, NV and Atlanta, GA, she is an advocate in the fight against homelessness. At this time, she is living in a homeless shelter in Atlanta, GA.

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