Back From Homelessness: A Venice Beach Artist and Writer Tells Her Story
by Sheryl Brenneman
Beach's Sentinel, 1992
At the root of a lot of homelessness is the lack of affordable medical care for people who have no resources and are not mentally or physically well enough to care for themselves. It's a very big crack in society's infrastructure through which people can easily fall. -- Joelle Steele
No matter where you go these days, no matter whether it's the big city or some small town, you will find homeless people. And, if you have ever been to Venice Beach, California, you have seen them in large numbers, begging for handouts, sleeping on benches, rummaging through dumpsters. What you don't see is their stories. How did they become homeless? After reading her article on her personal experience with homelessness [Homelessness: It Can Happen To Anyone; It Did To Me, July/August 1992, Mensa Bulletin], I met with Venice Beach local writer and artist Joelle Steele, a woman who, while seriously ill, lived in her car on the streets of Los Angeles for seven weeks, from mid-September through the first week of November of 1980.
Joelle came to this crisis following a series of events that began with an illness that resulted in major surgery, extended medical treatments for that illness, and a serious automobile accident in which she suffered a brain trauma and back injury for which she was also being treated. When her living situation fell through, she moved into her car for what she thought would be one night.
"My parents were in Europe. My landlord was in Africa. My attorney wouldn't take my calls. I didn't know many people because I was new in town and wasn't well enough to socialize, and most of my free time was spent going to doctors," says Joelle.
Alone and in the big city of Los Angeles, Joelle felt lost with nowhere to go.
"I didn't know anything about homeless people or that shelters even existed. I thought I was unique, the only person living in my car," she says.
But she wasn't alone. The very first night in her car the police asked her to move on. She was parked in a residential neighborhood that she thought looked safe. The residents apparently didn't feel safe with a homeless person camped out on their street and someone called the police.
"From there, I went to an all-night coffee shop, and as I was leaving, I met a homeless man who saw my car full of stuff. He told me where to park and sleep and how to keep safe," says Joelle.
Joelle stayed in her car and found ways to eat and take care of herself. She showered at the beach in cold water early in the morning — as soon as the sun came up. She was working part-time temporary jobs, so she had a little income and went to the grocery store and bought food that didn't have to be refrigerated or cooked. While living in her car was a terrible ordeal, having to handle all her medical issues added insult to injury.
"I was so ill at the time that I couldn't think clearly. I was in all kinds of therapy, I would forget to take medication, and I missed a lot of doctor appointments because I was having blackouts and missing blocks of times. I was so scared," she says.
Living with the pain of her physical illness and injuries was unremarkable when compared with the ramifications of her brain trauma, which resulted in grand mal seizures, fugue states, amnesiac blackouts, and short-term memory loss, among many other lesser perceptual problems. Medications weren't helping her much, and at one point she found out that she was actually on one medication that was exacerbating some of her problems, making them potentially dangerous and even life-threatening.
"The blackouts were the worst. One afternoon I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room in Santa Monica and the next thing I knew it was nine hours later, pitch black out, and I was sitting in a bus going down Santa Monica Boulevard heading towards Hollywood. This kind of episode was not unusual. I would suddenly 'wake up' and be myself again, with no memory of where I'd been or what I'd done. I wouldn't even know where my car was," says Joelle.
Joelle's parents returned from Europe and she drove to their home in northern California. She asked her father for help and he refused.
"I never got along with my father. He is difficult, cold, and uncaring. I was not all that surprised that he turned me away," she says.
Her mother gave her $50 and promised to send more, deferring to Joelle's father.
"I had a neighbor one time and all she did was break her wrist, and her parents drove all the way out from rural West Virginia to L.A. to take care of her. I wanted parents like that," says Joelle.
Joelle returned to southern California where all her doctors were and where she had a new long-term temp job lined up. At this point, she had been living in her car for two weeks and did not yet have enough money to start looking for an apartment. But she started to save what little she could from the temp job.
She drifted from one place to another, trying to find a place to stay. But so many areas were dangerous at night. A gang came along one night and bounced her car while she was in it, so she had to leave that spot. Eventually, she found a place off the road in Malibu where there were some houses and lots of tree and brush coverage. She parked there every evening around sunset and left every morning at sunrise. She stayed there for the last three of her seven weeks on the street.
"This place was safer, but there is a lot of danger from human predators. And I was such easy prey! I was so obviously unwell. I had problems walking due to my back injury. I got mugged by the same person twice at knifepoint in the beach restroom where I went to shower and get ready for work," she says.
The mugger didn't get any valuables, but what she got were necessities for Joelle: her bedding, heavy sweaters, and a winter coat.
"It was October and I was so cold after that. You can't believe how horrible it is to go to bed hungry and cold until it happens to you," says Joelle. "Sometimes I just can't believe I ever lived through it all."
But she did, despite the fact that she also lost her long-term temp assignment due to her brain injury.
"I had temporal lobe damage — cognitive impairment — and seizures. The seizures were controlled by medication, but the cognitive impairment prevented me from doing things I had always been able to do before. Simple things like following a conversation, taking directions, answering a switchboard with only five incoming lines and 20 extensions. I left people on hold left and right. I got fired," she says.
Joelle had to do something and fast. She decided to get all new doctors. Her new neurologist reviewed her records and changed all of her medications, taking her off some of them completely. With the new medication regime, she became more coherent and the amnesia and blackout episodes became much shorter and occurred less frequently. They went away entirely within a year after she took a part-time job in a one-person office with a landscape contractor. Within a week of getting that job, her landlord came back from Africa and referred her to another apartment building he owned that had a vacancy. The marshal came to allow her access to remove her things that were in her former roommate's possession. The landscape contractor generously sent a truck and two laborers to move her into the new apartment.
"It was twelve years ago, but it is impossible to forget," says Joelle. "I will have to live with cognitive impairment for the rest of my life. But, I don't have seizures or fugue states and I'm no longer on medications of any kind. And I have had a lot of rehabilitative therapy for dealing with cognitive problems, so I have a lot of ways to deal with them if and when they occur. I also had back surgery in 1984, so that has also improved things a lot, but I still suffer from chronic pain."
Joelle wrote a book about her experiences, which I had the opportunity to read. But she didn't seek a publisher for it.
"Writing the book turned out to be a cathartic experience for me. Maybe some day I'll pursue getting it published, but right now I just want to move forward with my life," she says.
During her stay in her car, Joelle had an opportunity to witness a side of life that most people never see. She saw firsthand the problems facing people living in their cars and on the streets of Los Angeles.
"Some homeless people are obviously victims of their own devices — drugs, alcohol, etc. Others are suffering from a variety of physical ailments, and many are mentally ill. Some are elderly and have no place to go. Many are war veterans who are not being well-cared for by the very country they fought for," she says.
Now a volunteer working with the homeless, Joelle has formed many strong opinions about this national crisis.
"At the root of a lot of homelessness is the lack of affordable medical care for people who have no resources and are not mentally or physically well enough to care for themselves. It's a very big crack in society's infrastructure through which people can easily fall," says Joelle. "And there is no single, simple, one-size-fits-all solution. There are as many causes of homelessness as their are homeless people."
Does Joelle ever worry about becoming homeless again?
"Every minute of every day the prospect of being homeless is whirling around in the back of my mind. It happened to me once and I am painfully aware that it could happen again. The majority of people in this country are just one or two paychecks away from living on the street. No one should ever have to experience that."