Paul Jacobsen is too easy to overlook. Sitting at a bus stop on Sunset and Alvarado, her frayed beige hat hangs above the square glasses that cover her eyes. At 62, he walks with the slower gait of a much older man. On this late September day, people getting on and off the Metro 603 bus at the busy intersection – not far from where Jacobsen pitched a tent on a stretch of sidewalk near an Echo Park mall – him rarely give a second glance.
Until he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and started playing. Then it is impossible to miss it.
There are so many homeless people in Los Angeles right now – around 66,000, at last count – that it’s sometimes hard to stop for a moment and look at them for the individual souls they are, each with one. his own dramas, personal stories and triumphs. and, more often, the tragedies that left them homeless. But when Jacobsen hums into his instrument, peeling sounds so painful that they stop you dead in their tracks, you can’t help but wonder who this man could be.
As it turns out, this man once played blues with BB King.
“I was just looking for a gig and one of his replacements told me they had an overture,” Jacobsen recalls of the day in 1978 when he was a 19-year-old musician in San Francisco and found himself on stage at the Bandshell. at Golden Gate Park, jam with one of the greatest bluesmen in musical history, then party the night away. “I danced with the choristers,” he says with a smile. “They couldn’t get enough of me.”
How Jacobsen went from there to here in the decades between today and is a long and sometimes heartbreaking story. He was born in New York City, taking his last name from his mother because he said his father was negligent and involved in organized crime. As a teenager, he made his way out west, doing various odd jobs until he finally reached Oregon and worked for a time as a ranger. Then he headed south to the Bay Area, where he learned to play the harmonica and guitar and made a living as a session musician.
It’s unclear if this big show with King could have led to a bigger career in music – Jacobsen said he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what could have been. But he still stayed in the Bay Area, raising a daughter and paying the rent with handyman jobs. Eventually, when the handyman jobs started to disappear, the rent money also dried up.
“He had the help of a family friend who owned a place to stay and let him stay in one of the apartments at a reduced rate,” said Michelle Tonn, a homeless volunteer from Echo Park. who has been in contact with PJ – as everyone calls him – for several years. “But when this friend died and his family sold the place, the new owner kicked him out. “
Eventually, Jacobsen made it to LA, where, like so many others, he now lives on the streets, sleeping in a tent provided by Everyone Deserves a Roof, a nonprofit that distributes mobile shelters for people who have nowhere to go. “It’s the best thing I’ve had,” Jacobsen said of his nylon house. “Folds up easily, withstands sun and rain, and keeps tree sap from leaking all over my stuff.” “
The word “Hollywood” can mean different things. It may refer to the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that resides in Los Angeles. Or it may refer to Hollywood, the geographic location of the city where soundstages and studio backgrounds line the same streets where thousands of homeless Angelenos have set up homeless camps with nowhere to go. go.
Sometimes it feels like these two Hollywoods are isolated; a world of showbiz and celebrity apart from that of poverty and suffering. But a closer look shows that some workers in the industry are trying to show some Christmas spirit all year round.
Take Adam Conover, a writer and comedian who spends much of his free time volunteering for the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, a local group that provides food, water, hygiene kits and toiletries. other items for homeless people. Conover began volunteering while working on the TV sitcom “Adam Ruins Everything,” whose writers’ room was directly across from a homeless camp. He recalled watching as he drove to work in the morning as police and sanitation workers periodically attempted to sweep up the homeless.
“Tents were thrown into garbage trucks with all the belongings of the people who lived there,” Conover said. “I decided that I just wasn’t willing to sit around and drive next to all these people who needed help.”
Conover isn’t the only member of the entertainment industry to make helping the homeless a personal priority. According to Janet Kim, one of the co-founders of SELAH, many television and comic book writers donate their time to her organization, along with dozens of other volunteers for groups like the Hollywood Food Coalition, which recovers unused food from films and television productions and deliver them to shelters and camps.
But when it comes to the big names and Hollywood institutions, there is very little involvement in dealing with this crisis… with one notable exception. Last summer, DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg made headlines in the Los Angeles Times when he met with advisers to Mayor Eric Garcetti as well as several members of the LA city council to discuss the homelessness crisis in the city. .
Some collaborators who spoke to The Times said the meetings were largely for Katzenberg to learn more about the nuances of the problem and to ask how more resources could be provided. But one official told The Times the conversation “quickly turned to ‘the tents down’,” while another said Katzenberg mainly wanted to discuss the scattering of sidewalk camps near schools and parks. . Katzenberg declined to comment for this story.
Either way, as the crisis in Los Angeles continues to worsen, public pressure to “solve” the problem becomes more and more intense. On July 28, just a few weeks after the meetings with Katzenberg, the city council voted almost unanimously to approve the application of article 41.18 of the municipal code, which prohibits sleeping in public places. Meanwhile, Councilor Joe Buscaino has made enforcement of this ordinance a major pillar of his 2022 mayoral campaign and is spearheading a voting measure, “Safer and Cleaner LA,” which prohibit homeless residents from camping on the sidewalks if they refuse the space available in the shelters.
All of this is potentially very bad news for homeless people like Jacobsen, who has said he is wary of shelters and sees them as dangerous, overcrowded and prone to lump people with mental health and addiction issues together with those who were only looking for a place to sleep. “I have this place,” Jacobsen said, nodding to his tent. “I don’t disturb anybody and I try to make sure that people are not disturbed [by anyone else]. I don’t want to give this up for a noisy dirty shelter with a bunch of hackers.
For the moment, PJ’s tent is still standing. And as he has for most of his life, he takes things one day at a time. A few weeks after this first encounter in Sunset and Alvarado, he could be found at the Methodist Church in Echo Park, a block or two down the street, using a portable shower and picking up a new bag of clothes. He sat down for a spell and pulled out his harmonica, playing a Neil Diamond tune. Another homeless man with his own bag of new clothes and a guitar under his arm nodded to greet him as he passed.
“He’s one of the guys I jam with at Echo Park,” Jacobsen said. “We haven’t been able to do it for a while, but we might get another chance soon.”
For a man with so few resources, whom most people barely notice when they walk past or pass him on the street, Jacobsen seems remarkably, almost superhumanly optimistic. “It takes a long time to be at peace with yourself,” he said with a small but peaceful smile. “We’re so busy with stuff but we never sit down and ask ourselves: are we happy? Happy with who we are? Happy with what we do in this world? “
Then he played a little more of his harmonica.
If you’re interested in getting involved, consider donating to one of the LA-based nonprofits serving the needs of homeless populations in LA, such as Everyone Deserves a Roof, the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, the Hollywood Food Coalition or Echo Park Methodist Church.