Andrew Truelove needs a belt and a pair of socks.
He takes his time getting up from the mattress he slept on the night before in the parking lot behind a Torrance shopping center. He smokes his first Lucky Strike of the day, then takes a Lyft to San Pedro, where he’s heard he may be able to get into a tiny house community.
It’s May 17, Truelove’s 32nd day in California. Shortly after he arrived at LAX from his native Virginia, he hitched a ride to Slab City, an eccentric off-grid community in the Sonoran desert. Then he spent a few weeks in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, pursuing his dream of starting a new social media platform.
The 37-year-old quickly blew through most of his money. He got ripped off twice before returning to Southern California, where he hopes to live at least through the end of summer.
His is a familiar story, a modern iteration of the starry-eyed striver headed west with a dollar and a dream. But in 2023, the landing for a troubled person at the end of his rope can be brutal.
Truelove is left to navigate a confusing social services landscape and jostle for scarce shelter beds and scarcer permanent housing in a sprawling region with too long a line for too little help. His experiences at the bottom of L.A.’s economic ladder raise difficult questions about what role society should play in caring for those who have the least but need the most.
Truelove ended up in this South Bay suburb because he liked its laid-back vibe when he visited a year ago to see the high school attended by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He burned more than $200 on restaurant meals and a room at the Howard Johnson on Torrance Boulevard, so he’s turned to sleeping outside to stop the bleeding on his bank account. He’s down to $700.
He’s spent most of the past couple of days sitting on the begrimed concrete outside a bustling 7-Eleven. His goal is to find somewhere to stay, then get a job, perhaps as a bartender, so he can save money for a place of his own. But it’s not that simple.
Truelove has PTSD and a related mood disorder and no friends or family in California. He got off supervised probation two days before he left the East Coast. Before that, he had been in prison for the latest in a string of felony convictions.
His medical insurance is running out, and despite his goal of gainful employment, Truelove hopes to be approved for disability benefits. He’s seeking social services — a housing voucher, food stamps, health coverage via Medi-Cal.
In the meantime, if he wants to establish a foothold and avoid being preyed upon as an L.A. rookie, he’s going to need somewhere to stay.
Truelove hopes someone at Harbor Interfaith Services will help him get housed. When he first arrives at the squat, brick-and-stucco building near the docks in San Pedro, he’s added to a list and told to come back after the lunch hour.
After a quick Taco Bell meal, Truelove is one of the first in line when the center reopens at 1 p.m. He’s called inside by a security guard who searches Truelove’s bag as he collapses onto a hard plastic chair, large soda cup in hand.
Fifteen minutes later, he is the second person called to meet with a case manager. Inside Cathy Hetzer’s windowless office, the chaos of the waiting room ebbs a bit, and Truelove shares his story. Hetzer takes a tough love approach almost from the moment she meets him.
“So Andrew, tell me a little bit about you,” she prompts.
A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.
“I’m just trying to find a little bit of shelter,” he begins. He gives the five-minute version of his life. How he came to be in California and how his few connections here quickly fell through. How he doesn’t have a car or a Social Security card. How he spent all of the approximately $50,000 he inherited after his father died in 2019, while Truelove was in prison in Virginia.
And how he needs a belt and a pair of socks, which Hetzer dispatches a colleague to fetch from a closet.
“I’m worried for you,” Hetzer tells Truelove repeatedly. “Being out on the streets here, it’s not going to be easy.”
She tells him about resources he can apply for online and at an office in Compton. If he qualifies, she says, he will be eligible to receive $221 in general relief a month and about $200 a month in nutrition assistance.
She shows him the website to apply for Medi-Cal. She tells him about a job placement resource and a housing relief program she describes as “a baby step to kind of get established here in California for the first time.” She writes a referral to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority for a shelter bed in any of several nearby neighborhoods.
Before Truelove puts his Bass Pro Shops cap back on and stands up to leave, Hetzer warns him again about what he’s up against:
“You have no real support system to draw on. You’re really alone. … You are vulnerable and you don’t know this area,” she says. “I’m hopeful that we can get you into shelter soon.”
As he walks out of Hetzer’s office, Truelove asks again about the belt and socks. The other case manager apologizes. The facility didn’t have any after all.
Day 33 in California:
Thursday, May 18, 2023
Truelove wakes up after 3 p.m., too late to make it from Torrance to Compton to apply for services. His cellphone died in the night, and he ended up sleeping away most of the day, unbothered, behind the shopping center.
So Truelove walks to a nearby 76 gas station with a public restroom and outdoor electrical outlets. He sits on the ground by the bathroom door and smokes as people pass.
He’s got to keep his phone powered so he doesn’t miss a call from Virginia tomorrow he hopes will bring news that he’s eligible for a disability payment of about $1,000 a month.
He charges his phone for 20 minutes and heads to a thrift store, where he gets a couple of pairs of socks and pays $2.99 for a belt. He tried on several before looping on a long black leather one he wears as he checks out.
In his beleaguered Tom Waits drawl, Truelove says he hasn’t smoked weed in more than a year and that he never got into heavier drugs such as meth or fentanyl.
But his criminal history is extensive. He has served years in state prisons and local jails in Virginia for a range of crimes, some of which were driven, in part, by extremist views he says he adopted in response to online research and YouTube videos. In his world, false-flag operations abound and conspiracies are reality.
He believes so strongly that the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened that in 2014 he traveled to playgrounds in New Jersey and Connecticut and stole two signs memorializing young victims of the massacre. He was arrested weeks later and confessed to the scheme, for which he was ultimately sentenced to several years behind bars.
That wasn’t his first prison stint. In 2010, Truelove was sentenced to four years for an altercation outside a school in Norfolk, Va. Carrying a lug wrench, he had grabbed an 8-year-old girl by her backpack and pulled. He stated at the time he had come to the school to help protect its students from bullies.
The year before he was sentenced, a psychiatrist found that Truelove had symptoms of bipolar disorder and that his mental health issues were a factor in the Norfolk incident, the Virginian-Pilot reported. The judge in the case also ordered psychiatric care and that he take psychiatric medication as prescribed.
“All of the anger and violence is in Andrew’s mind,” Truelove’s then-attorney, B. Thomas Reed, said at the time.
Like so many before him, Truelove has come to L.A. on a one-way flight in the hope that his fortunes will turn around. He deflects when asked what happens if they don’t.
He’s down to the last $650 of his five-figure inheritance. The stark realities of being down and out in L.A. are gradually becoming clear.
But he’s still in the afterglow of his recent arrival. It won’t last much longer.
Day 34 in California:
Friday, May 19, 2023
Truelove wakes up around 10 a.m. The row of businesses he’s sleeping behind has returned to life, and the peaceful morning is disrupted by the chimes of trucks backing up, clanging dumpster doors and shouts from workers.
He slept last night between two unzipped sleeping bags he borrowed from an older unhoused man named Brian. The bags and his worn clothes are Truelove’s only protection from the hard parking lot asphalt. He had to give up his mattress yesterday after an employee of a nearby car dealership complained.
Truelove’s plan today is to wait for a call from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services about his potential candidacy for disability benefits.
His half-sister Carol calls and encourages his efforts to connect with services. He lights a Lucky Strike Red 100 and throws the box back down near his work boots and a copy of a book Brian had lent him, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting Your Own Business.”
The social media platform Truelove dreams of building would be a space for people to share their life stories, a form of radical sharing he says he tries to live by himself. Hence these intimate interviews as he drags his heavy, towering body between the parking lots and shops of L.A.’s seemingly endless suburbia.
He says he wants to network while he’s in town, find some collaborators or a programmer to help him build out the website. In the meantime, Truelove’s got to make ends meet.
He eventually receives a Zoom call from an M. Bryant of the Virginia department’s disability determination division, who says the agency has a policy of not providing full first names.
“We’re trying to get you scheduled and set up to take one of our exams,” she says. Truelove stares up at his phone from the ground where he lies, his bare feet sticking out between his sleeping bags as the government worker talks.
“Monday is when we’ll schedule the evaluation.”
Day 38 in California:
Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Truelove is in a good mood when he gets up around 10 a.m., though he’s down to less than $200. The early-morning mist has burned off, and he begins chain-smoking his way through a half-full pack.
Yesterday, Bryant helped him schedule a disability benefits call for the week after next. Truelove dialed another Virginia agency to begin the process of restarting food stamps. Last night, he said his plan for today was to “find an emergency shelter where I can shower and do laundry and maybe get some more clothes.”
Now he’s talking about his planned social media site, which he calls MyLifeStory.com.
After Slab City turned out to be a bust — Truelove says he left the community after less than a week — he headed north to follow his tech founder dreams.
“I wasn’t showering. During the day there’s a lot of flies,” he says of his time at Slab City. “I wasn’t making the connections I wanted to make.”
For a few days, Truelove hit the pavement in Silicon Valley and San Francisco in hopes of meeting like-minded people and pitching potential investors. But he quickly realized he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“Two years ago, it was exciting,” he says of his entrepreneurial ambition. “It felt like someone was going to help me with it. But nothing came of it.”
Within a couple of weeks of his arrival in California, he was sleeping in a tent encampment in East Palo Alto. He says he would have stayed longer if he hadn’t been ripped off the day after he got there.
“I set up my tent where some other people had some tents and left to get a box of food,” he said. “Came back an hour and a half later and the whole tent’s gone, everything dragged away.”
Truelove ended up in San Jose, where he says he gave a guy $300 for a ride to L.A. in his 2004 BMW. Instead, the man ditched him in a nearby suburb and made off with the cash and essentially all of his remaining belongings, including his belt, spare socks, sleeping bag and cellphone, which he has since replaced with a Google Pixel.
On May 14, Truelove arrived via Amtrak back in L.A. County, where he’s been since. He says he had planned to meet up with some hacker groups or computer clubs here, but his deteriorating living situation took priority.
“Most people who come out to L.A. or they come out to California with a dream or an idea, they have more money or a friend or something, or more of a plan,” he says. “I’m down to almost nothing.”
It’ll soon be two weeks since he wound up in Torrance, and Truelove doesn’t know how many days in a row he’s worn the same black T-shirt with an image of the Edvard Munch-inspired mask from the “Scream” films. He’s dying to wash himself, but first he has a list of tasks to complete.
Truelove has decided it’s time to expand his outreach to service providers. His back is killing him from sleeping on the ground, and he says he needs a safe, clean home base to rebuild his life.
“I’m going to do the emergency shelter thing because I need to get some new clothing and a shower,” he says. “I’m just going to have to go to L.A. because none of the suburbs are going to have emergency, day-to-day shelters.”
He calls several agencies, including LAHSA, to inquire about shelter, both short-term and more permanent — whatever he can get. He leaves messages and has brief exchanges with the people who answer the phone.
“If I can get long-term housing in a shelter, I can get a job because I can work,” he says between calls.
Around noon, two Torrance police officers pull up in the alleyway next to where Truelove is lying. They walk over and ask him to move along, explaining that a nearby business owner had called to report a man sleeping behind his store.
As the officers talk with Truelove, another uniformed man arrives. He identifies himself as Officer Craft, a homeless liaison for the Torrance Police Department. He declines to provide more than the first initial of his first name, J.
“How you doing, brother?”
“I’m looking for some kind of emergency shelter right now.”
“I don’t know of anything specific in Torrance, but we do have a housing navigator named Valerie.”
Craft steps away and calls Valerie Hernandez. She shows up a few minutes later and asks Truelove where he’s been sleeping, how long he’s been homeless, what brings him to Torrance.
“Do you want to go back to Virginia?”
“No, I came out to California because I have some things I want to do out here and I just want to live in California.”
“You’re open to anything?”
Hernandez calls a shelter in West Athens, but all of its beds are full.
As she’s looking up the number for another shelter, she tells Truelove that “if they don’t have a bed available, then I can see what else I can do with maybe, like, a motel voucher.”
She leaves a voicemail then departs. She’ll be back, she says, around 2 p.m. with an update. When she returns, she’s still waiting for the second shelter to get back to her. She and Truelove speak for a moment, and he mentions his communications with LAHSA, telling her the city-county agency had helped him try to find housing. Hernandez’s tone abruptly hardens.
“You can only work with one homeless services provider at a time,” she says. “If you’re working with LAHSA already, you can’t work with us, too.”
Truelove protests and asks why he’s being penalized for being proactive in his efforts to get housed. She gives him some advice.
“There are no beds available in L.A. County, and that’s why I said you should look into going back to Virginia and seeing if there’s a bed available there,” she tells him. Then she drives away.
He takes his smelly clothes to a laundromat on Hawthorne Boulevard, then steps outside to smoke while he waits to transfer them to the dryer. Next stop, a nearby public pool, where the $4 entry fee gets him a hot shower.
Top of mind for Truelove this morning had been clean clothes, a shower and a room. He accomplished the first two for about $10. Shelter is a taller order.
His day ends once again in the now-empty lot off Hawthorne.
Day 40 in California:
Thursday, May 25, 2023
Truelove wakes up around 10 a.m. Thursday, packs up his few belongings, and heads out from his parking lot berth for what he expects to be the last time.
Yesterday, Truelove had received a callback from a man at the Union Rescue Mission, where he’d left a voicemail the day before. If he shows up at the shelter this morning, the man said, there will be a cot waiting for him. If he follows the house rules, Truelove can stay there for a month for free, after which it costs $150 per month.
The oldest rescue mission in L.A. and one of the largest in the U.S., Union provides shelter beds and meals to hundreds of people each day in the heart of Skid Row. Truelove still hopes to find a tiny house eventually, but a cot in this shelter is better than sleeping outdoors.
The scene on Skid Row is far different from what he’s used to in Virginia and Torrance. A man is openly using fentanyl a couple of blocks from the shelter, burning flecks of the deadly substance on a crinkled piece of foil and inhaling the fumes through a plastic straw.
Tents line the sidewalks, and trash spills into the streets. As he nears his destination, the mission looms large over an urban landscape strewn with the detritus of people without homes.
Several men sit on worn chairs outside the mission, passing a joint and chatting up passersby when Truelove arrives a few minutes before noon. He maneuvers between them and passes through the heavy metal-and-glass doors into the stark lobby.
“I got called by a guy yesterday,” Truelove tells the woman working the office window. “He told me that if I come in the morning, they’ve got a cot on the first floor for me.”
“You should’ve got a name. What you need to do is call him back,” she says. But the number the man gave Truelove is the mission’s central phone line.
Ten minutes later, Margaret White appears and identifies herself as a lead case manager at the mission. “There’s nothing I can do for you because I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she tells him. Truelove again describes the call he received yesterday from the man who said there would be a cot waiting for him.
“We don’t work that way at Union Rescue Mission,” White says. “You have to go through me, and I never got any calls about you.”
Truelove starts to plead his case. White cuts him off mid-sentence.
“Sir, instead of wasting your time here, there’s a mission there, there’s a mission around the corner and there’s a mission on the corner over there.”
“But I’m not going to be able to get a bed or a cot or anything. How am I going to get a bed or a cot there when I haven’t applied?”
“I don’t know.”
Day 46 in California:
Wednesday, May 31, 2023
A little before 1 p.m., Truelove is hunched over in his usual spot at the 76 station, demoralized by his lack of progress toward getting housed. He’s hungry and his spine aches. The tedium of living rough is getting to him. The only way he’ll find shelter in the near term, he’s realizing, is if he pursues it on his own.
Today’s first call is to the central LAHSA line. He finally gets a callback around 3:15 p.m., from an employee who identifies herself only as Carmen.
“We were trying to find out if I had gotten into any of the shelters I was on the waiting list for,” Truelove tells her.
“It looks like that referral is still pending,” Carmen says after a brief hold. “There is no match. You can try calling 211 also.”
Truelove hasn’t previously called the 211 help line, assuming he didn’t need to because he was already on LAHSA’s radar and working with Harbor Interfaith. But he decides to take Carmen’s advice and calls the county’s services hotline for the first time. A man who gives his name as Byron answers and takes down Truelove’s information.
“Right now we have two resources available.”
“So they have beds available?”
“You’ll have to call to find out. It changes minute to minute as people go in and out.”
Truelove calls both shelters. The woman who picks up the phone at the first, Skid Row’s famous Midnight Mission, declines to give her name.
“Do you have any beds at this time?”
“No, unfortunately we’re full at this time.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure, but you can call and see.”
The man who picks up at the other shelter says it serves only younger adults. But he provides phone numbers for four shelters across L.A. County he says may have space, one each in Glendale, Pasadena, North Hollywood and Wilmington.
Truelove calls each of them in that order. The first two aren’t any help. He gets a busy signal from the shelter in North Hollywood and discovers with a Google search that it’s permanently closed. So he’s not expecting much when he dials the Beacon Light Mission in Wilmington just before 4 p.m. The woman who picks up the phone declines to say her name.
“Do you have any beds open?” Truelove asks her.
“You’ll have to call tomorrow. Call as early as 8:30 and see if there’s any beds available,” she replies. “It’s first-come, first-served.”
Day 47 in California:
Thursday, June 1, 2023
Truelove gets to Beacon Light five minutes before 9 a.m. He had called the nonprofit shelter when it opened, and a man named Steve had informed him there were “a few beds” available.
A tall metal sign with the words “Jesus Saves” runs down one corner of the facility, which has two doors, one for the women’s side and one for the men’s. Steve Cope, the volunteer he had spoken to earlier, lets him in just after 9 a.m. Cope asks if he’s prescribed any psych meds, and Truelove says no.
“There’s only a few requirements here, and it’s good for 14 days,” Cope says.
Cope asks Truelove if he wants coffee and fetches a small paper cupful before asking about his living situation.
“Where were you at, over in Torrance?”
“Were you camped out?”
Truelove sits at a folding table in a small sunlit entry room, waiting for Cope to let him into the shelter, which isn’t admitting new people for another hour. He leafs through a paperback copy of “Chocolate for a Woman’s Heart” from a nearby bookshelf.
Truelove’s face is dirty and sweat-streaked. His dark hair is matted, and his clothes are covered in black stains from literally living on the street. He’s tired, and the daily monotony is kicking in. So is the frustration that it took him so long to find out about this shelter.
“It didn’t seem like there was that much help, ultimately,” he says. “I did think it was going to be a little easier just to get a bed.”
A few minutes past 10 a.m., Cope gives Truelove the tour. There’s the dorm, where he’ll sleep tonight in a bed with fresh sheets and a pillow in a clean, windowless room with 14 other beds for homeless men. There’s the cafeteria, where earlier this morning the kitchen served egg sandwiches and oatmeal with fresh berries.
He’s got a locker and some new things to put in it: a bottle of pink shampoo, razor and shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant. He’s required to take a shower before settling in on his first day, after which he’ll put on the clean socks, T-shirt, khakis, sweatshirt and shoes he’s given for free from the shelter’s clothing pantry.
Truelove can stay at the Beacon Light for the next two weeks free of charge, if he follows the rules. He must wake up early and leave the property for most of the day, preferably to seek housing or employment. Then he has his evening commitments. He’s required to be back by 7 p.m. to attend chapel, followed by dinner, then lights out at 10.
In another small office, a brusque woman named Helen who handles intake at Beacon Light asks Truelove questions to assess his medical condition and mental health. He tells her he’s obese, that he has suffered from PTSD in the past and that he doesn’t have a primary doctor. He says he’s white, he turns 38 in three days and his eyes are green.
“How long have you been homeless?” she asks.
“I got out of prison in April 2021, and I haven’t had a set residence ever since,” Truelove responds.
She asks him about his criminal history, and he tells her about his conviction in Virginia nearly a decade ago for the felony of “shooting at or throwing missiles” — in his case, he tells her, a traffic cone — at a moving vehicle. He doesn’t mention the rest of his rap sheet. Helen asks about his plans for the future.
“What are three goals you have?”
“Get into a stable shelter, get a job, and get a car.”
Twenty minutes later, he’s assigned bed No. 8.
“You’re in the best place, man,” says James Turner, another worker at the mission. “You want to be in a quiet, restful place where you can get access to some of the services you need.”
Truelove is largely silent, staring straight ahead from one of the two rigid plastic chairs shoved between his bed and the next bed over. New arrivals are allowed to sleep through the afternoon on the day they come in, Turner tells him.
“Thanks, man,” Truelove says before heading to the bathroom for a shower. It’s his first time bathing in nine days.
Day 53 in California
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
Truelove makes it less than a week at Beacon Light. Shortly after 10:30 a.m., Laura Scotvold-Lemp, the mission’s executive director, says Truelove is being discharged early. He had repeatedly broken the in-house rules, she says, and a worker claimed to have found methamphetamine under his bed. Truelove vehemently denies the accusation.
“Even if I did drugs, I would never leave drugs in the shelter,” he tells an employee on his way out of the mission. “I’m not stupid, and I’ve never done meth.”
Truelove had already been chafing against the rules, especially the required hour of chapel each evening. Scotvold-Lemp said he didn’t follow directions well and that he had been caught in the kitchen in the middle of the night.
But Truelove is resilient. He knew all along there was a two-week limit on his time at Beacon Light. After a brief period of anger and frustration, he calls a man named Kevin from Harbor Interfaith whom he had met earlier in the week. Kevin tells Truelove there will be a bed for him at the city’s A Bridge Home Shelter in San Pedro if he gets there by 9 a.m. on June 9.
Day 55 in California
Friday, June 9, 2023
Truelove sleeps on the street for two nights, then shows up at the facility near the Port of Los Angeles with his tiny bag in hand. A kind-faced woman named Alexia Ramirez guides him through the intake process and gives him a tour of the shelter.
She shows Truelove the kitchen, smoking area, laundry room and showers. The dorm is a vast open space with dozens of makeshift bedrooms separated by gray office-style cubicle walls. Each resident gets a bed, mattress and metal cabinet.
Truelove picks bed No. 54. He sets down his things in his new home, where he can stay for 90 days for free, potentially longer if he meets certain requirements.
Again, he doesn’t even make it a week.
Day 59 in California
Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Just four days after his arrival at the San Pedro shelter, he’s back on the street. He says he was kicked out for telling an employee he wants to kill the people who hurt him during his youth. He doesn’t go into detail about what these unnamed people did to him, but he’s said previously that his PTSD and mood disorder have their roots in that dark period of his early life.
“That shelter was really great, but I had to learn a really important lesson,” he says.
“Any shelter I go to, I have to warn every member of the staff and plenty of people who stay there that every day I’m going to have several episodes where I bite my fist and sound irritated to myself. But they don’t need to approach me during these episodes, and I’m not schizophrenic or delusional; this is post-traumatic stress disorder from lots of people who have hurt me in my life.”
Day 60 in California
Wednesday, June 14, 2023
After a night on the street in downtown L.A., Truelove takes a Metro train and a bus back to Torrance.
His cellular plan has lapsed so he can’t make phone calls, and he’s down to about $20 worth of food stamps until July 1. He’s taken to smoking cheap Swisher Sweets cigars instead of cigarettes to extend what little cash he’s able to scrape together.
Truelove says he’s looking forward to the long-awaited decision about whether he’s eligible for disability benefits, and that in the meantime, he’s hoping to find a new place to stay.
“It sucks because I liked that shelter in San Pedro. I had no major complaints,” he says. “Now I’m back here again.”
For the next three weeks, Truelove sleeps in the parking lot off Hawthorne Boulevard, spending most of his days outside the 7-Eleven, where patrons sometimes give him food or a couple of bucks. Someone at the thrift store around the corner gives him a new T-shirt for free.
There’s drama in the street. A woman named Susan has taken to yelling in front of the 7-Eleven, drawing unwanted attention. Early one morning, a man threatens Truelove with a knife.
Spooked, Truelove spends the next couple of nights in a nearby abandoned building. He goes back to sleeping in the strip mall parking lot after learning the man has been arrested and is in jail.
Carol, his half-sister, has started giving him about $20 a day to keep him fed while he awaits his disability benefits decision, which he’s been pursuing since May.
But it’s the most personal needs that are front of mind for Truelove as the summer drags on.
A roof over his head. Clean clothes. Soap and water.
“I haven’t taken a shower or changed these shorts in a long time.”