Paul Jacobsen is all too easy to overlook. Sitting at a bus stop on Sunset and Alvarado, his frayed, beige hat hangs low over the square glasses covering his eyes. At 62, he ambles along with the slower gait of a much older man. On this late September day, the people getting on and off the Metro 603 bus at the busy intersection — not far from where Jacobsen has pitched a tent on a stretch of sidewalk near an Echo Park strip mall — seldom give him a second glance.
Until, that is, he takes a harmonica from his pocket and begins to play. Then, he’s impossible to miss.
There are so very many homeless people in Los Angeles right now — some 66,000, at last count — it’s sometimes difficult to pause for a moment and look at them as the individual souls that they are, each with their own dramas and personal histories and triumphs and, more often, tragedies that landed them without shelter. But when Jacobsen hums into his instrument, peeling out sounds so heart-achingly doleful they stop you in your tracks, you can’t help but wonder who this man might be.
As it happens, this man once played the blues with BB King.
“I was just looking for a gig and one of his backups told me they had an opening,” Jacobsen recalled of the day back in 1978 when he was a 19-year-old musician in San Francisco and found himself on stage at the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park, jamming with one of the greatest bluesmen in music history, then partying all night long afterward. “I danced with the backup singers,” he said with a grin. “They couldn’t get enough of me.”
How Jacobsen went from there to here in the decades between then and now is a long and sometimes wrenching story. He was born in New York, taking his surname from his mother as he said his father was neglectful and involved in organized crime. As a teen, he made his way out West, taking various odd jobs until he eventually reached Oregon and worked for a time as a forest ranger. Then he headed south to the Bay area, where he learned to play the harmonica and guitar and scratched out a living as a session musician.
There’s no telling if that big show with King could have led to a bigger career in music — Jacobsen said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about what could have been. But he stuck around the Bay area, anyway, raising a daughter and paying the rent with handyman jobs. Eventually, when the handyman jobs started disappearing, the rent money dried up, too.
“He had help from a family friend who owned a housing unit and let him stay in one of the apartments at a reduced rate,” said Michelle Tonn, an Echo Park homeless volunteer whose been in contact with PJ — as everybody calls him — for several years. “But when that friend died and his family sold the unit, the new landlord evicted him.”
Eventually, Jacobsen made his way to L.A., 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 else to turn. “It’s the best thing I got,” Jacobsen said of his nylon home. “Folds up easily, sturdy against the sun and rain and keeps the sap from the trees dripping all over my things.”
The word “Hollywood” can refer to different things. It can refer to the multitrillion-dollar entertainment industry that calls Los Angeles home. Or it can refer to Hollywood, the geographic location in the city where soundstages and studio backlots line the same streets where thousands of unhoused Angelenos have set up homeless encampments with nowhere else to go.
At times, it can feel like these two Hollywoods are siloed off; a world of showbiz and celebrity apart from one of poverty and suffering. But a closer look shows that some workers in the industry are trying to show a little Christmas spirit year-round.
Take Adam Conover, a writer and comedian who spends a good chunk of his free time volunteering for the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, a local group that provides food, water, hygiene kits and other items to people without homes. Conover started volunteering while working on the TV sitcom “Adam Ruins Everything,” whsose writers’ room was right across the street from a homeless encampment. He recalled watching as he drove to work in the morning as police and sanitation workers periodically attempted to sweep the homeless away.
“Tents were being thrown into garbage trucks along with all the belongings of the people who lived in them,” Conover said. “I decided that I just wasn’t willing to stand by and do nothing while driving by all these people that needed help.”
Conover is hardly the only member of the entertainment industry who has made helping the homeless a personal priority. According to Janet Kim, one of SELAH’s co-founders, there are scores of TV writers and comics volunteering their time to her organization, as well as dozens of others volunteering for groups like the Hollywood Food Coalition, which picks up unused food from film and TV productions and delivers it to shelters and encampments.
But when it comes to the big names and institutions in Hollywood, there’s very little involvement in addressing this crisis… with one notable exception. This past summer, DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg made headlines in the Los Angeles Times by meeting with aides of Mayor Eric Garcetti as well as several L.A. City Council members to discuss the city’s homelessness crisis.
Some aides who spoke to the Times said the meetings were largely intended for Katzenberg to learn about the nuances of the issue and to ask about how more resources could be delivered. But one official told the Times that the conversation “quickly turned to ‘tents down.’” while another said Katzenberg mostly wanted to discuss dispersing the encampments on sidewalks near schools and parks. Katzenberg declined to comment for this story.
In any event, as the crisis in L.A. continues to worsen, public pressure to “solve” the problem grows ever more intense. On July 28, just a few weeks after the meetings with Katzenberg, the City Council voted nearly unanimously to approve enforcement of Municipal Code Section 41.18, which makes it illegal to sleep in public areas. Meanwhile, Councilman Joe Buscaino has made enforcement of that ordinance a major pillar of his 2022 mayoral campaign and is spearheading a ballot measure, “Safer and Cleaner L.A.,” which would prohibit unhoused residents from camping on sidewalks if they refuse available space in shelters.
All of which is potentially very bad news for unhoused people like Jacobsen, who said he distrusts shelters and sees them as unsafe, overcrowded and prone to lump together people with mental health and addiction problems with those just looking for a place to sleep. “I’ve got this spot,” Jacobsen said, nodding towards his tent. “I don’t bother anyone and I try to make sure people aren’t bothered [by anyone else]. I don’t want to give that up for a loud, dirty shelter with a bunch of tweakers.”
For the time being, PJ’s tent is still standing. And as he’s done for most of his life, he’s taking things one day at a time. A few weeks after that first encounter at Sunset and Alvarado, he could be found at the Echo Park Methodist Church, a block or two down the street, making use of a mobile shower and picking up a fresh bag of clothes. He sat for a spell and took 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 hello as he passed by.
“He’s one of the guys that I do jam sessions with at Echo Park,” Jacobsen said. “We haven’t been able to do it for a while but maybe we’ll get another chance soon.”
For a man with so few resources, whom most people hardly notice as they walk or drive past him on the street, Jacobsen seems remarkably, almost superhumanly sanguine. “It takes a very long time to be at peace with yourself,” he said with a small but peaceful smile. “We get so busy with stuff but we never sit down and ask ourselves, are we happy? Happy with who we are? Happy with what we are doing in this world?”
Then he played his harmonica some more.
If you want to get involved, consider a donation to one of the L.A.-based nonprofits addressing the needs of L.A.’s unhoused populations, such as Everyone Deserves a Roof, the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, the Hollywood Food Coalition or Echo Park Methodist Church.