My neighbor's RV was his home. When someone drove away with it, a grim situation turned dire

Illustration of an RV parked on the side of a street with houses and flowering bushes beside.
(Gwen Huerta/For The Times)

No Citizen alert went off when someone drove off with my neighbor’s home on the morning of Oct. 31.

He lived in a house around the corner for 59 years, remaining as the caretaker after his parents passed and his nine siblings moved. About a year ago, he was outvoted when they decided to put the family house up for sale. In trendy Frogtown, by the Los Angeles River, the property was snapped up. There wasn’t much left for each of the large brood after dividing the proceeds.

Not knowing where else to go, the man took his share, got himself an old RV and parked it on the street, steps away from his former yard, under the shade of familiar trees. Some neighbors complained. Others continued to look out for the guy — discreet in their kindness because the man is proud and doesn’t want charity.

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On Halloween morning, the man went in person to the nearest police station and reported his stolen vehicle. I worried they'd see him as a lowlife rather than a man who had lost everything and who needed their help to get it back, that they would have other priorities.

In 2022 there were an estimated 7,200 RVs being used for shelter in Los Angeles (with around 11,500 people living in them), according to the L.A. Homeless Count. Finding my neighbor’s RV somewhere in this sprawling city would truly be like looking for a needle in a haystack, and that’s if its license and color and markings were intact. Impossible, if it had been disguised or picked clean like an old chicken carcass.

In the year that he’s been living in his mobile home, my neighbor has aged considerably. Hair gone whiter, furrows and creases deepened. But he has had a modicum of stability, quietly surviving by doing odd jobs and finding solace by fishing in the river, a pastime from childhood. Whenever he has extra of anything, he gives it away. He’s too kind, too trusting, too generous, and people will take advantage.

Which is what happened. At a gas station the man saw a shivering woman in her late 20s with pleading hazel eyes. He offered her a place to rest. Before you judge, it’s vague what happened except for this: The woman stayed in his camper for a few days. When the man came back from running some errands on Halloween, he found the RV gone. A neighbor’s security camera captured someone being let in shortly before the camper rolled out of view.

Read more: Houseless but not homeless in Frogtown

In another life, I was in the news photography business. For years a steady stream of raw images flooded my computer screen day after day. Photos of people losing their homes in wars or natural disasters or some other catastrophic event. But the horror the photos captured, while very real I knew, was abstract to me. I have no experience of what it’s like to have your home disappear in an instant.

The man raged, to anyone who would listen. His uncertain future was amplified now by early darkness, colder weather and reminders of the coming holidays. A few nights of cheap motels, couch surfing and sleeping in the pickup truck he'd always had could only be short-term solutions. Everything seemed tenuous.

Despite all of this, the man stopped by with some homemade tamales made by his sister and some food for his cat, now living with me, and who runs over at the sound of his voice.

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The next time I saw him he was with an old friend — another man with wild times in his past. They were working on a plan to take matters into their own hands, to track down the thief and force the return of the RV. We chatted and fed some house flies to a large praying mantis perched on the branch of a trumpet flower shrub. The cat wove around our legs as the insect chomped away, a picture of raw savagery. When they left, I worried about the vigilante activity they were considering.

But there was no need for a shakedown. The police found the RV in a tow yard in City of Industry, intact except for a broken window and a couple of flat tires. A few tools were missing, but the rest of the man's personal things were still there. I blew a kiss at the police station as I drove by on my way to the grocery store.

Ordinarily, an old RV parked on a residential street is not a welcome sight, but I’m glad to see this one back at its old spot, and relieved that the man, whose neighborhood this is, has some respite from day-to-day survival. In our small corner of Los Angeles, that’s a bit of good news.

Nancy Glowinski was global head of photography for Reuters.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.