By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Inside South Coast Plaza, a constant flow of eager December shoppers whisked by Bijan Gilani, who was seated at a café table and explaining to me a concept incongruent with the upscale commercial setting: how to live on $3 per day.
"Actually, I'm trying to live on $2 a day, but I haven't been able to do it," said Gilani, who paused and smilingly added, "yet."
Though he has been an artist (a sculptor and painter), businessman, boxer, philosopher, cook, actor, dog trainer, world traveler, honors student, limousine driver, bartender, African-art collector, and fitness trainer and remains a man guaranteed to liven up any party with genuine charisma, the Herculean, $3 daily feat isn't a stunt for Gilani.
It isn't even voluntary.
Incredibly, the onetime, self-made millionaire—who earned a doctorate from UC Irvine—is one of Orange County's homeless. He grew up in an ultra-wealthy Middle Eastern family, but now Gilani doesn't own a television, kitchen, bathroom or bed—unless you count a seat in his 4-foot-by-2.5-foot current residence: a green, 1997 Land Rover.
"I know it's hard to believe that is my home," he said. "But it's true."
If your image of a homeless person includes foul odors, disheveled appearances, scary rants and terrible addictions, Gilani shatters that stereotype. He dresses in old-but-neat clothes from shops such as Abercrombie & Fitch. He keeps his white hair and goatee finely groomed. The aforementioned SUV is spotless and uncluttered. His speech—delivered with the graceful English accent he acquired while attending a British boarding school—doesn't abruptly veer to the nonsensical. He fought in professional boxing matches decades ago, but he carries himself with a gentle confidence that exudes warmth. Jobless, he craves an income other than that of a small, monthly, government-assistance check, but he refuses to beg for pocket change.
In November, Gilani agreed to let an Irvine church pay for a repair to his SUV only if he could perform sweat-producing tasks in return. "I'll work for money," said a physically fit Gilani, who'll turn 59 years old on Christmas Day. "I'll earn it. But I won't just take it. That's important to me."
How can he survive on a few bucks per day?
"You've got to be creative," he replied. "I shop at discount stores and buy items such as lettuce, fresh beans, bread and peanut butter. I make salads with vinegar, tomatoes and some salt. Sure, my diet gets boring."
In typical Gilani fashion, he laughs and says, "I've never dug into the trash!"
He has three relative luxuries besides his SUV: a low-end cell phone, a gym membership and his cherished, free admittance to the Newport Beach Public Library.
Said Gilani, "I realize people have it a lot worse."
In this dismal economy, tales of homelessness are standard fare in the mainstream media. Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard wrote a groundbreaking 2010 series about life on the infamous Skid Row, but I don't recall him encountering a character who resembles Gilani. Yet, as fascinating as he is, his saga might not have prompted attention without a stunning irony.
In 2003, Gilani wrote his doctor of philosophy dissertation at UCI on . . . drum roll . . . homelessness. The thoughtful, 148-page paper titled "The Emergence of Resistant Poverty and the Perception of Low Self-Efficacy" called for new strategies to tackle homelessness based on raising emotional stability and heightened self-reliance.
Just five years later, Gilani would lose his gorgeous, multimillion-dollar Pasadena home during the national housing crash—an event that happened simultaneously with his own credit-card blunders.
"I always had money," he recalled. "Then, all of a sudden, I didn't have enough money to feed my dog. . . . I take responsibility."
Gilani ended up sleeping on rough Los Angeles streets, finding himself emotionally lost and, for a time, determined to find answers inside vodka bottles. But before his own collapse, he'd studied homelessness up close.
"I did what I had to do to get to the meat of the matter," said Gilani. "I wanted to know why people fall into homelessness and what makes them resistant to change. Even when they are offered help, they won't take it. Why? It became real personal to me."
He spent many nights befriending members of this underclass, learning about their individual issues and trying to understand the struggles. "At one point, I collected knowledge about homelessness," Gilani told me. "Knowledge is fact-based. Understanding is experience-based. Now, I understand."
Not surprisingly, some of his experiences have been disturbing. An angry homeless man with territorial sensibilities assaulted him one night on Pacific Coast Highway. He has encountered women willing to do anything—I'll skip disturbing details—for a beer, as well as fearless gutter rodents and machine-gun fire from deranged Asian hoodlums aiming for someone else. He has also discovered good people who've been discarded by society because of perceived handicaps such as a speech impediment or physical abnormality.
"It's very sad," he said. "It doesn't have to be like this. These people have value."
In his scholastic Ph.D. endeavors, he discovered a consistent trait among the homeless. "It didn't matter whether they were male or female, from rich or poor backgrounds, young or old, had become alcoholics or not, if they'd been abused or not," said Gilani. "The one thing everyone had in common was they'd grown up emotionally distant from their parents."
And that observation led him to a conclusion: "Something bad happens in these people's lives, and they gave up," said Gilani. "That something wouldn't bother the average person, but these people can't go on. There is a misconception that they blame the government. They actually blame themselves. They know the steps out of homelessness, but they think they can't do it."
There is related stress in Gilani's life.
"My close friends have abandoned me," he said.
Gilani is also frustrated by excuses employers give before dismissing his applications: He's too old or too educated or too skilled. That rejection has caused him to occasionally fear "deep down darkness"—submitting to the belief that he, too, is hopelessly trapped. A doctor prescribed medication to treat depression, but he doesn't take it because he hates the way it takes the life out of him. Instead, to help him keep confidence, he has a ritual.
"Every morning, I remind myself who I am," Gilani said. "I can write. I can think. I'm educated. I'm a moral person. I like being around people. I'm adaptable, humble, and I love to laugh."
Ironically, that optimism prompts suspicions.
"One of my old friends asked me not too long ago, 'Bijan, maybe you like this life subconsciously?'" he recalled. "No, I know that someday this will change for me. I want to work; I'd be a huge asset to someone's business. All I need is a chance."
This column appeared in print as "Give This Incredible Man a Job: Meet Bijan Gilani, Orange County's most brilliant, classiest homeless person."