Dedicated to the Stories Behind Forgotten Faces
Hearing or seeing the word “homeless” is often accompanied by negative comments on how the homeless inconvenience the rest of the world. When we hear the word in a positive light, it’s surrounded by empty promises and plans to improve the lives of these individuals. While many write the homeless off as down for the count, one must stop and consider the lives they lived before ending up where they are now.
20-year-old Joey Lopez Jr., homeless for the last three years of his life, wasn’t always down for the count, older brother Kristopher Tassin says. “He was a clown. He was a funny, happy little kid.” Last November, after he stumbled into the street trying to recover items he had dropped, Joey was tragically killed in a hit and run accident near a busy freeway onramp in Palmdale. Two cars managed to swerve out of the way, but a third struck and killed Joey. At 20 years old, most would say there was still an entire lifetime to live, but would the same message ring true for Joey, who was homeless and addicted?
Society tends to lose compassion when it comes to the homeless. In January of 2020, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Association counted a 66,643 homeless population in LA County, up 14.3% from January 2019, which was 58,936. Countless campaigns have been launched to help the homeless population here in Southern California, one being the tiny homes initiative funded and built by the city of Los Angeles. However, these tiny homes cannot catch up to the growing population of homeless people, which forces them to make do with what they got — usually reflected in the ever-growing tent cities spread across the metropolitan areas in California. Joey was no exception, but that wasn’t always the case.
Kristopher, 35, found himself between a rock and a hard place back when he was 17. Being the oldest of three brothers with a disabled mother and no father figure in sight, Kristopher had to step up when they were notified of Joey’s situation. Kristopher’s mom, Kris Tassin, adopted Joey at six months old after his biological mother became addicted to drugs and his father was stuck behind bars. “Our family was in the best position to take him. So we took him in. Mom decided to start the adoption process and all of that. I ended up becoming a father figure to Joe.” He took this role extremely seriously, especially with Joey being the youngest of the siblings and subsequently the biggest handful. “Joey had trouble in school growing up. He had ADHD. We’d always get calls from school… I tried to help him with his neglect because he always felt like an outcast. He was our cousin technically but, we never saw him that way. He was our brother, every one of us called him our brother. It was never anything different. He always felt like some part of him was missing.”
That feeling of not belonging would be something that plagued Joey for most of his later years. The Tassin family never kept his real parents from him, fearing Joey would grow up with contempt for them. When Joey’s biological mom passed away, the Tassin family tried to keep Joey’s biological father involved in his life but found it a more difficult task than it should have been.
Joey’s dad would come in and out of his life as he pleased. when Joey was extremely vulnerable. Kristopher said Joey’s mental health only declined from there. Kristopher noticed Joey’s shift in his mental attitude toward the world when he’d introduced friends to his mom, Kris Tassin. “On first introductions, he’d say my real mom is dead, and my real dad is probably in jail. He’d always say that this is my mom (Kris Tassin) but not my real mom.” Kris did the best she could to try and make Joey feel at home and fought tooth and nail for him right up until the end. Eventually, Kristopher noticed Joey’s mentality had shifted to a point where it had affected him as a student.
Joey started skipping school. When he would show up at school, the family would get calls about fights. When he would show up at school and not fight, he’d refuse to come home. For Kristopher and his mother, the calls went from surprising to expected. Eventually, the discipline would come, which included confiscating Joey’s video games until he made a turn for the better in his academic ventures. Kristopher didn’t know it at the time, but this one small, seemingly correct action of punishing unwanted behavior, would cause the family to go down a long winding road of despair. “He went to school the next day and told his teacher he didn’t want to live on earth anymore after I confiscated his video games. That’s when CPS (Child Protective Services) came into our life.”
Child Protective Services would later conduct an extensive search of the Tassin home to see if they could care for Joey. Kris Tassin maintains by saying Joey had a bed, a room, food in the pantry, and toys to play with. However, it was what CPS found in a medicine cabinet that caused the Tassin family to lose custody: a pipe with marijuana. “Joey went up (in court) and told them that everything he said initially was fake. That he was mad that we took away his game system. After 2–3 months, CPS came and took him away. They never gave him back to my mother. She went through parenting classes, weekly drug testing, everything, and they never once gave him back.” The Tassin family had to wait for Joey to turn 18 before he could return home, but for Joey’s sake, it was too long. Joey was placed into a group home with others his age at 15. The boys would fight constantly, and it was a negative environment, Kristopher asserted. This was reinforced by Joey himself, who constantly ran away from the group home to return home. Did CPS ever come looking for him? “Every once in a while, the social worker would call us and be like, ‘Oh hey Joey ran away two weeks ago. Have you heard from him?’ It was delayed. They wouldn’t even keep tabs on them.”
After months of pleading their case with Child Protective Services, Joey would be placed with his Father out in Desert Hot Springs, CA— roughly 120 miles away from the family’s home in Palmdale. “He enrolled in school down there, but the household was messed up. Gang lifestyle, drugs, guns, people kicking the door in trying to see what’s up. He’d tell me stories all the time about things like this. He started fighting with his dad, standing up to his dad, and that’s when he started using drugs.” The one thing that brought Joey solace was this escape from drowning out the noise, the pain, and everything he thought he couldn’t live up to. He had found his vice — and that vice had found him. Joey was only 17 and knew that if he returned home with his family, they’d require him to go into rehab. Eventually, he became homeless and lost contact with Kristopher and his family for two years.
The Tassin family was desperate to find him, especially after his 18th birthday when they knew he could return home with no repercussions. Even after two years, the family never lost hope. Then, one day, Kristopher was stuck in traffic trying to get into an In-N-Out burger when a man on the sidewalk caught his attention. He immediately recognized him as Joey. He was dirty, tattooed, and out of it, but Kristopher knew it was his younger brother. “I told him we’d been looking for him for a long time, but you could tell he was high. You could tell he was gone and had been using it for a long time. You could tell being homeless really hurt him, but we were looking all this time for him.”
The pair drove home to see their mother, and after an emotional reunion, Kristopher noticed the extent of how far gone Joey was. “He pulls out a meth pipe in the room, and mom snatches it from him, pressing him about that, and you could tell it shocked him. He apologized right away. It was this shock factor of ‘wow, they still care,’ you know? You could tell.” It’s something when you find out you haven’t been forgotten in a world where ownership and class speak louder than our humanity.
Joey, a statistic in LA County’s eyes, was once a bright-eyed kid looking to take the world by storm. He didn’t wake up and decide to be homeless — a system failed him. Joey would ask Kristopher to return him to the homeless camp near an onramp because he had a girlfriend there. Knowing he couldn’t keep him against his will, Kristopher obliged, and that would be the last time he saw his little brother alive. Kristopher returned to the camp a few days later to try and convince Joey to come home and start fresh. The only issue? The city of Palmdale cleaned up the camp, and its inhabitants were forced to live elsewhere. Three months later, the Tassin family would be notified of Joey’s untimely death, which Kristopher still ponders to this day. “I think back… I could have done more. It should have been me. I should have had custody of him because he would not have ended up on the streets, you know? He would have had a different path.”
This statement echoes true for us all. We are all two or three bad strokes of luck away from ending up in a similar position to Joey and the countless other homeless people around the globe. Is this something to be solved overnight? Of course not. But before we decide to speak so rashly about human beings trying to climb out of deep holes, remember the stories behind the face that made them who they were, not who they currently are. Joey was loved deeply by his mother, Kris Tassin, and his four brothers — Kristopher, Kody, Kyle, and Patrick. For Kristopher, it’s the stories he prefers to remember when thinking of Joey and the happiness he brought to those around him. “We used to always go camping. He was always rapping, man. Especially Busta Rhymes’ verse on “Look At Me Now.” He loved drag races. He loved fishing.” Kristopher pauses a moment, then smiles. “And that’s Joey. That’s my little brother.”