A woman looks down at a man leaning against her from the sidewalk amidst an unhoused community.

Why I fell in love with Skid Row

On a Wednesday in April, armed with my camera, a notebook full of questions and a vague idea about reporting on the area amidst the Coronavirus era, I strolled into Skid Row like a tourist in a foreign country.

It wasn’t all that smooth. I hadn’t yet make connections, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I stayed only a couple of hours — until just before dark — and managed to be the recipient of a couple death threats before then.

But a seed had been planted, too. On that first day, I met both Shorty and Blue, the two individuals I’d develop the closest relationships with, months later.

Something about those first hours lured me in. I started to return every week, then twice a week, then three times.

Day after day, the notebook slid into my backpack for longer stretches. I was no longer reporting all the time, I was just there. Skid Row was good for storytelling, for compelling photography, for a different kind of reporting. But it was also where the excitement was, where new friends were, where my mind expanded. It was, frankly, where I wanted to be.

Eventually I decided to stay the night, just to see what it was like — borrowing an extra tent and camping out on the sidewalk alongside my new community. Those wee hours were difficult in a lot of ways; filled with drama, noise and gunshots. But soon I stayed over again, and again, entranced not just by seeing a new world but by being in it, and discovering so much about life and myself and what’s really important along the way.

To someone who has only abruptly passed through or heard of Skid Row in the broad — overwhelmingly negative — media strokes in which it’s usually painted, this might seem confusing. Isn’t Skid Row the place people arrive when they have nowhere else to go? Isn’t it some place that everyone is trying to get out of, desperate not to be?

My friend Joey, who graciously housed me the rest of the time I was in LA (since then, I’ve spent a couple weeks in North Carolina, a couple weeks in Missouri and am now road tripping east) came along with me on several occasions and experienced the uniqueness of Skid Row for himself.

Still, one night back in Santa Monica, when I just got back from The Row — as its often called locally — he posed the question.

It’s clear this isn’t just a “job” you’ve given yourself, he acknowledged. “You love it there. What makes you love it so much?”

Police weapons out during Skid Row arrest of unarmed man

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Frankly, this could have gone way worse. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ A lot of arrests in #SkidRow look like this: extreme cop presence, weapons out, instant aggression despite that nothing violent was happening. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Many of those arrested have mental health and/or disabilities, as was the case here; situations which require extra care and alternative personnel but rarely receive either. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Then, as you see in the next video, the police turns to the crowd on the sidewalks — ostensibly folks who are in their own front yards — as if they are criminals too. ⁣⁣ ⁣ The man in the center, the brother of a friend’s wife, was arrested and unhurt when he was taken away. But the events that led to that detainment were once again way out of control.⁣ ⁣⁣ This system is broken and the police officers out there who agree need to drop their guns and join the cause that ACTUALLY matters. #defundthepolice

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CARES Act money changes lives for those fallen out of the system

Shorty hasn’t paid taxes in years, isn’t receiving any government assistance and doesn’t even have an ID. She’s not in the system; the government doesn’t even know she exists. Still, FINALLY, we managed to get her CARES Act check, and the result was life-changing.

Shorty has evacuated her sidewalk tent and is now living in her Nissan Pathfinder.

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Operation Get Shorty A Vehicle complete! 🥳😍🚘⁣ ⁣ By something close to a miracle, we were able to get Shorty her CARES Act check, despite the fact that she has fallen completely out of the system.⁣ ⁣ The result was life-changing. After Chase Bank helped us cash the check without Shorty having an ID, she was able to purchase a Nissan Pathfinder — her new home — from the tow lot. ⁣ ⁣ For Shorty, that solves a bunch of problems, first and foremost, her safety. It gets her off the sidewalk and under a roof. It gives her a mode of transportation. ⁣ ⁣ Now, we know that achieving that money for someone out of the system is POSSIBLE. What I want to know is: why is it so hard? Why aren’t there any institutions actively working to achieve this money for people in Shorty’s shoes? Why does the government feel it’s done it’s duty to simply make it available but put no resources in place to make sure it’s actually distributed. This is life-changing, and we need to do better! #skidrow #caresact

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Star Tribune op-ed: the picture of poverty in LA and El Salvador is not so different

We tend to think of a place like El Salvador as very different from the U.S. and its famously lauded cities. But my latest op-ed column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune examines the stark similarities in treatment of the very poor from one border to the next.

In many ways, the poverty evident in Skid Row, Los Angeles, is some of the world’s most egregious.

Read my column here.

The violent reality of Skid Row “evictions”

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A Skid Row tent went up in flames around midnight on Wednesday, catching flame to an apartment building at 5th and San Pedro (across from @stephanitelystyle and @kingsilas_is_kingpharaoh’s White House) in the process. ⁣ ⁣ Thanks to Pharoah’s quick work helping to move things around, no other tents were burned. That material snaps up sparks faster than firewood, but word on the street was that the fire wasn’t an accident. ⁣ ⁣ I’ve been told for two months that Skid Row, operating by its own laws and power structures, believes in policing its own, in part because every system of authority has failed them. Wednesday was further evidence of that. “He was messing up,” I was told. ⁣ ⁣ A bottle of lighter fluid later, the man had lost his home. According to those around, he thankfully was not in the tent at the time and no one was hurt. #skidrow #skidrowla #skidrowportraits #skidrowphotos #homelessnessawareness #homelesslivesmatter

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Shorty and Skid Row continue to teach me about white privilege

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Since I’ve been reporting in Skid Row, I’ve been working w/ Shorty to achieve the tools necessary to receive her rightful CARES Act check & change her situation.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ Homelessness is destructive in its ability to keep one on the treadmill; to plunder one’s energy and redirect it: toward immediate safety & possession protection, toward accessing food, water, a place to use the bathroom, a tarp to keep off the rain.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ But as I’ve witnessed, those aren’t the only challenges. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ Yesterday, when Shorty & I were doing errands — going to check her mail, attempting to sign her up for various programs, to retrieve an ID — I was well aware that I was getting a different response than she typically does, trying to execute these seemingly simple tasks alone. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ While waiting in line, she looked at me. “When I’m with you, suddenly doors are open,” she said.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ In my shame & embarrassment, I said something stupid: “There’s power in numbers,” But Shorty, ever sharp & perceptive, corrected me. “No,” she said, running a finger down the white skin of my arm. “It’s this.” ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ As Minneapolis and the country suffers yet another tragedy this week, mourning— to quote Ta-Nehisi Coates — the way that racism reduces to violence landing on the black body, I’ve been thinking about my time in Skid Row. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ There, as one of the few white people around, I operate under a completely different standard; held to a different set of rules, even if I don’t always recognize it in the moment — the very definition of privilege. When the cops roll through, they see me differently; friends have kidded about handing me their beers should trouble arise. It’s a joke, but it’s not.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ But my experiences w/ Shorty have reminded me, viscerally, that physical force isn’t the only violence that lands on the black body. That the systematic distrust, dismissal & rebuke of POCs serve to bring individuals down & keep them there. That doesn’t always equal death, but it certainly impacts life. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣ I am learning every day: to acknowledge my own privilege, to use it for change; to see my own failure to do so & all the ways I feed into this broken system. I promise to keep trying. ❤️

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Santa Monica police chief still has no answers, shifts blame five days after Sunday catastrophe

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Today, during a peaceful protest at Santa Monica, CA’s city hall, questions were lobbed at police chief Cynthia Renaud, who took the megaphone despite have stunningly little to say. ⁣ ⁣ Five days after Sunday’s catastrophe, in which police forces first open-fired with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters while designating woefully few resources to address the separately occurring looting and destruction, Renaud had the audacity to announce she was aware that “in some cities, in some states,” the police have shown racism and acted aggressively and wrongfully toward the civilian population. All the while, tank-like vehicles and officers garbed in military fatigues lined the perimeter of unarmed protesters. ⁣ ⁣ It was remarkable that she agreed to speak having clearly thought so little about what to say, and even more incredible to hear that she seems to believe the current movement against police brutality that is sweeping the nation has nothing to do with her innocent police force, which by the way, intentionally shot me in the foot with a rubber bullet on Sunday, along with many others, who fared much worse. She even had the nerve to bring a black officer to the center stage with her (though not allowing him to talk) as she declared “We are the Santa Monica police Dept. This is what we look like.” ⁣ ⁣ The crowd, booing loudly, was not entertained. Neither am I. If Sunday’s chaos didn’t prove ineptitude, her inability to apologize for the massive errors — or even recognize or reckon with them publicly — certainly did. 😤 #FireCynthiaRenaud #santamonicaprotest #defundthepolice #laprotest #santamonicapolice

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The state of policing: does “protect and serve” still apply?

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Yesterday in Santa Monica, as the protest we’d been a part of for hours continued peacefully, the police was pulling on gas masks.⁣ ⁣ Like everyone, I couldn’t help but watch them as they faced off with the people they’ve promised to serve and protect. Some of the cops pulled batons from their holsters, gripped their pellet guns as if just looking for a reason to shoot. Others seemed as though they were attempting to embody “neutral” amidst this dystopian show of militant antagonism. ⁣ ⁣ But if that was ever possible, it certainly no longer is.⁣ ⁣ I believe there are members of the police who are trying to be good humans. Some, when they signed up to be a cop, probably believed they were doing something good & helpful for society. Many probably never dreamed they’d be in a situation like yesterday; charged with shutting down peaceful protests, representing and protecting — rather than the community at large — fellow officers who have been exposed on camera breaking the law in horrendous ways.⁣ ⁣ But let’s be honest, this isn’t working. Police indoctrination is broken. The training model is broken. The procedure is broken. The values are broken. The culture is broken. Innocent black Americans are dying at a rate that should infuriate us all.⁣ ⁣ Now, part of an officer’s job includes tear gassing and shooting innocent, peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, as the police did yesterday, shortly after pulling on the masks. The pressure is higher than ever and yet I can’t believe we haven’t seen *more* officers step down right now. Are you all really OK with defending and validating this system?? Can you sleep at night??⁣ ⁣ If you are an officer who is trying to do good in the world, please don’t delude yourself into believing you can spur change from the inside; like a cancer, healing cannot come from within the very forces that created it; the immune system is too weak, the cancer is too strong. It takes something destructive, like chemotherapy, ravaging the entire system in hopes the cancer is rooted out, too.⁣ ⁣ It’s time to reconsider whether being a part of the police means protecting and serving as the oath says — or if it means the opposite.

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Peaceful Santa Monica protests, until law enforcement arrived

A community without walls: Skid Row’s tightly-knit nature sows conflict but reaps beauty

Live Inspired, in partnership with John Reamer and Associates •

Under the shade of the bulbous ficus trees that root this quiet neighborhood block, Pastor Blue glides from the white cargo van to the gas burner with rhythmic ease,  crooning to the Luke Combs’ tunes that stand in place of hymns this evening.

“It’s a match made up in heaven, like good ‘ol boys and beer,” Blue sings as he prepares Saturday supper.

“And me, as long as you’re right here.”

On this stretch of Crocker Street in downtown Los Angeles — where a pop-up draped with international flags and filled with seating forms the “Sanctuary” — just about every evening feels like a backyard barbecue.

Blue cooks — hot dogs, sausages, oxtail with rice. Neighbors drop by and linger over beers and a passed blunt. Stories fill the warm, California air as the sun falls low over the city scape, its shards of golden light bouncing off the asphalt, the brick buildings, the lush, stately branches of Indian laurels that frame the sidewalks.

“Like God himself did the afro,” Blue pronounced one evening, sweeping his arm over the view. “Those trees …the skyline …the weather.

“You’ll see the beauty of California, if you can open your eyes past the tents and the cardboard and the trash.”