This is a story about unprecedented opportunity in the midst of an unprecedented global catastrophe, and how our collective failure to see it led to the further victimization of a chronically neglected community.
Shorty leaned against the plexiglass window outside the brick building, her wide cheekbones springing toward her eyes and pulling her entire face into a smile.
“Drumroll please,” she crooned, her small, wiry frame a coil of energy.
We were at the Los Angeles Mission in the heart of Skid Row — one of the country’s largest communities of homelessness; a tent city smoldering beneath the wealth of downtown Los Angeles’ soaring high rises. We’d come to the charitable organization in downtown LA, to ask, again, about any mail for Shorty; to keep going through guessed motions even though I had no confidence that one day a government check would show up.
I had arrived here, to Skid Row, in April, curious to see how Coronavirus was affecting a community that in some ways mimics a developing country; where sewage is tossed into the street and water is accessed from fire hydrants.
One of my many adopted projects was this: to try to find out if it was possible to get a CARES Act Coronavirus stimulus check for someone like Shorty — an unhoused woman who is essentially off the grid, lacking income, taxpayer status or a history of government assistance.
Over the two-plus months I spent in the community, even sleeping side-by-side in a tent for a few nights, this would be a process that would take me on a roller coaster through highs and lows; twists and turns that served to both offer unexpected hope and reinforce the very structures of oppression that created such a conundrum.
But in this moment, back at the Mission, Shorty was feeling optimistic.
“Happiness is on the way,” she sang. “Peace and quiet and serenity is ON. THE. WAY!”
When the man working the window indeed produced a government-marked envelope, it felt like a miracle; a victory won against long odds.
But the real miracle, though I didn’t know it then, would come later.
• • •
In the Spring of 2020, as the planet began to unravel at its seams, Skid Row was a world of its own.
The community, encompassed in some 50 square blocks within downtown LA, ranges from 8,000 to 11,000 inhabitants, yearly. Nationwide, the unhoused population exceeds 550,000, a population greater than the city of Miami. For four years, those numbers have trended upward.
Then, a global pandemic emerged, exacerbating everything.
From the perspective of Skid Row, it was easy to see all the ways the homeless community was disproportionately impacted by Coronavirus. Citizens already boasting the nation’s fewest resources were now reckoning with lost income, diminished services and burgeoning food deserts.
The hand-washing stations that suddenly appeared after decades of activism in that cause were often found emptied of water and soap. Early on, especially, relied on businesses such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants closed (with the latter open only to drive-through customers, cutting out carless individuals), and other services offering free meals and hot showers reduced their hours.
“Normally [in Skid Row], you can find food,” said Matt Harper, who works at LA’s Catholic Worker outpost, casually called the Hippie Kitchen. “But in the early days of this, it was clear people were really hungry. We were cooking double what we [normally did], and we couldn’t serve fast enough. Our trays were just disappearing.”
But while much of the country — and the world — was collapsing into panic about a rapidly spreading virus, in other ways it felt like just another year in Skid Row; just another catastrophe to be managed.
By the start of August, COVID-19 had been responsible for more than 160,000 deaths in the United States. Poverty, meanwhile, claims more than seven times that annually, nearly 1.2 million as reported in a 2011 study.
In Skid Row, where basic needs aren’t met without a fight, people were less concerned about the pandemic than they were holding on to their newly acquired bike, finding their next meal or keeping themselves safe that night.
A man named CruShow, who acts as a community organizer and activist even as he lives out of a tent himself, shook his head when I asked about the impact.
“We’ve had tuberculosis,” he scoffed. “We’ve had Staph [infections]. They can bring up every disease they want to. We’re in a pandemic here 24/7.”
Rather than a crisis, many in Skid Row viewed Coronavirus as an opportunity: to gain expedient access to state resources that are typically slow to come and lackluster in their mark, often getting caught up in bureaucratic red tape and micro-level politics.
In 2016, Los Angeles County voters approved a $1.2 billion bond to build up to 10,000 housing units for the area’s homeless community, but nearly three years later, an audit showed that zero units had been made available and only 19 projects were under construction, even as homelessness in the city spiked by 40 percent. Meanwhile, since 2017, the county has also received an additional $355 million per year earmarked for services for the area’s homeless, with little tangible effect on the streets.
As Coronavirus began to ravage cities and towns across the nation, however, suddenly things started to happen. California’s Project Roomkey, a federally-backed response to the pandemic, managed to put 14,000 at-risk civilians in hotel rooms and other temporary housing by August, a stunning efficiency given even the state’s longtime struggles in turning funds into action.
One of the newly housed was a man who calls himself Hollywood, who has lived in Skid Row, off and on, since 1979.
“They’re putting us in $600/day rooms,” he said. “If you have underlying illnesses, you go first. There are a lot of people that are moving in.”
But this suddenly constructed social net still fell far short.
The CARES Act represented an unprecedented chance to infuse cash into a community that desperately needed it.
Distribution of that fund though, was, at best, partial. For those already receiving government aid such as disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), their $1,200 government check came automatically via a debit card that is credited monthly. But for those like Shorty, who receive no federal help, the path to collection was significantly more complicated.
“The issue is, there is no mechanism to get the money,” said John Maceri, CEO of The People Concern, an LA-organization that has a major outpost in Skid Row. “From the federal side, in terms of the distribution channel, if you don’t know who those people are and there is no way to contact them, then there is no way to get them the money. There are inevitably going to be people who fall through the cracks.
“But I don’t think because it’s hard for the government to do that, that means it shouldn’t be done.”
• • •
Standing outside her home, Shorty scowled. It was mid April, and I was meeting her for the first time, in a chance encounter outside the tarp-covered lean-to housing her small tent on 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles. Shorty is the kind of person, I’d discover later, who wears her emotions. When she is happy, she practically glows. Her smile gives her a youthful brilliance and makes everyone around her yearn to be its recipient.
But on days when she carries the stress of empty pockets, you can see the pain take over her entire body, twist her face into constellations of wrinkles that make her look her age again.
On this day, she looked exhausted as she hovered over a wheelchair, a knee injury that never healed now affecting her entire right leg and hip and making it painful to walk for more than a block or two.
This former U.S. Army truck driver — who got into a critical accident in 2017 and lost everything via medical bills — had spent the better part of an hour telling me how her mind, once engrained in books and current events, was now occupied by concerns of her immediate safety.
In three years, thanks in great part to the chaos of her surroundings — where music blasts at all hours and substance-fueled violence edges up against sleep — she’d managed to fall completely out of the system. She no longer had any income. She hadn’t paid taxes in years. She wasn’t on any kind of government assistance and lacked, now, even an ID.
“I’m upset,” she retorted, after I brought up the CARES Act package. “Because I won’t receive anything.”
That was the popular view from everyone surrounding Skid Row, early on — that getting checks for off-the-grid individuals was next to impossible. But shortly after that conversation, I found a non-filer’s form online; a path I hadn’t seen publicized anywhere.
It was clear that no sufficient program existed ensuring these funds got into the hands of the constituents who lacked access to the internet, to computers, to bank accounts and addresses with which to collect it. And indeed, some organization executives I spoke with sounded as though the possibility of a cash-flush Skid Row, a place that sustains scores of overdoses annually, scared them.
“Money has a whole laundry list of issues,” said Ivan Klassen, the director of community partnerships at the LA Mission. “It can take on a whole life of its own.”
Without outreach programs to identify these individuals, help collect their funds and see them through a life-changing purchase, connecting the dots was mostly left up to unhoused residents themselves — or anyone else who came across these vulnerable populations, whatever their intentions may be.
• • •
Outside the government office in LA’s art district, Shorty paused. She looked me, blankly, in the eye.
“When I’m with you,” she said, “doors open.”
I choked and looked away. “Sometimes there is power in numbers,” I said, because I was uncomfortable.
“No,” she said firmly. She ran a finger up the white skin of my arm. “It’s this.”
We were at the county building in LA’s art district, working to get some sort of photo ID, a seemingly simple task that had previously felt off-limits to her; a process requiring a fight against those charged with helping her.
A couple of weeks earlier, we had started the work to get her check. I’d filled out the non-filers form online, and then gone with her to set up a mailing address, to sign up for General Relief and Cal Fresh, California’s version of food stamps.
When we arrived to check for her mail at the Mission, they told her it was impossible without a photo ID, which we hadn’t yet gotten. But after some sweet talking from a white journalist, suddenly the exercise was achievable.
Nearly a month later, the check was passed beneath the plexiglass window. Success.
We had a celebration meal of Shorty’s choice — soul food at Dulan’s — before getting the lump sum cashed a few days later after she signed the check over to an LA friend’s Chase account. From there, we went straight to a tow lot she’d identified, where she was able to purchase a used red-and-black Chevy Trailblazer that allowed her to vacate the tent on 6th Street.
With one check, she suddenly had transportation. She had a comfortable place to sleep, with a mattress added to the back. Most importantly for Shorty, she had a newfound safety. She could sleep at night. She could rest her mind.
Though it was truly a story of success, I would realize later that the check actually arriving wasn’t the miracle.
The miracle was that with it, Shorty had found some grain of hope. That with advantages stacked against her, she charged toward change; she transformed her life.
In a world like Skid Row, such stories are incredibly rare — a reminder I’d shortly receive.
• • •
“I have some bad news,” the voice on the line told me.
It was Quincy, calling me from the heart of Skid Row. Quincy, known locally as Pastor Blue, is a street preacher and community leader, cooking and providing other services from his Crocker Street setup, where he lives out of his van.
I had left Los Angeles in June to continue my travels, but kept in touch with many in the community, especially Quincy, who, bereft of the county funds that ply the organizations around him, has always been wholeheartedly dedicated to lifting up his neighbors.
We had talked about the CARES Act stimulus deficiencies and he had agreed to do outreach within the community, identifying those who, like Shorty, had been overlooked, so that I could continue to fill out their stimulus request forms from afar. From within his tightly knit community, we knocked out several; the simplest of systems set up by two people who cared.
But it was, frankly, several months too late.
On the evening of the bad news, Quincy seemed almost reluctant to tell me what he’d found: that while the state spun its legs, scammers had arrived to Skid Row, signing up individuals not just for their CARES Act checks, but for California unemployment as well, potentially risking their futures on supplemental social security, while robbing them in the process. Based on his conversations, he believed these infiltrators were skimming as much as thousands off the top.
It meant two things: 1) that community residents were getting systemically abused, yet again, and 2) that amidst this tumultuous process, Skid Row was flush with cash.
The latter was the outcome I had hoped for all this time: desperately needed resources, sent directly to the source.
And yet nothing was changing.
From Quincy’s view, no grand exodus was occurring, thanks to an influx of dollars. Nor were there many more vehicles bought via the stimulus checks. Life continued, more or less, the way it had before Coronavirus or CARES Act legislation hit.
That is, except for one thing.
“There’s more traffic,” he noted, “heading (toward the dope dealer) down the street.”
He paused before adding: “And he just bought a new Porsche.”
The revelation felt crushing.
Even knowing what I knew about the struggles within Skid Row, I had been idealistic. Appealing to all the strength and resilience I had seen, I had hoped that an economical infusion could make a difference, could change the game. I believed that everyone could be a Shorty Success Story, checking off the boxes with a little help, and transforming their lives.
Quincy snapped me back to reality. “There ain’t no quick fix,” he reminded me. “This is reality.”
He was right.
And the reality is this:
The United States has the second highest rate of poverty and the highest rate of wealth inequality among the world’s wealthiest countries, thanks to a complex myriad of failures — the lack of affordable education, housing or healthcare; the internally-propelled rise of globalization, the marginalization of the worker and the rapidly increasing wage disparity; a dramatically bloated military budget that pilfers resources from our communities, damaging military exploits abroad that flood our borders with impoverished immigrants and our streets with drugs, and the abandonment of our veterans when they come home. The chronic criminalization of Blacks; the chronic incarceration of Black men; for Black families, the deep economic impact wrought from centuries of anti-Black policy.
It’s not an accident; something that should surprise or shock us — the structural policies of the United States actually create the vortex of homelessness and systemically funnel people of color, especially Black people, into it.
While Black people account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, they represent more than 40 percent of those who experience homelessness.
As the tumble into homelessness occurs, the challenges pile up. Reports suggest 33 percent of the unhoused population battle mental illness, much of which goes untreated. Thirty-eight percent are alcohol dependent, and 26 percent depend on other harmful chemicals. Money from government measures is slow to arrive. Services, especially outreach programs, are grossly lacking. Institutional discrimination rears its head yet again — preventing individuals from moving past their unhoused state.
This reality isn’t a series of obstacles that can be fixed with one repair. Not a windfall as seemingly precious as the CARES Act, and maybe especially not. The true pandemic that afflicts Skid Row is a system that affects every artery, every vein. It’s a normalized, rationalized, government-tolerated order that makes it nearly impossible to break out of, even with a substantial influx of cash; one that a substantial influx of cash can even exacerbate.
These payments, some of them consequential, happened in a prism; without any support around them to usher in their success. No outreach. No empowerment. No programs helping with banking and/or positive spending. Not even a reasonable hope that change, in a lifetime of barriers, could succeed.
The powers that be hadn’t even ensured that residents of Skid Row received their money. And in the great vacuum of resources and efforts, scammers stepped in where the government and government-funded organizations did not.
How could you even blame them? And how could you blame those who took it and leapt to change not their lives, but their moment? To make that week, with no promises for the next, just a little bit easier.
• • •
A month after I left LA, I was still trying to present this story as an unacknowledged opportunity by the government, as an unprecedented social experiment that could change the course of chronic homelessness.
That much is true, although the moment may have already passed.
But knowing what we do about U.S. structure and policy — a system sanctioned with our votes, our tax dollars and our failure to regularly protest our society’s engrained ills — perhaps the real missed opportunity is within us.
While the world’s wealthiest nation has nursed an egregious homelessness epidemic, we’ve mostly ignored it even as thousands more teeter toward the cliff.
“Even before COVID, if you look at the numbers, for every person who [we found housing for], we have another person falling into homelessness,” Maceri of The People Concern said. “The COVID pandemic is going to contribute to the inflow. That’s something that we just cannot turn away from and pretend it’s not going to happen.”
A recent study, conducted by a Colombia professor, found that homelessness could explode by 45 percent thanks to a dramatic rise in unemployment as a result of Coronavirus.
For much of the population, perhaps, the rise in homelessness hasn’t felt personal; something that could affect us or our neighbors. But soon, it could be.
“Frankly it’s very easy to stereotype and stigmatize Skid Row,” Maceri continued. “Most people think of substance-addicted, seriously mentally ill people living in an open-air asylum… but as more people experience homelessness who don’t fall into those categories, have not experienced homelessness before, who come from the suburbs or parts of the city and county that look more like what the rest of the community thinks of themselves as being, that is what shifts public perception.”
A global pandemic is a high price for moving the dial, but a shift in public perception is exactly what’s required for a shift in policy.
What effects change now cannot be and will not be a landslide of cash, or an expectation that the U.S. will act in a way that contradicts what we’ve tolerated for decades. It will not be the unhoused resident, deficient of any of the reasonable tools for transformation.
Change, rather, will take a society that rejects the certitude of these conditions and demands institutional metamorphosis. It will take a revolution; a movement that reexamines all of the forces that allow places like Skid Row, with all its deficiencies and shortcomings, to exist.
“It will take,” Quincy said, “the heart of the individual. The person who comes in and spends time and sees people and cares.
“That’s what Skid Row is missing,” he said. “There are gonna have to be more people who care. That’s it.”