Amidst Coronavirus, stimulus checks offer hope, hindrance for off-the-grid homeless

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.

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?”

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

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.”

11 things I love and hate about Los Angeles

Over the course of a week in Los Angeles, I trekked all over the city, met up with five different friends, and presented them all with the same incredulous question:

Do they LIKE living in LA?

I asked with equal amounts of adoration and exhaustion — because during the time I’ve spent in the City of Angels (7 or 8 trips in the last decade), my impressions have ranged from <heart eye emoji> to <eye roll emoji,> sometimes in the span of a single half hour.

Here in LA, you can get bangin’ egg rolls for $1 but you might have to eat them next to a rabid-eyed crew that has been awake for 37 hours. There are a million cool neighborhoods to explore but it might take you 1.5 hours and 17 sudokus to make it across town. You can walk your dog to year-round soft breezes, mild temps and palm tree views but your pup might also pick up some used sanitary napkins on the stroll.

You get the idea.

Here’s how I size it up: