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?”
The answer I kept coming back to was that Skid Row is one of the most real places I’ve ever experienced.
Unlike most communities, reality isn’t hidden behind walls or through distancing — a phenomenon we’ve embodied long before Coronavirus. There is little concern for the veneers of civility and politically correctness and polite society, so visitors and locals alike encounter real reactions and responses, whether they’re pretty or not. The highs are very high and the lows, very low; it’s exhilarating and it’s exhausting, but amidst every peak and valley, it’s clear you’re experiencing something truly authentic.
But even that explanation falls short of describing this one-of-a-kind place. As I began to probe just what it is I love so much about Skid Row, I thought I’d share my thoughts.
Society’s extremes play out at street level, and the adversity makes the victories all the more impressive.
Blue, over and over, has said it best: Skid Row is either heaven or hell, and sometimes both at the same time.
Here’s the hell:
During the two-plus months I spent in the community, I saw more street fights than I can recall (even being called upon to physically break one up when Shorty was involved). I had a gun pointed at my head. I was on site for multiple deaths (including a recent horrific murder by rifle), and heard a lot more gun shots. I saw at least one overdose, and many more brutal effects from things I didn’t even know could be used as drugs. (Embalming fluid? That is some ugly stuff that appears to first freeze the body then send it into manic overdrive.)
Even in this neighborhood, the spectrum of poverty runs wide, with many highly functioning members maintaining highly evolved homes, and others languishing on the sidewalk without a cardboard box to their name. Though many arrive to Skid Row on their own, many others — including those with severe mental health issues — are literally dropped off by the authorities and handed near impossible odds to survive.
“What are we going to do about this?” Blue fretted every time we passed by the notorious stretches of Skid Row — blocks where drug use abounded, and humans lay on the sidewalks like fallen leaves. One day, I, along with two others, pulled an unconscious man from the middle of the road, where he had passed out and defecated on himself.
None of this is pretty, but it certainly is real.
But here’s the heaven:
Amidst that environment, I also saw the incredible effects of one of the strongest, most tightly-knit communities I’ve ever witnessed. Unlike some areas of poverty and homelessness, Skid Row functions, and it does so because of a leadership that has emerged on the ground, apart from the big-wig, high-rise organizations that surround it, and because people care for those around them in a way rarely seen. Neighbors, closer than most, both have each others back and talk each other down from bad decisions, they work through deep wounds and complex issues, they tell each other when they think they’re wrong.
One night, after a physical fight broke out between a man and his “street niece,” I watched as multiple members sat down to pray with this leader, to express their love while condemning his actions, to encourage patience and understanding. This sort of in-the-moment problem-solving and healing would be hard to find in any community. But in Skid Row, you might see it several times a night.
Another evening, Blue confronted a man who was high on heroin and clearly causing trouble in the area, and moved to force him off the block. Seeing the interaction develop, neighbors on Crocker Street literally leapt to his defense, jumping out of their tents to stand behind him. They didn’t know any of the details, but they knew Blue, and they were ready to come to his aid and defend him, no matter what.
The Humans of Skid Row are smart, talented, inclusive and incredibly complex.
I challenge you to find any community with as many interesting people, who can talk intelligently on as many different subjects and who have as many heart-stirring, spine-tingling stories. Shorty, former truck driver for the army and a pool shark, has a mind for facts and statistics that never fails to impress me. Lucky, a weed dealer and community enforcer, was the subject of an acclaimed documentary following her over many years in her home, Brooklyn. RePete, a military vet who spent nearly two decades in prison, might actually be a genius, solving formulas and reciting scientific processes like he is reading from a book — of which he reads 134 a year. King Pharoah sang with The Game. Gangster Granny modeled for Vogue. Blue, a street pastor, chef and community leader, once owned a record label and opened for Ice Cube. I could go on.
On Skid Row, you’ll meet people who are trilingual. Who were entrenched in the U.S. military invasions of Panama and Grenada. Who graduated with all kinds of degrees. There’s a sizable LGBT and Trans community that, more or less is integrated with cisgendered folks — synthesis that is rare indeed amongst low-income and largely Black communities.
Here, people pray with urgency, immediacy and sincerity — their lives offering the least evidence of a higher power, their hearts, the most conviction of it.
And people listen to stories as often as they spin them — over a game of Dominos I was asked about my firefly tattoos. After being encouraged to regale the narrative, I told a lengthy story about the Salvadoran civil war, a brutal massacre and rebel soldiers discovering fireflies filling the night sky. With some crowds, I might have struggled to capture attention or compel people to care about something that feels far away and long ago — especially with so much going on around us.
Not here. The table was quiet until I’d finished, my new friends lingering on specific elements of the story as they reacted.
Life is, in many ways, simple.
Sometimes life can feel really complicated. Deadlines, obligations, events, news reports, and to-do lists can monopolize our time and consume our minds. In Skid Row, though conversations and friendships go deep, there is an alluring simplicity to the overwhelming outlook on existence.
People are concerned, primarily, with three things: meeting their immediate needs, caring for those they love and finding joy. Pursuit of the extraneous fades away — people sleep in tents, pee in buckets (as I learned, it’s really not that bad) and get around via bicycle or foot. That clarity — seizing what matters with both hands and not worrying about the rest — feels reminiscent of socialist values. People live with what they need and not much more, and surpluses are often distributed to those who have less.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, you’ll also find real joy on Skid Row. People laugh, they dance, they blast country music. They play games and tell stories, drink beers and smoke blunts. They cut each others hair, they cook for each other, they talk smack, they embrace.
Those interactions are also real: in Skid Row, people don’t hide what they think or how they feel about others; they’ll say what they mean and love and conflict come in equally strong measures. Someone will feed you or cloth you; they’ll also kick you off the block — or worse — if you mess up.
Going there feels like traveling.
More than perhaps any other community in California and beyond, Skid Row operates like its own city. That means it actively boasts its own customs and culture that feel separate from communities that exist even blocks away (that feeling is especially stark while walking or driving down Sixth St.) It has its own power structures. It’s own leadership and rules of conduct. And it self-polices — in part because for most community issues and conflicts, the cops don’t come.
One day recently, a hit-and-run played out in front of Blue’s space, with a truck plowing through a cyclist, who was bruised and bleeding even as his bike was crushed. The fire department came, but the police never did.
So those sorts of gaffs, when known to the community, are often handled in house.
A couple weeks earlier, while on a walkabout with Blue, we came across a tent that had been set aflame — igniting, with its energy, parts of the building behind it. I soon found out it wasn’t an accident but rather arson, with many Skid Row members telling me this individual had been punished — his home and belongings soaked with gasoline — because he’d been stealing from his neighbors and starting conflicts wherever he went. (Note: tragically, a few nights ago, this same man was murdered.)
The system that holds Skid Row together can be cruel and ruthless; in great part because the community lives in cruel and ruthless conditions. The outside world has abandoned these residents and uglily and beautifully, they have built a new structure out of need and urgency; they’ve formed a new government and culture and laws of the land. To go there is to leave what we think of as the mainstream U.S., and arrive in an alternate world that exists, almost unnoticed, in our very backyards.
The resilience and adaptation levels are awe-inspiring.
A worn stereotype might say that people living in places like Skid Row are lazy. Perhaps people think those living in tents and cars sleep all the time. In my experience, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Skid Row stays up late and gets up early. It is more alive at 6 a.m. than anywhere I’ve ever been. Many people seem to barely sleep, Blue being one of them — between errands, cleaning, cooking and caring for the community, he barely sits down, either.
After spending my first sleepless night on Skid Row, I had a new appreciation of the kind of energy depletion that is regular in the community. Music blasts all night; fights break out; residents are constantly concerned with protecting themselves and their belongings. Even during a social outing, an unspoken rule is to keep an eye on your stuff; if you don’t, it’s fair game to be snatched.
Somehow, people manage to get up the next day and function, get things done and care for themselves despite the litany of roadblocks to doing so (going to the bathroom, taking a shower, obtaining food, water, soap and medicine is all imminently harder for people living in this environment). They also manage to smile, be kind, and care for their community. There are no Sundays on Skid Row — no days of relaxation and reprieve — the challenges are everlasting and ever building.
Two and a half months in Skid Row changed the way I view homelessness. Some people are lost, some people are found, and life — immeasurably more challenging, here — still takes on a dramatic range.
At the core of Skid Row are its people: vengeful and kind, creative and destructive, open-minded and biased, valid and flawed.
They welcome people in, they turn people out. They choose worn pathways and invent new ones. Together the community exudes, perhaps, the best and the worst of humanity.
And if you’re lucky enough to spend time there, well, you’ll never, ever, be bored.