Not by bread alone
The homeless on LA’s Skid Row are in desperate straits, but giving them more food will not solve their problems
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Editor’s note: This article includes disturbing and graphic descriptions of homeless life in LA’s Skid Row.
LOS ANGELES—On a warm Friday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, the acrid stench of fresh-spilled blood stung the congealed odors of fossilized urine and unwashed feet. A man whom locals call Turban stabbed three individuals, leaving a half-mile trail of blood and screams until police officers shot at him six times.
Ronald Troy Collins heard the shrieks from the store he manages at the corner where Turban stabbed his first victim—then his second, and then the third (all, including Turban, survived). Collins knows Turban as the guy who sells cigarettes on the streets, relatively harmless until the day he smoked spice, a synthetic marijuana that regularly sends people to emergency rooms. As sirens blared and the police swarmed over in cars, bicycles, and helicopters, Collins prayed, “Oh Lord, help him, help them, help us.”
Such savagery doesn’t surprise Collins, who calls it “another normal-day event in Skid Row.” It only made news because the police shot a man. As someone who’s lived homeless sporadically for 35 years and is still homeless, the 50-year-old Collins has witnessed a multitude of base acts in Skid Row: that deranged, reeking man with an unzipped fly who harasses women with his exposed crotch; drug sale transactions right outside of drug-rehab facilities; spontaneous combustions of shrill arguments and brutal fistfights; public urination and defecation; sex between men and men, women and women, even some bestiality. “There are no rules or regulations down here, nothing! A modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, pretty much.”
I’ve also heard locals refer to this 11,000-resident territory as “Devil’s Den,” “man-made hell,” and “where people go to die.” If LA is the homeless capital of America (see “Homeless on the streets of LA,” April 1) , Skid Row serves as its junkyard, collecting the rusting heap of issues that encompass the city’s homelessness crisis.
As a Los Angeles Police Department officer, Deon Joseph deals with the backwash of all these issues. At the LAPD station located along Skid Row, Joseph showed me a map of the 4.5-square-mile chunk of downtown that his division polices. This area includes the quaint Chinatown, the iconic Dodgers Stadium, the fast-gentrifying Arts District, and gleaming bank towers. Joseph then pointed to the middle at the 54-block Skid Row, or what he calls “The Box”—a forsaken, gateless gulag of suffering and despair.
Between 45 to 67 percent of all violent crimes in Joseph’s division happen within “The Box.” During the last major cleanup effort in Skid Row, which cost the city $2.2 million, sanitation workers picked up 184 syringes/needles, 63 razor blades, and 3.5 tons of waste and bleached 107 locations of feces and 169 locations of urine. At any given time, 500 to 800 registered sex offenders loiter in Skid Row, and more than 90 percent of women there have experienced sexual or physical assault. Joseph has met women who woke up sore and dripping with semen, but unable to file a police report because they were drunk or high when the assault happened.
According to local services’ estimates, about 2,500 people sleep on Skid Row streets, while 2,500 camp in temporary shelters such as mission beds—that’s 11 percent of the county’s entire homeless population of 47,000, squeezed into a 0.4-square-mile neighborhood. Others live in single-room-occupancy hotels, though most move in and out of shelters and the streets. Many of these people have lived on the streets for more than a decade.
That same night the stabbings happened, Collins took me on a tour around the heart of Skid Row. The night sky was a deep eggplant purple, starless except for the twinkles of downtown’s fast-expanding skyscrapers—five-star hotels, luxury condo towers, and high-rise office buildings. But here in Skid Row, the streets are eerily empty of cars. Parking spots are abundant—an LA miracle—but the few stray cars that make a wrong turn hastily twist their way back into civilization.
A different nightlife exists in Skid Row: A boombox pulsated loud electro-funk. People smoked cigarettes and joints by their tents and carts, some chatting, some nodding hello, others staring silently as we walked past. The funky odors of drugs tinged the urine-saturated air. As we strolled from block to block, Collins pointed out the corners and parks where he once bought his favorite drug, crack.
Collins spent a total of 27 years in prison for drug-related convictions (mostly burglary). Each time he finished a prison term, he careened right back behind bars, where he experienced his first rape. No matter where he ran, he found crack. He spent his food stamps and county-funded general relief checks on crack. When that money was gone, he stood outside upscale restaurants and offered to sing for customers. With his beautiful singing voice and natural charisma, he won the generosity of strangers. “I don’t want money. I’m just singing to feed my family,” he promised his benefactors, who ordered whatever he wanted off the menu. He then delivered the hot food straight to his drug dealers in exchange for crack.
That’s why Collins sighs when he sees well-meaning volunteer groups out on Skid Row donating free stuff. That night we passed one handing out sandwiches, bottled water, and hygiene kits. “This is the cold, hard truth: I think they’re crippling the people down here,” Collins said. “If you’re providing me clothes, food, and tents, I don’t have to spend the money I get from the government on anything but my next hit.”
We then reached the corner of Wall and Winston streets, where a man wearing a snapback hat over shoulder-length dreadlocks preached John 5:1-9 under the orange streetlight glow in front of a shuttered store. Every Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Pastor Cue Jn-Marie, a former rapper, conducts a “church without walls” service in Skid Row. “Man is limited in what he can do,” Pastor Cue boomed into his mic, rocking to the inflation of his animated voice. “Remember! If God can make a man help you, it can happen. But ultimately, God is the one who helps you.” His congregation of 10 sat on fold-out chairs and chorused “Amen!” after him.
On our detour back, I noticed the congregation had tripled into a long line awaiting the after-service goods: McDonald’s, blankets, and shoes such as strappy high-heel sandals. Collins turned to shrug at me: “See? Food is not lacking down here. There’s not a hungry homeless person downtown.”
For decades, the city intentionally corralled the homeless into this 54-block zone, creating a web of shelters and social services—almost 110, ranging from clinics to drug rehab to case management services. Volunteers from churches and nonprofits offer more food in addition to the 9,000 meals the missions already serve per day.
But quarantining the homeless out of sight has also kept a growing “monster” out of mind, says Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bales: “We didn’t do anything for so long, and now it requires an all-out, all-hands-on-deck emergency response.” So far, LA has thrown money at a complex problem, but Bales says it forgot one essential: “We have not shown heart and compassion.” Without that “heart change,” Bales said, Los Angeles will never alleviate its homelessness crisis: “Our society needs to realize that these people suffering on the streets are our brothers and sisters made in the image of God, to be treated with great dignity.”
The 58-year-old grandfather of six from the Midwest has been serving the homeless for 31 years, and now walks with a prosthetic right leg because of it. One extra-hot day in September 2014, he was handing out water in Skid Row when rampant flesh-eating bacteria crawled their way to a wound on his leg. These bacteria chomped at his flesh, turning bones into mush, until Bales begged the doctors to chop his leg off. They amputated it just below his knee. As soon as he could, Bales was back at URM in his suit and tie, gliding down the streets of Skid Row in a wheelchair, once again passing out bottles of water.
Bales didn’t always have that compassion he criticizes Angelenos of lacking. Bales’ grandfather was chronically homeless, and Bales’ father lived in tents, garages, and sheds from age 4 to 17. But Bales himself grew up under a proper roof, and used to “look right through people digging in the dumps” until one winter night in Des Moines, Iowa, a homeless man with an unkempt beard asked for the sandwich in his hand. It was the same day Bales had preached on Matthew 25:40 six times: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Yet instinctively, Bales refused to share his sandwich. After the man slouched away, Bales felt cut with conviction—“It’s like turning away Jesus!”—and asked God for a second chance. Later he met the man again and took him out for dinner. Several weeks after that “heart change,” Bales got a job at a mission in Des Moines, and years later URM offered him a job as CEO.
Currently, Bales feels the stretch of covering the gap between available care and spiking homelessness. URM operates via private donations, but he says giving has decreased 30 percent, even as the need swelled 55 percent in the past year. URM is the rare 24-hour shelter that accepts single women, and last year the number of single women ages 18 to 90 at URM doubled to 350.
Officer Joseph is also feeling the strain. “Look, I don’t get paid to deal with pretty things,” he sighed. “I have to deal with society’s failures to handle their problems on their own, and also our government’s issues of not adequately helping people who are disenfranchised and impoverished.”
But there are also moments of sparkle amid the darkness, like the day a pink-haired, grinning woman named Diane jiggled a ring of keys and proudly announced, “Apartment key, mail key!”
“You got housing!” Joseph exclaimed, pulling her into a bear hug. After living in Skid Row for 16 years, Diane finally procured housing. But she had nothing in the fridge, so Joseph promised to get her a week’s worth of food. It would come out of his own pocket.
We met more sparkles along the way. A hazel-eyed woman with white pigtails let out a delighted yelp when she saw Joseph. Flinging down her walker and two big bags, she limped over as fast as she could and enveloped her arms around him. Then more people spotted him, and soon Joseph’s burly arms were busy hugging and fist-bumping.
He’s lost a lot of battles out there, but he’s also won hearts, Joseph said, later adding, “That’s what a lot of politicians don’t get: There is no universal solution to homelessness. You have to come down and see the people before you come up with initiatives and measures.”
Should policymakers ever sit down with Collins at his favorite Denny’s, where he once sang for customers to support his crack addiction, he would tell them what he repeatedly tells me: We are plastering flimsy Band-Aids over a gushing gunshot wound. “People are still dying, selling dope, still homeless and hopeless. The situation is getting worse—and why is that? You’re trying to fix a spiritual problem with natural things.”
Collins says he had to go through the hell he endured: “I was hardheaded. I didn’t want to get off the streets because I loved crack with a passion.” It took a lot of wrong turns, bad falls, and broken bones before he finally decided, “You know what, I’m through.”
‘If you’re providing me clothes, food, and tents, I don’t have to spend the money I get from the government on anything but my next hit.’ —Collins
And at the right time, God sent him people who remembered his birthday and stuck around even after he skipped out on rehab: “They didn’t try to love me from a distance. They could have thrown me bread, jacket, and a tent, but they were really concerned with what’s going on inside me.” Collins credits such “up-close and personal” attention and “unconditional love” for keeping him sober for a year.
Today, Collins lives in a recovery shelter but sometimes sleeps in his van during days when he works 12-hour shifts managing three stores in Skid Row—stores from which he once stole. He handles thousands of dollars in cash right in the drug dealers’ lair, breathing in the chemical fumes that still smell so sweet to him. At times the temptation is so strong that he’s prostrate before God, begging for strength. Then he remembers the people who love him, people who would grieve if he returned to his old life. So he decides to fight another day, trusting in God’s faithfulness: “It was God in the beginning, God in the end, and God is going to take me through it all.”
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