The first time you see it, I mean, really see it up close, skid row can look unreal. And that was especially true in 2006, when Gary Foster took his first of many strolls through the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood that is home to the homeless.
"I was appalled and moved and saddened," says Foster, who saw entire blocks of encampments.
"But almost every person we met said hello."
Foster, a movie producer, was with business partner Russ Krasnoff that day. They were interested in making a film about a street musician I had been writing about, and they wanted to meet him.
When we got to the Safe Haven, a drop-in center run by the nonprofit Lamp Community, Nathaniel Ayers was playing his cello in the teeming courtyard. Lamp is a lifeline for people with chronic mental illness, and there was often a boisterous crowd on the patio in those days, along with screaming sirens from the firetrucks stationed at the corner.
Foster asked Ayers how he could concentrate on his music with all that noise.
"He said, 'All I hear is the flapping of the birds' wings when they fly.' And I thought, 'This guy's a poet,' " said Foster, who soon began trying to put the pieces of a movie together.
Me? I was worried.
In conversations with Foster, I trusted that he wanted to tell a story that might help destigmatize mental illness by humanizing the Nathaniels of the world. But I feared that Hollywood might have a tendency to simplify, or to find a neater ending than anything that might materialize for Ayers.
Foster said that wasn't going to happen, and then he went to work. He and the director, Joe Wright, began hanging out at Lamp, where they did nothing but watch, mingle and get to know people, including dedicated staff members who certainly weren't in it for the money.
As for the clients, Foster was struck by their relationship with one another. They had lived hard lives and they had known cruel isolation, tormented by schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But on better days at Lamp, they were part of a family, jawing at one another now and then but sticking up for one another too.
"They felt like they were part of something in a world in which they could walk three blocks away and be shunned," Foster said.
He and the director decided that they wanted some of Lamp's clients to play themselves in the movie. Terri "Detroit" Hughes, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was game. But she was worried too.
"I thought I would never see any of them again," said Hughes, whose father had just died. "I'm an adopted child, and I didn't want to be abandoned anymore. I told Gary, 'My biggest fear is that I'll see you today and never again.' And he said, 'Of course you'll see me again.' "
Hughes didn't trust him. But long after the movie was done, if she hit a low point and dialed his number, Foster called back or dropped by Lamp to see her.
"One day he asked me what was wrong with me, and nobody had ever really asked me that. They just always assumed I was a mean person or maybe I was on drugs, or just one of those people that was never going to get well, or didn't want to get well because I was so far gone. Down the rabbit's hole, you know?" Hughes said.
"I felt really comfortable around Gary, like I could always talk to him and before long, I told Gary my life story. He knows more about me than my psychiatrists do. He's the first person to ask how do I feel and what are my kids' names."
Foster's commitment to people, and to Lamp, made him a natural candidate to join the board of directors. But when he was first approached, he balked.
He worried that they simply wanted him to write big checks and put the squeeze on his pals to do the same. But the producer of "Sleepless in Seattle," "The Score," "Tin Cup" and "Lost Angels," the documentary that followed "The Soloist" (which was based on a book and series of Times columns I wrote) wanted more than that.
"I told them that if it was about really understanding how the operation works, rolling up our sleeves and trying to figure out how to help make Lamp a better agency, then I was absolutely interested," Foster said.
Foster joined the board more than four years ago. He is not, by any means, the first person to do good work on skid row. The boards of many nonprofits are stacked with people who take time out of busy lives in the interest of others, and many other people find ways to volunteer or donate needed goods.
More than a year ago, Foster was asked to be board chairman and wanted to know what I thought. I told him that if he walked away, he could feel good about having made a difference in the lives of so many people. But he could have an even greater impact if he took the promotion.
He did, and Lamp is now undergoing an executive leadership change as Foster and others try to improve housing, rehabilitation and other services for its hundreds of clients. One thing he's learned, Foster said, is that supportive housing works, and that it's the humane and cost-effective alternative to forcing mentally ill people through the typical circuit of courtrooms, hospitals and jails.
Or dumping them onto skid row.
"What really hooked me was not the depressing part" of skid row, Foster said. "It was the community itself and the positive outlook of the people who inhabit it. Wherever Nathaniel is with his disease, there's a spirit in him that draws you back."
He feels that way about Terri "Detroit" Hughes too, among others. And as for Hughes, she said she's thankful Foster came along, and even more grateful he never left.
"He cares about each and every individual person, not just me, and he cares about the place," Hughes said. "He's never been done with this movie."