Once a week for the last several years, I've driven to skid row to visit a friend. I get depressed about the area at times because it's such a depository of the unfortunate and the forgotten. But then I'll catch a warm greeting, or see a sign of hope in someone trying to crawl out of a hole they thought they'd never escape.
The friend, by the way, is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the ever-devoted musician who inspired the book and movie "The Soloist." In the process, he helped inspire another movie, "Lost Angels," a documentary that opens Friday night at the ArcLight in Hollywood. (I wrote the book "The Soloist" but have no stake in the documentary.)
"Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home," grew out of the filming of "The Soloist." Dozens of skid row residents, many of them with chronic mental illness, were hired to be in the movie or work on it. One day, about 40 of them were asked to tell their life stories in 60 seconds.
To Thomas Napper, second unit director of "The Soloist," it was a humbling display of honesty. People spoke with humor and humility of their continuing struggles to conquer mental illness, poverty and drug addiction. Napper knew then that he wanted to make "Lost Angels."
The movie has an edge, particularly in going after the city's emphasis on a police response to a human catastrophe. To this day, the best solution to crime, homelessness and mental illness on skid row — permanent supportive housing — is in critically short supply. But the strength of "Lost Angels" is not the politics — it's the telling of the stories that had so moved Napper.
There's the unlikely union of Kevin "KK" Cohen, a 6-foot-7 black man, and Lee Anne "Cat Lady" Leven, a hunched, bespectacled white woman who pushes a shopping cart on a mission to feed and care for the menagerie of skid row cats. Cohen offered protection when Leven was harassed, and they became inseparable.
"She just kind of adopted me as her fiancee," Cohen says in the movie. "Then I started to like her as a person and understand who she is … with her mental illness."
As if to affirm the very purpose of "Lost Angels," several of the featured players have benefited from supportive services and vastly improved their lives since the movie was made. In recent days, I've visited three of them — Danny Harris, Albert "Bam Bam" Olson and Terri "Detroit" Hughes.
I met with Harris at the Midnight Mission, where he has gone from drug-addicted client to being an executive assistant to director Larry Adamson. On my visit, by the way, Adamson said the Midnight will serve its 1 millionth free meal of the year this month, making 2012 the busiest year since the Great Depression.
Harris has one of the more dramatic skid row stories. As an 18-year-old Olympic hurdler, he won a silver medal at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. But as the 1988 Games approached, dirty drug tests ended his career, and his tailspin was steep and swift, the fallen Olympian curled up on city streets.
One of his rock-bottom moments, Harris said, was the death of the grandmother who raised him after his parents died. He said he was high, and "not clear-headed" enough to honor her, a regret that still brings a tear to his eye.
"Let me show you my bed," he said at the Midnight, taking me to bunk C-3-Up. "I did a lot of soul-searching here."
Harris completed drug treatment, got married and coached college track. After he got his college degree, the Midnight offered him a job. Harris now wakes up each day thinking this will be the day he and his colleagues help change someone's life.
"I love watching guys walk in here broken," he said, "and walk out men."
Olson, in the time I've known him, has gone from being homeless, to living in a recovery program at Lamp Community, to living in his own apartment. If you think it's impossible to be charmed by a self-avowed addict and anti-social narcissistic sociopath with gender I.D. disorder and schizophrenia, you haven't met Bam Bam, who speaks like Ratso Rizzo and is always dressed for Mardi Gras.
"It wasn't like I was making a movie, it was like hanging out with a friend," Olson says of his time on "Lost Angels," when Napper became his recovery sponsor. "It changed my life, and a lot of us came to grips with the fact that we have a mental illness."
Like all the other major players, Hughes will be at the ArcLight on Friday and Saturday for a Q&A following the film, which is narrated by actress Catherine Keener. It's a prospect Hughes finds both exciting and sad. Cohen, who was like a big brother and a guru to her and others, was shot and killed on skid row after filming was completed, caught in an ambush apparently intended for a man who also died.
"It'll be like going to his funeral," Hughes said of the premier.
And yet Hughes, who has bipolar disorder, epitomizes the struggle and hope that Cohen represented. In 2007, as an 88-pound addict who tricked to get high, she searched out a place on skid row "to die in, not close to a school, where kids would have to step over my body."
Hughes found her way to Lamp, worked hard to get well, became a peer counselor and is now moving into an administrative position. ("But Steve, you have to tell the world I still want to be an actress and a writer.")
When I met with Hughes, she wanted me to know she paid "open-market rent" for her apartment, with no assistance from anyone. All her bills are covered with her paycheck.
"I've never been this healthy and happy in my life," said Hughes, who had a comment about the title of the documentary.
"That's what we were. Lost Angels."