We're connected in ways we may not realize, and not just on downtown's margins. The police officers, social workers, teachers in schools that serve skid row's children, the clerks in the local stores ... They go home to Orange County, Pasadena, Van Nuys, Inglewood.
The idea that we can wall off skid row — a place many of us will never see — is a comfortable illusion, now punctured by disease.
And conventional methods to track public health threats may not be enough to stop the spread of the county's worst TB outbreak in a decade.
"You're looking for the mentally ill to come and tell you they've got TB? That's not going to happen," said Manuel Compito, a skid row resident and volunteer with Operation Face Lift, which sponsors weekly cleanups.
He wants attention paid to the circumstances that spawned and fuel this outbreak: inadequate healthcare, filthy streets, mental illness, drug addiction, financial instability.
So do doctors and activists who work with skid row's residents. "Let's not put a Band-Aid on this," said Dr. V. Diane Woods, who has spent the past two years researching disparities in mental health treatment.
Woods thinks there ought to be mass testing and health officials working the streets.
"If this was a middle-class community, there would be more urgency," said Woods. People would be tracked down and quarantined, instead of being gently urged to come in for tests or report peers who are coughing up blood.
"There's a different conversation when it's skid row," Woods said. "People say 'Those are just homeless people. They're nasty, they don't take care of themselves.'
"But TB is not a homeless disease," Woods told the meeting Wednesday night. "The bacteria don't discriminate. The host is any human in this room. Anyone can be at risk if they are in the presence of someone and they come in contact with a pathogen."
Suddenly I wished I had one of those paper masks. My nostrils felt funny and I began to twitch any time someone around me coughed.
The county public health department plans to post a link to testing centers on its website, http://www.publichealth.lacounty.gov.
Tests are already being offered at the Central area health center, at 241 N. Figueroa St. in downtown Los Angeles.