‘Helping the Homeless Help Themselves’ : Team of Ex-Addicts, Street People Aid Those on Skid Row

Times Staff Writer

Twilight comes hard to Skid Row. As a warm dusk gives way to a cool evening, violet clouds turn gray and the skyscrapers of downtown light up in the west.

The line at the Los Angeles Mission stretches into the shadows. Those at the front grumble about the food, those at the rear worry over there being any left. A man stumbles past the bedraggled crowd, offering to sell his meal ticket for a quarter; there are no takers.

At the end of the line, a short, stout man mumbles something in a strange admixture of Spanish and English. He drops an empty bottle clangorously to the ground and keels over, knocking down two other men. They prop him up, one places his cap back on his head. He slumps over again and hugs his plastic trash bag stuffed with belongings like a pillow.

The dark mural is broken by a splash of color: two men in bright yellow hats and sweaters, Charles Davis and L. C. Edwards, who work the line offering neither food nor religion. Hope is their ware.

Formerly Homeless

Edwards, a tall affable man, quick with a toothless smile, and Davis, a straight talker with close-cropped hair, work for the Homeless Outreach Program, a team of former homeless people and recovering drug addicts living and working on the “Row.” Their mission is to bridge the gap between homeless people and the plethora of social services that are out there but often not used. So far, they’ve handed out almost 200 referrals to more than 30 agencies, often escorting people past the door.


In front of the mission, a man named Chuck, his face a wide grin, bounds up to them. A few days before, they found Chuck a job washing and waxing floors for minimum wage. It might not sound like much, but for Chuck, it’s the first, albeit tentative, step back toward the middle-class existence he lost touch with last year when alcoholism tore him from his wife and family in Pasadena.

As he thanks the two, Chuck says he still hasn’t gotten his first pay check and, well, you know, doesn’t have a place to sleep. In a flash, one of the clipboard-wielding team is inside the mission calling his boss, Mike Neely, who rings up a shelter and gets them to find a bed. The duo walk Chuck to the shelter.

‘You’re Isolated’

As a homeless person, said Neely, the program’s founder: “You lose family and friends as well as your home. You’re isolated. What we’re doing is reconnecting them to human beings.”

Three years ago, Neely, a recovering drug addict, left a job as an analyst with an aerospace company to champion the homeless. Before he knew it, Neely, 40, found himself homeless. In November, he got a $56,000 grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency to launch a six-month program that he hopes to continue past its expiration date in April.

“We don’t operate like normal people,” Neely said. “We operate like homeless people.”

That means having men with 80-proof breath screaming in their faces, working at night, in the rain, being offered drugs they’re trying to kick and often going home shaken with a sense of their own helplessness.

But is also means that some of the people they walk into detox centers, check into hotels, find job-training programs for or just listen to have a better chance than they did before to break out of the revolving door that keeps flinging people toward missions and shelters.

“Helping the homeless help themselves,” is how Neely explains it. “We don’t want to recreate anything the programs are doing; we want to help them to do better. We’re reconnecting the disconnected.”

They also do AIDS outreach, passing out bleach and condoms, and last week started bringing people back to their 6th Street office for a drug abuse outpatient program, the only such treatment on Skid Row.

From hundreds of surveys compiled by the team, this portrait emerges: the average homeless person is black (67%); he has a drug and alcohol problem (60%); almost half aren’t receiving any social services; and about a quarter have been homeless for less than a month.

Estimates on Skid Row’s population differ from about 1,000 people actually sleeping on the streets to Neely’s guess of 4,000 people, including those living in SROs (single-room-occupancy hotels).

“The people out on the sidewalk are all black and brown,” Neely said. “The providers of service are mostly white and middle class. What’s going on?”

While most service operators on the Row agreed that Neely’s group helps many individuals, they question whether the “handholding” approach is the best way to help the homeless.

“Until there’s affordable housing, places for people to go, a hundred Mike Neelys and a hundred Chrysalis Centers aren’t going to do anything,” said John Dillon, who runs the self-help Chrysalis Center.

Unavailable Services

Philip Estrada, who was homeless for three years and now works for the outreach program, disagrees: “People take it for granted that everybody knows the services here. That’s not the case.”

Most Skid Row services don’t do a good job of outreach, said Michael Dear, an urban planning professor at USC who is evaluating the program.

“If you get to them quick, you have a chance of getting them out,” he said. “Neely’s group is going out, scouring, getting these people fresh--now. It’s a different approach. What Neely’s doing is hooking people in.”

Verta Nash, who coordinates the county’s cold-weather program, credits Neely with cutting through a lot of red tape and also being partly responsible for filling the shelters.

“The trust factor means a lot,” she said.

‘Bit of Respect’

“Because of these little yellow hats,” Neely said, tapping the baseball cap with the HOP logo that always seems to be pushed back on his head, “we’ve been able to bring a little bit of respect, a little bit of hope and joy to a community that is really desperate. As a homeless person, one of the things that happens is that you become invisible, in a sense. They don’t talk to you, they talk at you. No one talks with them. We make it a point to listen to them.”

Sometimes, however, there’s not much they can tell them. One day, more than a dozen Mexican immigrants confronted Estrada, demanding help. There was nothing he could do.

Illegal immigrants are ineligible for many services, so is anyone without an ID. About a quarter of those encountered by the outreach program don’t get referrals because of that reason.

“A person without papers is not a person, but you can’t stop him from being alive,” Neely said.

“The hardest words out of our mouths are, ‘There is nothing we can do.’ Those words tear us up,” Neely said. “You can just feel the silence as it closes in on us. Damn, it makes you feel so small and little.”

Team Problems

In a heavily barred, brick building with no sign, the outreach team, each of whom gets $950 a month, relaxes in well-worn office chairs between forays on the streets. The other end of the grimy room is used for meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous. The team frequents both. Sometimes that’s not enough. Three of the four original team members have left--two because of drug problems.

For Estrada, sober for a year, the battle still rages.

“I can taste it,” said Estrada of the rock cocaine that vies with the outreach program for souls on the Row.

Denise Lewis, the only woman on the four-person team, has lived in a clean and sober hotel for two months. She shares a room with three other recovering addicts and attends the weekly house meeting. She hates it.

The house, she says, is always noisy. The other women rummage through her belongings. She wants to move out; her friends think it’s a bad idea.

Given Ultimatum

“I need to be in a clean and sober hotel,” Edwards said. “I’d sleep in the TV room if I had to to be there. I need to be there.”

Finally, Neely gave her a choice: she could stay put for one more month or she could look for a new job.

“I don’t want to live there anymore,” she wailed, over and over, breaking into sobs.

“The sidewalk I saw you on is still there,” Edwards said.

“It ain’t easy living there,” she cried.

Neely walked over to her desk and, towering over Lewis as she wept into her hands, yelled: “Staying sober ain’t easy.”

“But I can’t deal with those bitches. I tried.”

“You ain’t dealing with them, you’re dealing with you,” Neely boomed. “They’re not the ones trying to stay sober. You’re the one trying to stay sober. Stay inside yourself.”

Lewis eventually promised to try. Neely hugged her. “One more month,” she muttered repeatedly. “No mas.

Crack-Buying Corners

Walking past the sprawled men, Estrada pointed out the street corners where people mass to buy crack--where he used to. He motioned to the processing plant where men pay $.50 for fish parts to fry in dented pans over sidewalk fires.

“All these people should get the hell out of L.A.,” Estrada said. “They get robbed, raped and wind up here. Once you get into this little maze here you’ll never get out of it.

“The women they can’t get a job so they turn to prostitution. The men, they sell drugs. It’s sad but that’s life.”

The rhythm of the street changes little with the weather.

Under dull gray skies and a steady drizzle, the lines still stretch in front of the missions, men still huddle together, sharing hits on a crack pipe and, when the downpour lets up, fires still burn in trash cans.

Estrada is constantly greeted by people as he trudges down the rain-slicked streets. Their salutation is not a handshake, but a question that cuts to the heart of a homeless person’s existence: Are the buses running tonight? Yes, he says.

But some people seem oblivious to the rain.

Holding a plate of chicken and potatoes in one hand, the other clutching a cup of punch, a man walking out of a mission offered Estrada his dinner for 50 cents. “Wish I had 50 cents,” Estrada retorted. His hands shaking, the man continued on, leaving a trail of red Kool-Aid in his wake.