The kid’s got a healthy appetite. In the span of just a few hours on Wednesday, he devoured helpings of lasagna, chicken, pizza and barbecued pork. When he had wolfed down the shredded pork, he took a straw and drank the pool of grease it had been sitting in.
Tyrese is 7, and his energy and spirit are as big as his appetite, which is all the more amazing when you consider that the Union Rescue Mission on skid row in downtown Los Angeles is his 10th place of residence in a short life.
“Tyrese, don’t be trying to kiss the girls,” Union president Andy Bales instructed the young dynamo, who was greeting a friend he liked almost as much as dinner. “Especially not with rice on your lips.”
Tyrese and little brother Tyrell, 5, were chowing down in the Union cafeteria with their mother, Elizabeth Brown, and many of the nearly 100 children who live at the mission for a night, a month or a year.
Time and again, you hear the same story from mothers of the several hundred children living on skid row, mothers who carry physical and emotional scars. More often than not a deadbeat Dad moved on, if he was ever around at all, and Mom couldn’t afford the most modest of shacks in the insane L.A. real estate market. And so the families took to the road, with stopovers at the homes of relatives, fleabag motels and, when the purse was empty, the human catch basin called skid row.
“I explained to them the money was gone and we had to go find another place to stay,” said Brown, who gathered up the kids from their one-room airport motel six months ago and loaded them onto a bus with their bagged belongings. “The only place I knew to go was here. Tyrese said, ‘Mommy, people are sleeping on the sidewalk.’ ”
Sleeping, hustling, using drugs, screaming, dying. It’s no place for a child to be, and there’s a code among skid row adults -- an unwritten contract to shield youngsters from the worst of the street activities. When a child is approaching, the first adult on the street to notice will often warn the others to clean things up, yelling, “Kid walking.”
Tyrese, rather than wait for an adult to step up, has taken it upon himself to call out the warning.
“Kids walking!” he bellows, and the crack pipes that light skid row like Christmas lights are doused, if only for a moment.
“People are doing drugs and things they’re not supposed to do,” Tyrese explained. “I do it for my mother and my little brother.”
His mother, meanwhile, is trying to get them out of here. She loves the hospitality, but she and her kids share a single barracks-like room with two other families, which is too close for everyone’s comfort. At the Union, Brown said, she has come to grips with her failures and rationalizations and vowed to rediscover her pride.
“My first night here I cried,” Brown said. “My mother said she wouldn’t be my crutch any more. I have to become a better adult on my own. A better mother. I have two beautiful children and myself to live for.”
And so she’s taking in-house courses on parenting, financial management and basic life skills. Brown, 27, is smart and well-spoken and figures she can go back to work in a customer relations or sales job, like she used to have.
But where will she live? And what about thousands of others just like her?
I watched as Brown ran through a morning ritual at the Union, where she waits her turn for a computer and checks apartment listings.
“I go to low-income housing in California, but the only ones that look promising are in the Jungle,” she said, referring to a section of the Crenshaw district. “There’s too much crime and shooting to raise my kids there.”
She made her way onto the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website and clicked on subsidized apartments in Southern California.
“Let’s try Lakewood,” she said, launching a search for two-bedroom apartments.
After a few seconds, the computer had her answer.
“No properties meet your criteria.”
“You see? There’s not much out there. I just have to keep my hopes up and do the things I have to do.”
She tried Inglewood, and only one property popped up. The Manor Park Apartments on Market Street.
“I already applied there,” Brown said. “They told me it was six months to a year waiting list.”
Six months, one year, two years. She and other women I spoke to said that’s always the case.
Next Brown tried non-assisted housing. She went to a site called Rentline.com and clicked on Glendale, where a two-bedroom was listed at $1,300. In Crenshaw, a one-bedroom was $785, a two-bedroom $995. In Inglewood, a one-bedroom would run her $750.
Her monthly government assistance check?
She’s owed $225 a month in child support, Brown said, but she’s not holding her breath for that. One father was in the slammer, last she heard, and the other hasn’t been racking up any Dad of the Year awards.
“This is why we’re pushing for Hope Gardens,” said Bales, whose Rescue Mission bought an abandoned housing compound near Sylmar where it hopes to provide transitional housing and job training for 275 women and children trapped on skid row with nowhere to go. But there’s opposition, Bales said, by “some neighbors who live four miles, two mountains and a canyon away.”
L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich could tell those NIMBYs to quit their yapping. Instead, he says through his flack that he hasn’t made up his mind and must be sensitive to community concerns.
Heart of gold, that man. I’d pay honest cash to see Antonovich try to survive on skid row, but I’m not sure the current residents would want his kind in their neighborhood.
Antonovich’s staff claims he’s not the ogre we might think, because he did kick a few bucks to a Pasadena shelter. But the supervisor wasn’t happy, according to his flack, with the $100-million price tag on last week’s county proposal for housing, regional stabilization centers and other homeless services.
Finally, there’s a chance of making some real progress when you combine the county plan with a $50-million housing pledge by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and millions more from the state Mental Health Services Act, and the NIMBYs are lining up like dogs at a fire hydrant.
“It isn’t going to go down well if this city was chosen for one of these centers,” Burbank Mayor Jef Vander Borght told The Times, “and I suspect it will be much the same in other cities. We wouldn’t want to house the county homeless population.”
Beautiful. Looks like Antonovich has a vice president for his troglodyte club.
What is it with these guys? Given the astounding wealth in the Southern California real estate market, public officials ought to be embracing creative solutions like inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build more low-income units. Instead we’ve got political cowards afraid to jeopardize campaign contributions and incur the wrath of fellow NIMBYs.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told me that even if the county plan announced last week beats back challenges, it won’t rescue everyone. But the housing package, along with a rent subsidy program for 900 people, is a start, and it could help someone in Elizabeth Brown’s shoes.
As for Antonovich and Vander Borght, I’d like to close with a few more details on the children they seem willing to turn their backs on.
At the Union Rescue Mission dinner, a girl named Khaliyah, 11, sat next to me with her homework on “Major Events of the Civil War.” After dinner, she read a book called “Goosebumps” to Tyrese, and Tyrell used my notebook to show me his spelling prowess.
A 14-year-old named James pulled out an Irish blessing he had written in longhand.
“May you have warm words on a dark night and the road downhill all the way to your door.”
James told me that when he grows up, he’s going to start a super-profitable computer company so he can “clean up.”
Clean up what? I asked.
“Clean up the world,” he said. “There’s lots of poverty and suffering in every country.”
It was karaoke night at the corner church, and I went with Tyrese, who wore loud orange Hawaiian shorts and tugged me by the hand, and Tyrell, who wanted to be carried. The boys maneuvered around tents and sleeping bags set up on the sidewalk and made their way into a cavernous, warm and crowded room filled with folks like them -- folks who know humility and dignity.
Tyrese put in his name to sing, then went for a slice of pizza. He and Tyrell played with other kids and jumped up on the laps of adults they know. Their mother watched, a little sad, a lot proud. They’ve been such good soldiers, always traveling, and this isn’t the destination she ever had in mind. But for now, it’s home. The boys clapped and hooted their appreciation for one performer after another, occasionally jumping up to dance or sing along.
“I Found Love on a Two-Way Street,” “I Will Survive,” “What A Beautiful World.”
When the call came, Tyrese grabbed a microphone and stomped up to the stage with three little friends to let it rip.
James Brown would have been proud.
“I feel good!” Tyrese sang.
“So good, so good. I got you.
Reach the columnist at email@example.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez