Newsletter: A 24-hour shift with the firefighters of L.A.’s skid row

Station No. 9 firefighter Tony Navarro looks on as a homeless woman walks by during a training session
Firefighter Tony Navarro of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Station No. 9 looks on as a homeless woman walks by during a training session in August.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Feb. 21, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

If one were tasked with designating the geographical epicenter of human suffering in modern-day California, it would be near impossible to draw a map that didn’t have Los Angeles’ skid row as its focal point. Now zoom in on that map.

Amid the traffic and tent-lined sidewalks at the intersection of 7th and San Julian streets, there is a red brick building. That brick building houses one of the busiest fire stations in the country.

The roughly 60 firefighters at LAFD’s Station No. 9 are more than just first responders. They’ve become, as my colleague Ben Oreskes put it, “the unlikely rank and file on the front lines of California’s escalating homelessness crisis.” (Longtime Essential California readers will recognize Ben’s name — he used to write this newsletter.)


In a new story, Ben chronicles what it’s like to spend 24 hours at Station No. 9, joining firefighters on calls, for training and during meals.

[Read the story: “Horror, fatigue and constant calls: 24 hours with skid row’s firefighters” in the Los Angeles Times]

In 2019 alone, the station logged nearly 22,800 emergency calls across just 1.28 square miles — about 7,500 more than the city’s next-busiest station. I asked Ben to tell newsletter readers about how the story came about and what it was like to spend a 24-hour shift with firefighters on skid row. Here’s what he had to say:

It all started with a tip from another journalist.

Sam Hodgson — a photographer at our sister newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune — reached out to me after hearing how the firefighters of Station No. 9, the busiest in Los Angeles, had struck up a friendship with a homeless man who lived across the street.

The man, who goes by Mango, helps stop traffic when the firetrucks pull out and sometimes follows the “Nines,” as they’re called, to scenes of fires. Once a blaze is out, he sometimes helps roll up the hoses and clean up, Hodgson told me.


Mango also beds down in a tent with a friend who goes by Popeye. They are two of the thousands of homeless Angelenos who live on the blocks that surround Station No. 9.

This station is responsible for skid row, and as I heard more about the firefighters’ relationship with Mango, I also became intrigued by the nature of their work.

It’s a job that is nonstop, unrelenting and draining to the body, mind and soul. These men — and, yes, they are all men — come across medieval diseases and despair at such a scale that it led a United Nations official to compare skid row to a Syrian refugee camp.

The bulk of the firefighters’ work involves responding to medical calls. They ferry homeless people to the hospital for a range of ailments all the time. Their calm and almost serene demeanor throughout the time I spent with them made it almost hard for my colleague, photographer Wally Skalij, to capture the urgency of their work.

Skalij and I spent several days hanging around the station before embedding with the C shift for a full 24-hour shift.

That day and night were a blur of running to and from the truck, mixed in with moments of quiet and fun inside Station No. 9. (Read the part of the story about nunchucks!)


I hoped to understand how it feels to respond to thousands of calls a month only to see the same homeless people back on the streets after cycling in and out of the ER. I learned that these firefighters have a unique vantage point on this crisis.

Hopefully, seeing it from their perspective through my story will open Angelenos’ eyes to how complicated a policy and humanitarian issue we Californians are truly facing.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

In a “high-octane” drive to widen access for more middle- and low-income students, USC will eliminate tuition for families earning $80,000 or less annually and will no longer consider home equity in financial aid calculations. The new policies, announced Thursday by USC President Carol Folt, will place the private campus on par with the public University of California, long known as a national leader in generous financial aid policies and high numbers of low-income students. Los Angeles Times

Did the “liberal lion” of the 9th Circuit bully and harass his clerks? More than 70 former clerks of the late federal appeals court Judge Stephen Reinhardt have signed a statement expressing support for a woman who said Reinhardt sexually harassed her. Los Angeles Times


For Angelenos who live in their cars, a secured parking lot offers a nightly haven. Nearly 16,000 people dwell in their cars across Los Angeles. Los Angeles Daily News


An examination of LACMA debt: Can the museum afford its Peter Zumthor-designed building? Los Angeles Times

A former child actor is running for an L.A. County judge seat. If elected, Troy Slaten wouldn’t be the only former child actor holding elected office around here. Long before joining the county Board of Supervisors, a young Sheila Kuehl played the teen genius love interest on CBS’ “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” Hollywood Reporter

Las Taqueras: Meet three prominent women in the male-dominated world of tacos. Los Angeles Times

Maria Cardenas cooks on the Tacos La Madrina truck parked in Hesperia.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Hotel Bel-Air and the restaurant Providence have been awarded five diamonds in AAA’s round of annual ratings, which also saw plenty of movement among Southern California hotels and restaurants. Los Angeles Times

Can a show about gentrification be funny? That’s the question for the new bilingual Netflix series “Gentefied,” which is set in Boyle Heights. New York Times


Plus: Here’s L.A. Times TV critic Robert Lloyd’s answer to that question. Los Angeles Times

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Rep. Adam B. Schiff writes that the “impeachment trial of President Trump has ended, but the threat to our democracy continues.” In a new op-ed for The Times, Schiff (D-Burbank) argues that legislative guardrails to defend against any authoritarian-minded president must now be a top priority for Congress. Los Angeles Times

Who is reaching Native Americans ahead of the March 3 primary? Here’s a look. Redding Record Searchlight

A GOP candidate says he lives in Turlock, a city in the Central Valley congressional district he hopes to represent. But opponents and some neighbors argue that Ted Howze actually resides in a Stockton gated community about an hour away and outside the district. (For what it’s worth, there’s no law that says a congressional member has to live in their district. The U.S. Constitution only requires them to live within the same state, so it’s a question of optics rather than eligibility.) Modesto Bee

Why is Big Oil pumping money into Ventura County’s Board of Supervisors elections? Ventura County is the third-most important area in California for oil and gas production, behind Kern and Los Angeles counties. Ventura County Star



Oakland’s police chief is out. The Oakland Police Commission made the unanimous decision to fire Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick in a closed session on Thursday. San Francisco Chronicle

California students sued because they were such poor readers. On Thursday they won $53 million so that the state’s lowest-performing schools can do better. Los Angeles Times


An Oakland high school was shut down after toxic groundwater was found below the campus. School was canceled Thursday and officials do not expect to resume class until next week, or until tests show the chemical did not seep into the air inside classrooms. East Bay Times


The days of fast growth are ending for L.A. and California, per a new report. The city and state face a housing crisis and a “demographic time bomb,” leading to sluggish growth, according to the L.A. County Economic Development Corp. Los Angeles Times

Before that French Laundry, there was Sally Schmitt’s French Laundry. Opened in 1978, Schmitt’s French Laundry was an influential restaurant that pioneered California cuisine — and then it was eclipsed by the Thomas Keller-helmed establishment that took its place. Los Angeles Times

The Oakland A’s have (mostly) ditched the radio for the internet. You’ll only be able to hear live games on the internet except in a few cities. The Verge


It’s Girl Scout cookie season, and a La Verne teen is pictured on every box of Trefoil cookies. The 14-year-old Girl Scout is a freshman at Bonita High. Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Meet the husband-and-wife ceramicist team that supplies Napa’s top restaurants. What, you thought wine country diners were eating Michelin-starred food from off-the-rack plates? San Francisco Chronicle


Los Angeles: sunny, 70. San Diego: partly sunny, 67. San Francisco: partly sunny, 70. San Jose: cloudy, 74. Sacramento: partly sunny, 74. More weather is here.


“The writers who fell apart in Hollywood would have fallen apart in Zabar’s; the flaw was in them, not the community...”

— John Gregory Dunne, “Quintana & Friends”

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.