‘Nobody wanted to look at them’ — but this photographer insists that we do

Edward Soto, 27, shoots up Neiko Clayton, 29, with crystal methamphetamine as Karla Saenz, 46, cooks on an adobe stove.
Edward Soto, 27, known as Smokey, shoots up Neiko Clayton, 29, known as Trap, with crystal methamphetamine as Karla Saenz, 46, cooks on an adobe stove in April 2019 at their homeless encampment in the Sepulveda Basin near the Los Angeles River.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

Last fall, I found myself sitting on a trash-strewn couch tucked under the elevated Orange Line busway in the Sepulveda Basin with a man who was heating a meth pipe. He goes by Rabbit and described years spent in and out of prison, falling in with a gang, and his life on the streets of the San Fernando Valley.

His bracing honesty and entrenched hopelessness were startling. I had heard many stories like his but few in such vivid detail and in such a short period of time.

I kept wanting to hear more about how he made a home for himself in the basin, where the concrete-covered Los Angeles River runs right into a densely overgrown riverbed.

“Talk to Ivan. He knows the story,” Rabbit said.

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Ivan is Ivan Kashinsky — an award-winning documentary photographer, Los Angeles native and the man who first brought me to this hidden home for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Ron Clark, 53, gets worked up while having a conversation about Jesus.
Holding a BB rifle, Ron Clark, 53, gets animated during a discussion about Jesus Christ with two other people at a Sepulveda Basin homeless encampment in February 2017. Clark, who came to Los Angeles from Chicago, said he was psychologically and sexually abused as a child and became homeless when he ran away at 14. He was eventually kicked out of the encampment.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

They live in large tents along riverbanks and under overpasses. They run generators and cart in water. They share food and drugs, friendship and heartbreak.

Kashinsky first came here in 2016 after returning from Ecuador, where he lived for more than a decade. When he encountered Rabbit and his cohort living near the river, he was completely absorbed and kept returning.

His visits turned into a years-long effort to document the lives of homeless people in the Sepulveda Basin in a project titled “Where the Concrete Meets the Jungle.”

With time, Kashinsky began to realize that many of these people easily blended into society, that they were easy to overlook.

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“I felt like me being there kind of showed that somebody cared about their situation,” Kashinsky said.

Alan Fagerson, 54, cleans the floor of his home, which is made of wood and found materials.
Alan Fagerson, 54, cleans the floor of his home, dubbed the “homeless mansion,” in Lake Balboa in November 2016. Fagerson, originally from San Bernardino, moved to the San Fernando Valley when he was 19 and had recently finished a 15-year prison sentence. A leader of a nearby homeless encampment later evicted him from the structure, which Fagerson had made out of wood and found materials and had a guest room and a bathroom.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“It almost felt like they wanted to be documented because they’re almost invisible. Nobody wanted to look at them. Everybody turns their heads when they’re walking down the street. They’re kind of like these untouchables almost.”

Kashinsky introduced me to people whose lives had been turned upside down by financial distress, mental tumult and addiction. He also ensured that I heard stories of resilience: the man who managed to shake a meth addiction and move to Arizona to be with his newborn child and wife, and the people who came together to support one another after a fire ripped through their encampment, destroying many of their belongings.

Through the years, in between assignments that took him all across the world, Kashinsky kept coming back to the basin. He kept listening and he kept taking photos. These pictures juxtapose the stillness you might see in an image of a remote vista with the jarringly raw social commentary that is a sad reality in the city with one of the largest homeless populations in the United States.

“I documented tribes in the Amazon, but these are people that were born in the same valley as me,” Kashinsky, 42, said. “Maybe this is even more appropriate for me to be documenting. Like we come from similar roots in a way. This could be somebody I went to high school with.”

Kashinsky followed his subjects into hotels that the county had secured for them at the outset of the pandemic and documented how the coronavirus changed their lives.

Although he’d dreamed of walking the whole Los Angeles River, taking photos along the way, to reacquaint himself with his home, it turned out meeting people like Rabbit provided a deeper understanding of how many Angelenos now live — and a series of indelible images.

Kenneth Colato, 49, known as Rabbit, stands with Lauren, 33, in front of his home underneath a bridge along the L.A. River.
Kenneth Colato, 49, known as Rabbit, stands with Lauren, 33, then his girlfriend, in front of his home underneath a bridge over the L.A. River in Encino in March 2017. Lauren said she was an only child from a wealthy family in Connecticut, where she used to sell insurance, and had been homeless for five years. Rabbit, who said he had spent about half his life in jail or prison, was addicted to heroin and crystal meth and was a member of a white supremacist gang.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“I started doing heroin at 17. I did it enough so I fell in love with it. And it’s been goddamn curse ever since.”

Kenneth Colato

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Kenneth Colato washes off near his home under on the L.A. River in Encino.
Kenneth Colato washes off at a baseball field near his home under the L.A. River in Encino in October 2019.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“To live is to struggle … financially, mentally, emotionally.”

Jesus Saavadera

Jesus Saavadera, 32, known as Danger, gets his newborn son's name tattooed on his shoulder
Jesus Saavadera, 32, known as Danger, gets his infant son’s name tattooed on his shoulder at a homeless encampment on the L.A. River in March 2019. Saavadera said he was introduced to gangs when he was in the fourth grade and spent many years incarcerated. He had been homeless on and off for nine years, and had been separated from his wife and son for six months. But he was determined to reunite with them and now lives with his family in Arizona.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“I made some mistakes in my life I regret. Can I change them? I can’t. What is done is done. I just got to learn how to accept it and revise it. We’re only human. We make mistakes.”

Jesus Saavadera

Jesus Saavadera in the structure where he was staying in Encino in 2019
Jesus Saavadera in the structure where he was staying in Encino in March 2019.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
Elizabeth Bolton, 43, known as Alabama, packs her bags to leave a homeless encampment.
Elizabeth Bolton, 43, known as Alabama, packs her bags to leave the homeless encampment in Encino where she had been living in May 2019. An assistance organization had bought her a bus ticket home to reunite with her family, including her three children.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“I try to tell them that we’re homeless and we need to help each other. But no, they’ll come steal your bike at night and then come the next day and sit at your breakfast table.”

Elizabeth Bolton

Pablo "Paul" Mawyin is comforted by girlfriend Elizabeth Bolton as she prepared to leave the Encino encampment in 2019
Pablo “Paul” Mawyin is comforted by his girlfriend, Elizabeth Bolton, as she prepared to leave the Encino encampment in May 2019.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
Ron Clark rides his bike to his friend Eric's place under a bridge along the L.A. River in May 2018.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
Elizabeth Bolton looks for food in a dumpster in Van Nuys in April 2019.
Elizabeth Bolton looks for food in a dumpster in Van Nuys in April 2019. Bolton said she came to Los Angeles with a traveling circus, split up with the man she came with and ended up living in a homeless community beside the L.A. River, addicted to crystal meth.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
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Elizabeth Bolton puts candles on a birthday cake for her boyfriend, Pablo Mawyin.
Elizabeth Bolton puts candles on a birthday cake for her boyfriend, Pablo Mawyin, in May 2019, but they were fighting and nobody showed up to the party and the food was never eaten.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
Kenneth Colato looks in the mirror in his home under a bridge along the L.A. River.
Kenneth Colato looks in a mirror in his home under a bridge along the L.A. River in the Sepulveda Basin in April 2017.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“I ended up down here at this river. This place is something else. You stay down here long enough, dude, and you turn mean and angry. It holds you here, there’s a serenity to it.”

Kenneth Colato

Kenneth Colato takes firewood back to his home under a bridge in the Sepulveda Basin.
Kenneth Colato takes firewood back to his home under a bridge in the Sepulveda Basin in November 2019.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
Elizabeth Bolton returns to the homeless encampment in Lake Balboa in November 2019.
Elizabeth Bolton looks for a new place to stay in Lake Balboa in November 2019. Even though an assistance organization bought her a ticket home, she got off the bus at the first stop and came back to the homeless encampment.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
Ashley Heldman, 29, opens a suitcase she found along the L.A. River near a homeless community.
Ashley Heldman, 29, opens a suitcase she found along the L.A. River near a homeless encampment in Encino in November 2016. Heldman, who was struggling with alcoholism, came to the community with her boyfriend, who then left her for another woman. She eventually left the encampment and sobered up.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times )

“Over there it was just us. Everyone had each other’s back over there. Yeah, we had our differences, we’re people, but when it came down to it we were all there for each other, for the most part.”

Lauren

Lauren lived in a homeless community but recently moved into a hotel through a program called Project Roomkey.
Lauren, who did not provide her last name, talks on the phone in her room at the Airtel Plaza in Van Nuys on June 15. She moved into the hotel from a homeless encampment in Encino in April under a program called Project Roomkey, which provides shelter for homeless people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)

“Love is one of the only emotions that will not die. That’s what everybody searches for, to be loved.”

Kenneth Colato

Kenneth Colato, who was homeless, has moved into the hotel through the Project Roomkey program.
Kenneth Colato looks out of the peephole in Lauren’s room at the Airtel Plaza in Van Nuys on June 15. He also moved into the hotel under the Project Roomkey program.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times)
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A man from a homeless encampment in Encino smokes crystal meth in his hotel room.
A man from a homeless encampment in Encino smokes crystal meth in his room at the Airtel Plaza in Van Nuys on June 15. He moved into the hotel in May under the Project Roomkey program.
(Ivan Kashinsky / For The Times )
Kenneth Colato prepares to leave Lauren's room at the Airtel Plaza in Van Nuys.
(Ivan Kashinksy / For The Times)