The 1,000 or so people who sleep on the streets of downtown Los Angeles are perpetually in flight — from their families, from the police, from the pain of childhood abuse, bad jobs, poverty, dead loved ones. They scatter and collect like birds, alighting on crates and curbs, sitting in rows on filthy stretches of sidewalk. They ache at night in tents and in cardboard shanties.
The nation’s largest homeless district, skid row spans 50 square blocks of downtown Los Angeles. To enter here is to confront a society that is raw, scavenging, extraordinarily complex.
“You got to look at the deepness of it,” says crack user Shawn Nolan, 29. “There’s a lot of madness — people going through trials and tribulations, people getting beat up.... When you see someone going off, it’s the pain he’s feeling.”
Skid row extends from Third to Seventh streets, and from Main to Alameda streets. It is a pastiche of cinderblock and razor wire, corner drug dealers and roving preachers, food lines and discarded shoes, plastic plates and wet toilet paper in the gutters. It rumbles with the rush of trucks, and it stinks of urine, rotting melons and marijuana smoke.
Over the course of a century, skid row has become only larger and more entrenched, bloating to such a tangle of unmet needs, crime and sheer numbers that no remedy appears in sight.
At least 11,000 people bed down here every night, most in some 60 single-room-occupancy hotels established just to house them. A few thousand others climb into the bunks and cubicles of hulking homeless missions, or check into the suites of formerly grand old hotels such as the Cecil and the Rosslyn.
The rest inhabit the sidewalks and the undersides of bridges spanning the Los Angeles River. Their skid row operates 24 hours; its cycles are tied to county checks and busy shelter kitchens.
Moving from one food line to the next, a man can eat five or six meals a day, without ever spending a dime. Church emissaries motor through the streets distributing fruit, McDonalds hamburgers, water bottles, T-shirts, jeans, sleeping bags and tents.
Every Sunday, a congregation gathers on Sixth Street, where retired priest Maurice Chase gives away dollar bills. Known on skid row as “The Dollar Man,” Chase maintains a ritual that began 20 years ago. Toward the end of the month, when welfare checks are spent, some 3,000 people line up.
They wait as long as two hours for a single dollar, then slip away to buy cigarettes, coffee, beer or crack cocaine.
— David Ferrell
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