The 52 square blocks that make up Skid Row are not the sort of thing you see in blown-up photographs by the baggage claim at LAX. When the Lakers play on Christmas Day, the TV commercial breaks don’t feature stylized montages of SRO hotels and semi-permanent tent villages packed with thousands of the city’s least fortunate. The Los Angeles Marathon and CicLAvia, wisely perhaps, never slice down San Pedro or Fifth Street.
Frankly, most of us would prefer not to discuss, visit or even acknowledge Skid Row. It’s the neighborhood-sized rug beneath which our society’s shortcomings have been swept. It’s an embarrassment, a de facto reservation where a largely unspoken policy of “out of sight, out of mind” yields horrific fruit.
In the forthcoming election, Los Angeles voters have an opportunity to approve Proposition HHH, a bond measure that will raise 1.2 billion dollars to support 8,000 to 10,000 units of housing and other ancillary relief efforts for the homeless. While I certainly hope that voters will approve HHH, I am terrified that passing the proposition will incorrectly absolve Angelenos of the collective guilt we owe for the condition of our habitually needy.
Throwing money at homelessness has been tried before. The limited efficacy of Housing First, Harm Reduction, Safer Cities, Safe Sleep, Biohazard Exchange, Methadone Treatment, Twelve Step Programs, Workforce Development, Christian Charity and the dozens of other bureaucratic attempts to permanently remedy homelessness remind us that there is no simple, immediate or one-size-fits-all solution to the host of social issues on display in Skid Row.
The reality is that homelessness is far most complicated than the two dimensional equation most people use to wrap their minds around the nightmare of street life in Los Angeles: drugs + poverty + mental illness = Skid Row. This simplification reduces the homeless to a failed “other,” beyond the purview of typical human relatability.
This false equation long dominated my own understanding of the homeless — until April 2015, when I ran across a Facebook ad seeking reading instructors for an adult education program on Skid Row. The ensuing 18 months of weekly classes have steadily disabused me of whatever boilerplate notions I once entertained about homelessness.
Of the hundred or so men I’ve taught, none of them could fairly be characterized as simple in personality, intellect or background. For one reason or another, many missed out on the education most people take for granted. Yet, on a weekly basis, my students approach reading lessons with a curiosity that borders on lust.
They want to understand their world.
Class favorite include Carey McWilliam’s Pershing Square reverie, Woody Guthrie’s description of Fifth Street from “Bound For Glory” and John Fante’s “Ask the Dust.” They feed off of literary portraits of a familiar Los Angeles laced with greater quandaries about the human condition.
They ask marvelous and probing questions about life and philosophy and history and politics. They want answers. They want honesty.
My students are no different from countless other Americans. They work daily to better themselves and improve their circumstances, yet they struggle to reconcile the reality of their lives with the promise that “all men were created equal.”
I routinely find myself at a loss for words to put Skid Row in the context of a nation that touts its wealth, moral superiority and ingenious ability to surmount the most vexing challenges.
Despite the appearance of grotesque depravity and alarming violence, Skid Row is not home to some half-measure of American identity. Far from it. A full panoply of the American character is on display every day in Skid Row.
Men and women who work in SRO housing and on Chrysalis cleaning crews exhibit all the characteristics of that vaunted Protestant work ethic. The sheer hostility of life on the streets requires a fortitude and resourcefulness that harkens back to any hardscrabble pioneer. A certain free market ethos, deplorable as it may be, reveals itself in the underground drug market and sidewalk DVD sales. Even a certain libertarian worship of the rugged individualist archetype shines forth in a mural at 7th and San Julian streets that reads, “I prefer a dangerous freedom.”
This is an uncomfortable truth to come to grips with: that the height of what it means to be an Angeleno or an American is just as evident on Skid Row as it is in San Marino, Beverly Hills or Malibu. Willingly integrating our least-palatable neighborhood into a mental and spiritual map of Los Angeles is a crucial prerequisite to mending what ails Skid Row.
As a city, we can continue to hide our dispossessed beneath a cloak of apathy, disinterest and blame, all the while hoping that the situation miraculously improves with public spending. Or we can accept the fact that far from being a distant aberration, Skid Row is a phenomenon at the core of our city and even national identity.
Even if Proposition HHH passes, the city apparatus alone cannot permanently remedy an entity that exists geographically, politically, spiritually and economically apart. Angelenos willing to commit their tax money to ending homelessness ought to consider their treasure as only a small part of a larger bargain. Hands-on compassion speaks in ways government directed funding cannot.
Until food banks around the region are full, social safety nets are mended, educational opportunities and occupational training heightened, liberal prescription pads and unethical pharmacies closed and public mental health addressed, Skid Row will remain, there or elsewhere.
Skid Row belongs to us one and all. It’s high time we owned it by showing that we are wealthy enough in spirit, effort and honesty to match the money we are willing to invest.
Dan Johnson is a downtown resident and writer. Follow him on Twitter @YankeeJim213.