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Opinion

Opinion: To work on skid row, I’ve had to become inured to suffering

Skid row
Tents line the sidewalks along 5th Street in skid row in Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

She wears silver hot pants when she comes to eat at our soup kitchen on skid row and she affects a regal air like the queen that she is. She dominates the garden with a flip of a wrist or the swish of a feathered boa. At well over 6 feet Jerri looks stunning in her hot pants and her black seamed stockings held up by garters stretched tautly down her thighs. With a silver crop top and towering stilettos she is every inch a royal.

On one recent sunny morning, she was dressed for cold weather in a gray overcoat and sensible shoes and shouting loudly, “I just got evicted, after 13 years I got evicted. I told him that I had the $200, but he said it was too late.” Jerri was pissed and frantic, not her usual regal mood. “Look over here,” she said, pointing to three other people who she said had also been evicted from her skid row building. How could they kick out Ida, an older lady, she asked?

I was standing at the soup kitchen door, held hostage by Jerri’s tirade and plotting in my mind a discreet exit route through the drug dealers, crack smokers and crap players on the sidewalk between me and my car.

Under Jerri’s arm was a folder filled with papers, which she said was evidence against her adversaries. In her hand was a cellphone. She told me she made over 50 phone calls to various social service agencies for help but they put her on hold.

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I couldn’t tell whether Jerri had been discriminated against because she is transgender or if this was a case of mass eviction in an attempt to turn a skid row property into a more lucrative tourist hotel. I thought, I could write her a check for $200 and maybe she would let me go. I could call a lawyer, but it was Saturday. I could help her organize her thoughts but that would take a while and I just wanted to get to my car.

I have a great empathy and affection for Jerri as she is triply victimized. She is transgender, she is black and she’s been homeless. She’s part of the community of African American transgender women who have lived on skid row for almost 50 years along with other misfit angels who have fallen from the grace of social regard, many of whom supplement their meager income by turning an occasional trick or two.

You have to be tough to be a transgender woman anywhere. Even though there’s a higher level of tolerance for all kinds of behavior on skid row, there’s still no shortage of machismo. So you have to have a steel façade along with your silver hot pants and stiletto heels to walk the streets in the persona of your choice. Jerri has that characteristic and I pity anyone who becomes the target of her righteous anger.

She finally paused to take a breath and I bolted to the comfortable enclosure of my car and the reassuring voice of NPR on the radio. But as I drove away from Jerri’s anger and the chaos of the sidewalk in front of the soup kitchen, I felt like I was taking the coward’s way out.

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Jerri had come to me with the intractable problem of eviction and homelessness, hoping that her friends at the Hippie Kitchen and myself in particular, might respond in a more humane manner than the bureaucracies that I have so often criticized for passing the buck. But no, I drove off to my warm home like everyone else, leaving my friends on the streets to fend for themselves.

As someone who has worked on skid row for almost 50 years, I tend to be inured to the scale of the suffering around me. Tents and cardboard condos, wheelchairs, crutches and canes, swollen feet and ill-fitting shoes, amputated legs and arms. People sleeping on sun-warmed sidewalks in the day because they spent the night walking off the cold. I have had to put some limits on my compassion. Like a surgeon, I cannot help the patient unless I am inured somewhat to their pain.

But when the pain becomes personalized, as it has with Jerri, it is unbearable and I can no longer assuage my conscience with the sense that “I am doing what I can” to help feed the homeless, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless.

The next day when I saw Jerri I gave her the cash she said she needed to keep the eviction sheriff away. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, compared with the manifest needs around me. In that moment, I felt, perhaps along with the rest of the city of Los Angeles, that there was simply no room at the inn.

Jeff Dietrich is a founding member of the L.A. Catholic Worker, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020. He is also scholar in residence at the Marymount Institute at Loyola Marymount University.


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