Monthly Archives: March 2013

Monks are Always Poor: A Reflection From Skid Row

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(Image: Run Down but not knocked-down)

It seems crazy to me that as a born and bred Angeleno, I haven’t been to Skid Row before. Somehow, though, this week’s visit didn’t feel entirely new or foreign to me; there was something familiar in both the place and in the faces.

Our group – the students of Danny Fisher’s ‘Spiritual Leadership’ course at University of the West – assembled at Pershing Square. We were advised to have a ‘buddy’ and to stay close once we crossed into what is considered the boundary of Skid Row. Personally, I wasn’t scared or apprehensive, just curious. How strange, indeed, to be on a ‘field trip,’ for the purpose of observation only, to one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. It felt, in a way, like going to another country.  When I travel, part of the thrill is knowing that I’m going to be out of my comfort zone and wondering how exactly I’m going to handle that. A trip to a place like Skid Row feels a little bit like scuba diving with sharks: watching from the ‘safety’ of the wetsuit and mask, knowing they are animals like the rest of us, but being fully aware of their potential for ferocity. I’m not trying to equate the homeless with sharks, but the reports that come out of Skid Row make it clear that one should proceed with care and vigilance.

The smells hit me first: urine, the most present and immediate stench, feces, diesel, cigarette smoke, and marijuana. Then the visual: the blue tarps covering the belongings of who-knows-who (protected with a formal sign on the fence against which they were stashed that read: Private Property, Not Abandoned) the broken chairs, blankets, jackets, beanies, shopping carts, trash, feces – animal or human?, and, of course, the people. Nearly all of them were dark-skinned and under the shadows of tree cover, which made the white teeth on the smiling faces all the more surprising. Were they smiling at us? The sounds: background city noise, some quiet chatter, and the rustling of bags and clothes and shifting chairs and tents and mattresses as this community was waking up. It was fairly early still, and very little traffic was flowing through the streets, making it feel actually kind of peaceful. What was I expecting? People arguing with each other, shouts across the streets, knife fights, police calling on their bullhorns, sirens, dogs barking?

As it turns out, the ‘wetsuit’ was much thicker than I thought. Our ‘protection’ – traveling together as a group – created a reciprocal awe from those we were observing. Among us were four robed monastics, and this created a lot of chatter amongst the homeless. In addition to the many “Good Morning!”s offered to us directly, here are some snippets of conversations that I overheard:

Two women standing next to a pile of possessions excitedly talking and watching us as we walked by:

Oh! They’re foreign exchange students!

Oh, is that what they are?

Yeah, yeah, exchange students.

A couple of men sitting in lawn chairs on dirty concrete smoking cigarettes looked out at us with wide eyes:

Monks!

Monks?! Oh, yes, (laughter) well I guess they are!

 Down the street a woman shouting at our group:

Candy for twenty-five cents! A piece of candy for twenty-five cents!

An acquaintance offered: They’re monks!

He hesitated and then said in resignation: Monks are always poor.

Yeah, yeah, monks are always poor! (laughter)

I know we just saw a tiny sliver of life on Skid Row at a calm part of the day; I know there’s more often than not violence, disorder, and suffering; and I know there are many living there that deserve more and better. Yet there were also visible signs of contented-ness and conviviality and camaraderie that I was surprised to see. I don’t want to sound naïve or to romanticize Skid Row by any means (and perhaps this is a defense mechanism so I can remain comfortable in my own relative wealth), but I’m not convinced that poverty equates to suffering. As one of the narrators pointed out in the documentary Lost Angels: Skid Row is my Home (2010), “Skid Row is full of contradictions: it can be violent, chaotic, frightening, but it can also be a refuge, a place to get well, to find acceptance, to be free.” I didn’t feel the desperation in these people that I thought I would. I left with a feeling of sadness – a sadness connected to not knowing the people or their stories or their needs, but not of hopelessness.

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Skid Row: “A Very Cool Place”

Estimates for the number of homeless people living on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles County range from 83,347[1] in October 2005 to 51,340[2] in 2011. Of this number, 42% or more individuals are chronically homeless, homeless for one or more years or with four or more incidences of homelessness over a period of 3 years. These chronically homeless also “have one or more disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse, and health conditions.” These conditions are barriers to overcoming homelessness.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the homeless population has increased.[3]

To cite Mark Twain, “there are liars, damned liars, and statisticians.”[4]

There are no accurate figures. There are homeless. The largest concentration of chronically homeless in the United States reside in the Central City East District of Downtown Los Angeles between 3rd and 7th Streets and Alameda and Main, an area known as Skid Row.

So, on March 19, 2013, I joined Danny Fisher and my classmates from the University of the West Spiritual Leadership course to walk through Skid Row. There is a reason why Liberation Theology demands co-location with the poor. Only through direct exposure can one begin to understand the experience of the poor. Individual responsibility and accountability for poverty is a function of varying degrees of agency in the socioeconomic structures of oppression. The poor and oppressed have no agency. Rather, power is asymmetrically distributed. Power relies on dualism, the rendering of a class of individuals as the “other.” Direct exposure, seeing things-as-it-is, penetrates the illusion of dualism.

As a native Los Angeleno, this was not my first time in Downtown Los Angeles or Skid Row. As a child, I had learned to walk over bodies and around human urine and excrement to get through Skid Row. This time, my experience of Skid Row was different.

The first thing that hits you is the smell of urine. Forget the official dimensions of Skid Row. The boundaries of Skid Row are marked in urine. A colleague tried not to vomit from the overpowering smell. I stopped and examined the gestalt.

Along a chain link fence lined with tarp-covered shopping carts, homeless people slept. Everyone sleeps. Everyone drinks. Everyone, especially in the cold, gets up at some point in the night to urinate. I do it. The homeless do it. I looked around. No available bathrooms in sight. So, there were rivers of urine and, sometimes, human feces. Like the famous book says, “Everyone poops.”[5] How can these basic human activities be criminalized when there are no alternatives.

We continue to walk. Several times we observe drug use; most obvious is the occasional smell of marijuana. Someone comments, “Well, they seem to have money for drugs.”

I reply. I don’t know the stories of the individuals here. For some, perhaps many, I imagine substance abuse played a role in arriving here and remaining here. I imagine drugs help many individuals survive the pain of being here and other pains; illegal drugs can be a source, perhaps the only source, of self-medication. I am pretty sure no one here has health insurance. Drugs might also be one of the few economic opportunities available.

As we walked, I saw a younger man walking toward us. He was homeless. He was white. He had an above-average amount of muscularity. And, his stride…his stride was a form I associated with the streets, but it failed to entirely mask a solidity I recognized from military service. He was cleaner than the others, a more recent arrival, I figured. As he crossed the street, our eyes connected. For a moment, I saw fragility. Then, right before he arrived at the sidewalk, his eyes became dead. He leaned down into the urine-soaked gutter and stood up holding a cigarette butt. Without breaking stride, he smelled it, pocketed it, and kept on walking.

Gabor Mate described such people as hungry ghosts.[6] Yet, the persistence of Skid Row adjacent to billions of dollars in real estate development and commerce suggested to me that a greater level of greed, anger, and ignorance is manifested in the avarice of the developers.

I sat with my classmates and professor at the Los Angeles Public Library and meditated upon the experience. For the first time in my life, I opened myself to feeling the experience of Skid Row. I wept. The city in which I was born and raised, the City of Angels, and its socioeconomic structures, are maintaining my brothers and sisters in a state of oppression.

In our discussion, one single observation emerged. People care for one another in Skid Row. There is a community.

It is a community under attack.

According to the DCBID, billions of dollars in investment are helping Downtown realize its “full potential as a great place to live, work and play.”[7] Per Chris Cooper, CEO of Los Angeles-based real estate firm Charles Dunn Co., “more and more people are saying downtown is a very cool place.”[8]

Such statements make it obvious. The “homeless,” the created “other,” no longer merely don’t count. The residents of Skid Row are now seen…as a threat to hundreds of billions of dollars of return on investments.

The homeless are under attack. Even the term homeless is an attack. It individualizes the problems of poverty and oppression. These individuals are not homeless. Skid Row is home. Injunctions stopped the previous tactics of seizing the property of homeless individuals. So, the tactic is to individualize, de-humanize, and criminalize the residents of Skid Row.

In 2012, Central City East’s annual arrests for part one crimes, “a category that includes all violent crimes and serious property-related offenses,” increased 12%. Annual arrests for violent crimes increased 5%. According to the Los Angeles Times, crime did not increase; arrests increased. The homeless are being targeted as part of the Safer Cities Initiative, “a crackdown on low-level offenses in Skid Row” enabling authorities to report that “crime plummeted by 30%.”[9]

Behind this effort is the Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID), a coalition of 1,200 property owners united in their commitment to “enhance the quality of life in Downtown Los Angeles. The organization helps the 65-block central business district achieve its full potential as a great place to live, work and play” (emphasis added).[10]

Per the Los Angeles Times, the homeless population is “surging back” while funding and donations supporting the homeless have been cut.[11] Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 are at all-time highs. The contrast is clear. To cite Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, there really are The Rich and the Rest of Us.[12]

Like Chris Cooper said, “more and more people are saying downtown is a very cool place.”[13] I agree. From the perspective of the residents of Skid Row under imminent threat of destruction from developers, Los Angeles has become a very cold place indeed.


[1] Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, “Los Angeles’ Skid Row,” Author, October, 2005, http://www.lachamber.com/clientuploads/LUCH_committee/102208_Homeless_brochure.pdf

[2] Hayley Fox, “Volunteers Descend on Skid Row Tonight for ‘Homeless Count,’” Southern California Public Radio, January 29, 2013, http://blogdowntown.com/2013/01/7125-volunteers-descend-on-skid-row-tonight-for

[3] Alexandra Zavis, “Skid row street population surges back in Los Angeles: A city initiative had helped to reduce the numbers and clean up the sidewalks, but the weak economy and other factors have reversed the trend,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/31/local/la-me-skid-row-homeless-20120328

[4] Benjamin Disraeli as cited in Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper Collins, 1996/1959), 195.

[5] Taro Gumi, Everyone Poops (La Jolla: Kane Miller, 193).

[6] Gabor Maté, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Berkeley: Close Encounter Books, 2010).

[7] Downtown Los Angeles Center Business Improvement District (DCBID), “DCBID Annual Reports,” Author, Accessed March 30, 2012, http://www.downtownla.com/5_03_annualReports.asp

[8] Jennifer Popovec, “New Projects Fuel Downtown L.A.’s Transformation,” National Real Estate Investor, July 28, 2011, http://nreionline.com/national/new-projects-fuel-downtown-las-transformation

[9] Ryan Vailancourt, Ámid Rising Crime, LAPD Overhauls Skid Row Unit: Downtown Cops Beef Up Patrols, Preach Prevention and Outreach,” Los Angeles Downtown News, January 17, 2013, http://www.ladowntownnews.com/news/amid-rising-crime-lapd-overhauls-skid-row-unit/article_35ca88d4-60cc-11e2-950c-001a4bcf887a.html

[10] DCBID.

[11] Zavis.

[12] Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (Carlsbad: Smiley Books, 2012).

[13] Popovec.

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Whose Kamma Is It, Anyway? A Reflection on a Visit to Skid Row And The Importance of Compassion.

Today, the Spiritual Leadership class at University of the West, led by Danny Fisher, visited Skid Row, Los Angeles. We walked through the heart of Skid Row in an attempt to see the reality of poverty in the United States, a complex subject we have been studying in class.

Poverty is not unfamiliar to me. Due to the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887, a notorious act of legal thievery which opened Indian Reservations to white settlement, my Caucasian family, in 1964, was able to buy land on the Flathead Indian Reservation of Montana. I spent my childhood there, a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience.

The rural poverty of the reservation is different from the urban poverty of Skid Row, yet also very similar. The common suffering is shown in the worn, lined faces found in both places. An edge of anger is there as well as I saw when two residents were clearly upset with our presence. Not as bad as the beer bottles I had thrown at me from passing cars during my childhood on the Reservation (luckily the throwers were usually drunk and missed). But on the Reservation I don’t remember seeing as many people mentally and physically ill. On Skid Row, seeing people suffering from mental and physical illness was unavoidable. I remember a man on crutches, his left leg hugely swollen, hobbling down the street. Wheel chairs abounded (thank you whoever provided them). But what I felt walking through Skid Row was something much more positive. I felt I was walking through a community. People greeted each other and conversation surrounded us. My impression was that the most vulnerable members were being taken care of by those more fit.

As will be discussed below, Appellants’ declarations demonstrate that they are not on the streets of Skid Row by informed choice. In addition, the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty reports that homelessness results from mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, low-paying jobs, and, most significantly, the chronic lack of affordable housing…

It also reports that between 33% and 50% of the homeless in Los Angeles are mentally ill, and 76% percent of homeless adults in 1990 had been employed for some or all of the two years prior to becoming homeless…

[A]pproximately 14% of homeless individuals in Los Angeles are victims of domestic violence.

— JONES v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES, 2006, emphasis mine.

Skid Row is the last refuge of many who find their way here, but it is gentrifying, leading to a reduction in affordable Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels.  These hotels are used by the poor to get off the street. New buildings were under construction a couple of blocks inside the boundaries of Skid Row. Hopefully this will be new homes for the poor, but I wonder. A building on the edge of Skid Row that appeared to have been a SRO hotel now offered leases at $800 a month.  Few poor people in Skid Row could afford this rent, or have enough stability to sign a lease. LA County General Relief to the homeless is only $221 a month, an amount has not changed since Clinton was President. Residents frequently have a room during the early part of the month and then live on the street when their money runs out (http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/local/me-welfare20 and http://www.lafla.org/service.php?sect=govern&sub=relief).

I was struck by the lack of homeless white people. Everyone living on the street was Black. Are different racial groups segregating themselves and we just did not find the white people? I researched the racial demographics of Skid Row and found wildly varying numbers. Finally I decided to use the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) figures. They did not break out the racial demographics of Skid Row but instead had numbers for all homeless in LA County. According to the Agency, roughly 44% of the homeless population is Black. In LA Country Blacks make up 8% of the population. On our walk the percentage Black people living on the street was much higher than 44%.

What might account for this? Perhaps I overlooked people of different races. Perhaps the population demographics vary wildly depending on time of day or year. So I used Google Street View (which looked to be taken in the summer) to confirm what I saw. Using Google Street View I found the same high percentage of Black homeless. It is also possible the Black population has less financial resources and they had run out of money to rent SRO housing. It is also possible, since there are more homeless in Skid Row than housing, that there is some sort of discrimination making it difficult for Black people to get into SRO housing. Unfortunately there was no information in the LAHSA report which would allow me to tease out what was happening, which I find an interesting fact in itself. For those of you interested the report can be found at http://www.lahsa.org/docs/2011-Homeless-Count/HC11-Detailed-Geography-Report-FINAL.PDF.

As I have studied at UWest I have often thought about the role of kamma (Sanskrit: karma) in social inequality. I note here that I approach this subject as a person influenced deeply by Theravada Buddhism as taught in the Pali Canon.

Is Skid Row a form of hell where homeless people find themselves because of unskillful acts in this or previous lives (deterministic kamma) or is the situation more complex and non-linear? Of all the teachings of Buddhism I understand kamma the least. In the Pali Canon the Buddha declares the precise working out of kamma to be one of the four unconjecturables that “bring madness & vexation.”

There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

The Buddha-range of the Buddhas…

The jhana-range of a person in jhana …

The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world…

These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.

— AN 4.77, the Acintita Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, my emphasis.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about kamma:

Karma is often understood as the idea that what you experience now comes from what you did in the past, but that’s getting it all wrong. The Buddha’s teachings on causality are much more complex than that, and in fact resemble chaos theory with their many feedback loops. In their lack of determinism, they resemble the laws describing the nonlinear behavior of chemical systems operating far from equilibrium—systems very similar to the human mind.

— Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2844&Itemid=0

So, are the people on Skid Row there because they deserve to be? I don’t think so. Perhaps these folks are in a vulnerable position because of kamma. But given the racial and other forms of discrimination which operate in so many areas of American society it is difficult to tease out what is due to personal responsibility (intent and acts) and what is caused by the lack of opportunity due to discrimination. But, clearly, there is a great deal of unneeded suffering added by cruelty and indifference. In the United States we live in an extraordinarily rich society with wealth and income inequality as great as or greater than many third world countries. Not long ago (before the 1980’s) many of the people on Skid Row would be living in mental hospitals or institutions. These institutions were not perfect, but the mentally ill had the chance to live a life of some comfort. In the 1980’s they were thrown out into the street with no place to go. The institutions they lived in were closed. Many of these people have found their way to Skid Row (or were dumped there by law enforcement from outside the city). Was this sad act of cruelty the fault of the people now on Skid Row or the fault (and kamma) of those who made the intentional decision to put them on the street?

Many of the homeless are veterans of our numerous wars of economic opportunity, wars fought because fighting these wars made a very small percentage of the population vastly richer. The most vulnerable veterans have suffered moral, psychological, and physical harm due to their service and are often homeless. These veterans are on the street because the individuals in control of our society, who have reaped the most benefit from these wars, have chosen not to allocate the resources necessary to take care of them. So, who has reaped the worst kamma? The people with power and resources who have chosen not to act with compassion or the people whose lives have been made more difficult due to the actions of those in power?

I realize the situation is not quite a cut and dry as I make it out to be. Indifference and greed are not the only forces acting in America. The wealthy are constrained in their actions by social paths of least resistance which lead them to act greedier than they would act in a healthier society. But the more I think about kamma the less obvious it becomes to me who has good kamma. I no longer believe being rich is an indicator of good kamma. Modern research has shown wealth makes people greedier and less compassionate towards others, traits which will not lead themselves or others to the end of suffering. Often the most generous and compassionate people are those lower in the economic scale (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-wealth-reduces-compassion).

Who has the greater good kamma: the man who I saw on Skid Row who gave our group such a kind and wonderful smile and said hello to us, a man who clearly even in the midst of great suffering found the ability to be good and kind, or is it the rich banker in one of the huge bank buildings just outside of Skid Row who has the power to help people but does not do so because doing so would require him to fight against the path of least resistance enforced by the bank’s “profit at ANY cost, as long as it is not OUR cost” culture?

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