(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?! 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.