Jewish Journal


August 11, 2011

Walking into the raw reality of LA’s Skid Row


A few months ago, as I was at a coffee shop waiting for my drink to be made, I came across an article written in the Los Angeles Downtown News that caught my eye.  It was about LAPD Central Area Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph, and the work he does in the Skid Row community.  Skid Row, officially known as Central City East, is an area in Downtown Los Angeles, and contains one of the largest populations of homeless persons in the United States.  Los Angeles Downtown News Staff Writer Ryan Vaillancourt did a really good job of portraying Officer Deon Joseph as having a lot of heart, faith, and bravery, as he serves his duty facing an incredibly tough community.  The article mentioned that officer Joseph helps to lead monthly skid row walks.  I wrote Vaillancourt, thanking him for writing such a touching article, and also asked him how I could find out more about the walk.  He sent me the details of when and where the walks were held, and I decided that I really wanted to make the experience happen.  I wanted to attend one so that I could gain awareness about LA’s Skid Row community, which I felt would be invaluable and necessary to have, especially as someone studying to become a social worker. 

This past Wednesday, my dear friend Michael Jeffreys and I met up to ride together to the Midnight Mission, which is where the people attending the monthly walk meet up.  The Midnight Mission is a human services organization in downtown, Los Angeles’ skid row.  My friend and I parked in the lot underneath the Midnight Mission, and as we walked out of the elevator and into the main building, we found ourselves entering into a very raw reality.  We walked towards the front of the building, and had to cross through the courtyard to catch up with the group. There were around fifty people, whom I’m assuming were all homeless, who were laying and sitting on the ground, seeking refuge behind the gates.  It was an intense reality to face, as I looked around and saw many tired and lost faces, who were holding onto their minimal possessions.  As I passed through, I did not want to stare and potentially make them feel as though they were being gawked at, and so I carried myself in a way that was calm and collected.  When we passed through the gate and got to the sidewalk, we walked directly into a protest that was going on, led by an organization that was there to protest the walk.  I saw a sign that said, “Take your intervention somewhere else,” which they kept yelling repeatedly.  The walk has been going on for six years, and up until five months ago, the organization has come to protest every month.  I had no idea what to think or what was going on.  I was feeling sensory overload though, with all the intensity.  There were about five police officers there to accompany the walk, and so I felt protected.  Despite all the yelling, the officers kept calm as they made sure the protest didn’t get too chaotic.  One of the officers caught my attention because amidst the clamor, he appeared to be very calm and deep in thought.  Moments later I realized that it was Officer Joseph, whom I had read the article about in the coffee shop.  I went up and introduced myself to him and told him that I was there because of the article I had read.  He instantly welcomed me and let me know that he was there to answer any of my questions.  I could tell off the bat that he was a kind man.  With everything going on, the walk began to move forward, as the protest trailed behind us with their drums, signage and yelling.

As we walked down the street there were a couple of homeless people lying on the sidewalk.  The police officers accompanying us told them that they had to move.  During the day, homeless individuals are prohibited from sleeping on the sidewalk, and are arrested by the police if they are found doing so.  They are only permitted to sleep on the streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.  The idea is to keep the sidewalks clear of crime, violence and drug abuse throughout the day.  The Central City East Association (CCEA) leads the walks.  On their website, it says “CCEA is working closely with Council member Jan Perry, The City Attorney, Skid Row residents, LAPD, state and county legislators, service providers and a multitude of other stakeholders to affect positive policy changes for our community. Our monthly walks have successfully garnered the attention of federal, state, county and city legislators who are all working on various solutions for the inhumane conditions that exist in Skid Row.  First and foremost is our call for public safety - all people who live Downtown, and especially Skid Row residents, deserve a crime-free, gang-free, drug-free and empowered community to call their own.”  Prior to the walk, I had never heard of the CCEA.  Hearing the protesters yell about how they believe that the CCEA and the police officers are corrupt really confused me.  All I could do was keep my eyes and ears open, and observe what was going on all around me.  What I was told by one of the officers, which I found to be interesting, was that people participating in the protest weren’t even living on skid row and had been bused in for the protest, and that the residents of skid row supported the work that the police were doing.  I found it interesting that the protesters’ yelling and signage was personalized in a way that would suggest that they did live on Skid Row.  Some of them looked like people that one would find living comfortably in the suburbs.  I also wanted to keep an eye out for how skid row residents were responding to Officer Joseph, to see if they possibly did support the work done by the CCEA and the police. 

As we proceeded down the street, I began to wonder about how many of the people living in the Skid Row population were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ). I’ve heard many times about LGBTQ youth getting kicked out of their homes because their families don’t want to accept their sexual orientation or gender expression.  I read an article by the California Homeless Youth Project, and saw some statistics stating that “individuals represent between five and ten percent of the general youth population, yet they make up 15 to 25 percent of the homeless youth population.  Percentages are even higher in certain communities known to offer support and services to the LGBTQ community, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where LGBTQ youth represent up to 40 percent of the homeless youth population.”  I was among one of the lucky LGBTQ youth, who came from a supportive home and didn’t get thrown out into the streets.  There is an amazing organization called JQ International, that goes into different synagogues and educational establishments, to train their clergy, teachers and family members on how to prevent such circumstances within the LGBTQ Jewish community.  If I had been in another family, I may have ended up living in the conditions that I was witnessing on Skid Row. 

I noticed an odd looking structure, and was told that they were ATP’s, which stands for Automatic Public Toilets.  They replaced all the porta-potties on skid row, which were being used for illegal activity.  I was told that the ATP’s are consistently monitored and that the doors automatically open after 20 minutes.  They are also self-cleaning.  When I went online to find out the name of the structure, I saw a quote in an article on the Los Angeles Downtown News website, that further described what was going on in the porta-potties… “The outdoor toilets that we had were a disaster,” said Central Division Police Capt. Andy Smith. “They had prostitutes living in them, using them as their homes of prostitution. We pulled numerous dead bodies out of them from people who would go in to shoot up heroin. People were defecating outside while others declared them their residence inside.”  The leader of the walk who was from the CCEA, indicated that the ATP’s have been a successful solution to illegal activities that had been happening in the porta-potties.   

When we reached the end of the block, right before we were supposed to cross the street, we were told about the horrors that had happened at the preschool we were facing across the street.  The pre-school is for children, whose parents mostly work in the garment district. The police had an awful situation to deal with.  People on skid row had been dumping tons of used condoms and needles behind the preschool walls.  One of the people leading the tour told me why they had been doing that, however I can’t remember the reason.  The protest was very distracting.

As we walked forward, I saw that Officer Joseph had stopped to talk to an older man sitting in a wheel chair.  I approached them to see what was going on, and was startled at the condition the man was in.  He was intoxicated, and looked as though he must have been abusing himself with drugs and alcohol for decades.  His eyes were glowing due to cataracts, and what was supposed to be the whites of his eyes were swollen, red and filmy.  This man was killing himself.  Officer Joseph was trying to convince him to get help by getting in a van owned and operated by LAHSA, which stands for Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.  Their workers join the monthly walks to conduct outreach to those living on the streets. For a moment, the man was almost willing to get into the van, but his temperament changed and he declined their help.  Officer Joseph said that was the 26th time that he has tried to get him to seek shelter.  We had to move forward. 

Seeing the old man made me think about the beast of addiction, and how people are willing to kill themselves over it.  I have known several young people, who had every opportunity in the world, overdose on heroine.  They knew that death was always around the corner, but it didn’t matter.  They were in such pain that they didn’t want to stop doing the very thing they felt was the only solution for escaping their pain.  Officer Joseph said that there are many young people living on skid row that come from very prominent and wealthy families.  I’ve known a few people from the Jewish community that have ended up on skid row. Addiction discriminates against no one.  I have been to way too many funerals at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, and have had to watch siblings, parents and children having to bury their loved ones.  Attending those funerals tremendously impacted me, and has been some of the heaviest experiences of my life. 

All throughout the walk, I saw Officer Joseph having very nice interactions with the residents of skid row.  He knew their names, and would give them a warm hug or handshake, as if they were dear friends.  I felt that the exchange was very sincere and do not believe that it was just an act on Officer Joseph’s part.  He was treating them like descent human beings.  Their faces would light up and they would smile while in Officer Joseph’s presence.  You could tell that they felt taken care of by him.  Even some of the super sketchy people liked him even though they knew that Officer Joseph was after them, because they knew that if they were to go to him for help that he would help them.  He was also passing out a newsletter that he had made for the residents that included a missing persons report, individual job listings, information on job fairs and transitional housing.  The last two pages were what he called “a little inspiration.”  Officer Joseph mentioned how this past April, he was presented with the Central City Association Treasure of Los Angeles Award.  He said, “In law enforcement, we do not put on our badges to win awards.  The real reward is being able to make positive changes where we serve.”  He said that he felt there were others who deserved the honor more than him, that rarely get recognized for their work in the Skid Row community.  He put out a list of amazing people that worked for organizations like LAMP, Midnight Mission, Volunteers of America, Skid Row Housing Trust, and many others.  He even thanked someone he referred to as “the unknown man” who had given up a chance for Officer Joseph to house him, so that an elderly man could be housed.  He said, “You touched me brother.  I have never forgotten you.”  While watching Officer Joseph interact within the Skid Row community, I felt that I was witnessing unconditional love.  It was very touching and I hope to have that same kind of presence and influence as I engage within the world.

On the last few blocks of the walk, we passed by where all the gangs congregate.  There must have been over a hundred people hanging around in the area.  Officer Joseph had me walk with him as he pointed out specific gangs that he recognized, and told me the nicknames of their different members, such as Mousey…  They were standing around a park that was closed, but after 9pm the gates open and the gangs take over.  You can only be a gang member to enter.  They were there to mostly sell drugs.  I learned that there was a team effort going on between the men and women in the same gangs, when it came to how they sold the drugs.  The men looked out and the women hid the drugs inside of their bodies. They also hid weapons in their bodies.  While we were passing through, I saw an old woman scurrying across the street.  She must have been over 70 years old.  Officer Joseph said that he has tried multiple times to get her into housing but she refuses to go.  It was very upsetting to see, especially with the awareness that women are sexually assaulted all the time.  Men are also sexually assaulted. 

After we turned the corner we once again saw the Midnight Mission, which is where the walk both started and ended.  I thanked the woman from the CCEA, Officer Joseph and the other police officers, and tried to walk away quickly since I could see that the protest was getting all rallied up.  Once again, Michael Jeffreys and I had to cross through the courtyard and pass the sea of faces.  This time, I did look them in the eyes.  I wanted to see the humanity in them.  I saw kind faces, sad faces, angry faces, smiling faces and lost faces.  These were people with their own stories and struggles, which landed them to become homeless.  Standing in the doorway to enter the building was a man with tired, kind and smiling eyes, and was thanking us for coming.  When he went to raise his hand to shake mine goodbye, he almost tapped a young woman who had serious mental issues and she began to have an anger outburst and started to yell.  As she walked away the man and I looked back at each other and smiled and shook hands.  I thanked him as well.  I walked back into the building, headed towards the elevator and took it back down to the parking lot underneath.  Things once again became quiet, and Michael and I were left with our thoughts, as we headed back towards our nice neighborhoods.  Michael said that he woke up the next morning feeling grateful to just have a bed to sleep in, instead of a sidewalk to sleep on.  I felt inspired to possibly somehow volunteer in the Skid Row community. 

Officer Joseph offered to give me another informative walk around Skid Row sometime, when there wasn’t a protest going on, and so I emailed him yesterday to take him up on the offer.  He told me that it would be an eye opener for me, which is ironic because it has already profoundly opened my eyes.  Apparently we had only scratched the surface.

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