Skid Row

I’ll admit that it’s not the smartest thing I have ever done. Around 2:00 AM one morning a couple years ago, I had one of my friends drop me off in downtown Los Angeles close to what Angelenos know as “Skid Row” or, if you want to get technical, Central City East. Just to give you a feel for the kind of place it is: tents, shopping carts and other homeless people line the streets. The homeless problem in LA is so bad that it has been officially determined that the city’s anti-camping ordinance is lifted until enough beds are made available to provide more housing to the huge population of the homeless. It is the ultimate irony as just blocks away there are multimillion dollar condos and a short drive away you have the opulence of Beverly Hills. The place is treated as a dumping ground for the ills of society and in the past few years multiple hospitals have been accused of dropping off homeless patients on skid row.

But back to my middle-of-the-night stupidity. My plan was to try to get a better understanding for how shelters in the area worked. I took a deep breath and walked onto skid row, making my way past incredulous stares and side-stepping the various encampments. Some cops were congregated in one area and I asked them about what not to do if I wanted to check out the area. “Make sure you walk quickly and like you are on a mission, some other guy a while back got beaten to a pulp because he looked totally clueless.”

Not good. I probably looked more out of place than the first guy. But I continued and finally decided on a shelter to enter. It was a religious shelter but I don’t remember the name of it. There was a little courtyard and as I entered, I saw a middle-aged South Asian-looking man who sat in a wheel chair. He was highly articulate and gave me the basics of how the system worked. If you make it into the shelter by curfew you get in, otherwise you are stuck outside in the courtyard. I found a guy with a badge by the courtyard gate and he told me everyone gets woken up at 5:00 AM and you get breakfast if you sit through chapel. He looked at me with pity and said, “It can happen to anyone man.” To him I was some kid down on his luck. I nodded and edged away. I decided to wait until 5:00 AM to see what chapel was like.

Finally the hour arrived and those that were interested in grub were shepherded into a decent-sized chapel where some promptly went back to sleep. A clergyman then shared a somewhat uplifting message. I looked around for reactions. Most seemed to tune him out but some of the crowd was engaged. My thoughts were all over. “Why did they insist on chapel before food?” “How was all of this funded?” “What did everyone think of me?” the service ended, interrupting my thoughts.

The homeless filed out of the chapel and into the dining room and a decently-sized breakfast was heaped on to individual trays. Everyone dug in. Now feeling guilty that I was eating food that I should be paying for, I finished quickly and found a staff member. “How can you volunteer here?” I asked?

“Man there are lots of ways we could use you,” he started, telling me about who I should approach for the specifics. I no longer lived in LA (I had moved up to Northern California a couple months prior) so I never followed up. But the idea of volunteering at a shelter stuck with me. There was obviously a need. Volunteering seemed like a good use of time and it felt right somehow. I remembered an experience cooking a meal for residents at a half-way house (sort of like a shelter former prisoners, psych patients and others that are learning to live in society again). It had felt meaningful.

Fast forward to now. I live in Chico, a college town inland in Northern California. There is a significant homeless/traveler population here. A grants writing class I audited with a bunch of social workers taught me a little about the shelters in town. Maybe I’ll volunteer there. I could afford to be a bit more service-minded. I’ll keep you posted.



Bjorn Karlman

22 thoughts on “Skid Row”

  1. It is a true shame how the homeless are treated in our country. Just as the man said, it can happen to anyone. Many people down on their luck and living on the streets once had a home, a job, friend and maybe even a caring family. You never know what twists and turns life brings. Maybe some psychological trauma keeps you at the margins of society, or perhaps a physical addiction to drugs. Or maybe you just lost your job and couldn’t get a new one before rent was due. What ever the reason, it’s disgusting how quickly you are shoved aside and forgotten.

    1. I agree Paul. What do you see as an alternative? What do you think of Obama’s budget proposal to cut funding for heating assistance to low income people in half?

  2. It is very tragedy to see how people suffer without home. The percentage of people living in streets is increased day by day. Many people who live in streets are of mentally disturbed and handicapped. Nowadays unemployment problem also leads to home less problem.Some immediate measure is to be taken to remove these problems.

  3. Now a days, getting a secured job is very risky. Like people if searching for jobs in abroad, think well and should examine the full details about the company’s profile thoroughly. Food, clothing and shelter is important for everyone but in this hard world, without working, no one can lead a good life. Poverty is more now a days than the previous years. People should think well and use their knowledge to make their life good.

  4. Having lost my business and had a complete meltdown recently, I see homelessness as a possibility in my future. It takes very little these days to be pushed to the bottom of the ladder. We will always have a problem with homelessness, but at this point in time it seems to be epidemic, especially in the large cities. While drugs, mental illness and lack of education are large contributing factors, there are many people in this circumstance who don’t have these problems. Volunteerism is only part of the answer; helping people regain their sense of self-worth is crucial to reducing the problem.

  5. I would like to congratulate you on being brave enough to actually take a walk there and experience it for yourself. So many people, myself included, will advocate volunteering to help people in these sad situations, but when push comes to shove, that is all we ever do- talk. We are sympathetic, but we are also so caught up in our own problems, we never become more than that. Sympathy at a distance will never be more than a second rate attempt at making ourselves feel better by pretending that we really care, while at the same time we do nothing.
    The person I was most impressed by was the guard who did not look down on you or snub you,but still regarded you as a decent human being who was just down on his luck. I don’t know if I would be that forgiving or understanding if I worked in that situation. Its nothing that I feel proud of, but too many people pretend like they care and if I said I would make a point to volunteer after being touched by your words, I would only be a hypocrite added to selfish.

    1. Yeah, I struggle with that barrier between good intentions/momentary stirrings and actually taking action. It’s kind of like risk taking – a serious mind block until action is taken. And then when you do take action your realize it wasn’t that big a deal and that you could have done something ages ago..

  6. The homeless are not treated well in any country. The incident you narrated above reminds me of a scene which touched me greatly. Two month ago, late at night when I was waiting for the light to turn green, I some homeless people lined up near a car. The owner of the car started distributing coats and blankets. I believe this was around Christmas time when it was really chilly and cold. We need more such people who’re willing to donate resources – be it funds, time or infrastructure.

    1. Yeah, how refreshing to see someone actually do something for the homeless… I feel like most of our discussions are in the hypothetical!

  7. And so here is the ironic part of every country, even with the first world as claimed by them do have people left out, separated and estranged by the lifestyle of others. Now, i ain’t American but definitely i can relate to such dilemma of poverty wherein government claims that the country is rising atop. By fact we would all agree that a lot of people especially politicians ride several different kinds of wheels everyday, never fully emptying a thousand worth dinner nor suffer the cold of the night. Bet they have houses as big which can house several families. This is the painful picture of reality, if you are born poor you’ll suffer more. An obvious sentiment of every country but most often neglected even by us ordinary citizens. For the guy who said to volunteer, i say even if you don’t do such a thing you can still help out. Far as I know with the excess food from your kitchen will do and will definitely make a difference to those people. We all can contribute in the simplest way there is, just need to think and feel with our hearts.

  8. Homeless people are treated in a very rude way.It’s a very sad to see them being treated in such way Finding a job is getting difficult day by day.Food and clothing is the basic need of a human want.Most of people living on the streets are drug addicts.Poverty percentage is increasing day by day. This movie might help government to think about those poor people.

  9. “It could happen to anyone” – the words sound truer than ever before. Homelessness has become rampant throughout the country and it seems even smaller cities and large towns are seeing an increase in homelessness every year. Credit has to be given to these Charitable organizations that makes sure the homeless have a chance of at least a single meal a day. It is good of you to think of volunteering to help your fellow human beings. A small contribution from each of us can make a great difference in the lives of these unfortunate people living among us.

  10. People should think well and use their knowledge to make their life good.Unemployment is becoming more now a days due to huge population. There are so many offers are available but people may not think to make use of it. Hard work will always give good result.Helping to others will make the people to live a happy life.

  11. I hope you do end up volunteering to work there. It amazes me how in countries that are considered first world we still have massive third world problems. With the current economic climate I imagine that problems like this will grow at the same time there is going to be a harder squeeze on the charities who are trying to help. I’ll be following your blog and waiting to see what you do next :)

  12. Culture Mutt you sound a little tentative, as if you were dipping your toe in the cold deep water, but were a little afraid to take the plunge…but that’s okay. Most people don’t even know the cold deep water is THERE. I’d like to suggest that in addition to doing whatever you end up doing at the shelter, you poke around and find out about what “government” in your area is doing about getting people into permanent housing. I’ve done these things, too, and believe me there are ALWAYS activists working to force the government to increase the affordable, permanent housing available. I think you’d find it rewarding to hook up with one of them. Shelters are a temporary solution to a permanent problem that is growing daily. And Culture Mutt, remember what the he said? “It can happen to anyone man.” I’ve signed up for your letter…looking forward to hearing from you.

  13. I really don’t think it can happen to anyone. I think a great majority of the homeless are mentally ill and/or chemically dependent. I am not sure what can be done about people like this unless you take away their freedom – forcibly detaining them until they are treated for their problems. I know of programs (I can’t remember where) that provide permanent housing to homeless people, but if it were that easy, the problem would already be solved. Homelessness isn’t simply not having a home to live in, it is a symptom of a much deeper problem and providing homes to them does nothing to solve the problems.

    1. I understand what you are saying David and I am sure you have heard the stories of attempts to house and rehabilitate the homeless that have backfired because of the conditioning and mental illness that you mentioned. I really don’t know of any very successful programs – by the government or in the private sector – that have substantially helped reduce homelessness. I would really be interested in reading up about them if you have any links…

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  15. Every time I read about something like this, I think two things. There but for the grace of God go I, and normal people in this country, that is anyone who isn’t uber-rich, are all getting closer to this as wealth gets distributed way upwards and jobs disappear due to outsourcing to countries with slave labor wages, no money spend on protecting the environment from businesses, etc. and our government, which is supposed to protect us, does nothing about it.

    I feel like I can’t do much, but I do make it a point to at least donate some food every week to the food pantry collection bin in my supermarket.

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