Generally referred to by the city as part of “Central City East”, Skid Row is a fifty-block area in Downtown LA that was originally occupied by agricultural workers. It was where the railway tracks to the West Coast ended, and hotels were built to accommodate the workers who stayed between work assignments. The workers were mainly male, and therefore the type of establishments built around the station were geared towards their entertainment (bars, brothels, etc.). Missions also came to life in the Skid Row area and were a haven for migrants who came to the city from the south, as well as post-war veterans and military personnel.
The term Skid Row originated from the road along which timber workers skidded logs to move them more easily. The number of people living in these streets today is estimated to be between 2,000 – 5,000, with women and children making up about 10%. It’s a sight that almost can’t be described – people are sleeping in tents or on/in mere cardboard boxes, holding the few belongs they have left very close to them.
Think of the American Dream – the people living there had it or may still have it. Many of them were foreigners with a dream to start over and with nothing in their pockets, and that’s also how they ended up on Skid Row. This is rock bottom and the very last place left to turn to.
When you walk down Skid Row in Los Angeles, you feel invisible. At least I did. It was the morning of Thanksgiving and I decided to take the opportunity and volunteer at a Mission to help the homeless and make their Thanksgiving at least a little more bearable. The instructions from the Mission were clear: do not wear flashy clothes, leave valuables at home, use common sense. Since I don’t own a car, I took the bus and lived through my very first almost- heart-attack when the bus veered off route due to Thanksgiving street closures. Google maps had not prepared me for that. Plus, I left my phone at home. Crap.
The closer the bus came to Skid Row, the bigger my eyes got and the more deserted it felt – what I imagine as the danger zone between two countries at war. The brick buildings are run down, the smell of left-over food and unwashed socks predominates (mildly speaking).
A lady on the bus, clearly confused and under-medicated started yelling incomprehensible and painfully loud nothings. Nobody paid attention to her. I took their reaction as an example and kept to myself in my little corner. The guy next to me said “don’t panic; these are people who have lost everything, including their minds; nobody’s home in there”. It’s hard to see that woman as only a shell, but that’s all that seemed to be left of her. It was hard not to panic, but I pulled my hoodie a little more over my eyes just in case I wasn’t invisible enough yet. I felt like I was discriminating against people that didn’t even intend to harm or hurt me. The line between protecting yourself and stereotype discrimination was extremely thin for me.
Everyone in Los Angeles knows to keep out of Skid Row if you don’t live there – it’s not your place and there is no reason for you to be there. Even if I did somehow end up walking around there (I don’t know why I would), it would feel like I was mocking its inhabitants. However, the flower market, fashion and art districts are surrounding the area of the homeless. But you definitely know when you make a wrong turn.
The bus stopped and I got off. My first step onto the tarry street was insecure. I kept my eyes akimbo and walked briskly to where the Mission directed me in their instructions. It felt so wrong – like walking through an abandoned zoo. I was afraid, nervous, but weirdly safe at the same time. Of course you can never feel entirely safe in this city, which I strangely like – it keeps you on your toes. But this is an entirely different ball game.
People had already started lining up at one of the many food distribution centers, standing, leaning and sitting against a beige (once yellow) wall of a run-down building. Some of them were smoking cigarettes, others weed, they spat in the gutter, but did not seem to want to interact. Which was fine with me at this point since my goal was to help and reach the Mission safely. Step one.
And I did, but walking through the streets where some of the homeless were just packing up their tents into shopping carts or garbage bags to get ready for the day, made my heart race. It’s not supposed to be like this.
I arrived at the Mission, and I believe that day, there were more volunteers present than actual homeless people. Everyone had to checkin and was assigned a task: Some get to interact with the guests (like a theme park experience), others are directed toward the kitchen to cut and distribute meals, pies, etc.
I was assigned to the kitchen to a group of extremely nice volunteers. They had much more experience than I did and were very relaxed. I admired them for their easy-going attitude. Something I will always admire the American culture in general for. We had a great time, got to know each other after two hours of cutting and covering pies. The group was made up of young students (ages 16-20) and they said they do this every year and every opportunity they get. They live far out of Los Angeles, but still make the trip to Downtown every now and then to help out.
I wanted to catch the bus home before it got dark. So I stepped away from the scene, where Skid Row inhabitants and volunteers alike sat at long tables, talking, laughing, listening. I took the atmosphere in for a little while and just stood there, watching everyone. Some did not look like they wanted to be bothered – they just felt comfortable sitting there, eating, and minding their own business. Others walked around and looked for interaction, but weren’t sure how to make it happen.
There was a band playing at the front of the table set-up, and some people got up and danced, just swaying to the beat they heard or the one in their head – it really didn’t matter.
I decided to move ahead to my bus stop and walked slowly, looked around, and saw that everyone was having a good time. I was greeted by numerous people (non-volunteers); they asked me questions, whether I volunteered, wished me a happy Thanksgiving and thanked me for stopping by. I will never forget that smile. I took down the hood of my sweatshirt and felt safe.
(#My500Words Day 26)