Adam and Joel are Skids, kids who came of age on Skid Row. Back when they were on the streets, they had a running joke they’d tell the girls from school about where they lived.
“We would tell ’em, ‘We have a big house. It’s like a fucking mansion,’?” laughs Adam, a soft-spoken, 14-year-old Mexican kid dressed like a “baller.” The mansion that he and Joel, a handsome 14-year-old Salvadoran with a sad smile, were talking about is the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. It’s one of the few shelters downtown that takes in kids, 85 a night on average.
Adam and Joel are off the streets for now, but they’ve been in and out of homelessness enough to know that they could be back on Skid Row as soon as the other shoe drops — and it often drops sooner rather than later. In fact, Adam and his mom and four siblings are being evicted from their East L.A. apartment, according to Tim Peters, who runs Central City Community Outreach, which is just down the block from the mission. Adam and Joel return here regularly to take advantage of the CCCO afterschool program that provides some structure in the form of group activities, games, discussions and homework clinics. An equally strong pull, though, is the community they find here in the form of the other kids they bonded with while coming of age in the mouth of madness.
Depending on whom you’re talking to, there are 400 to 700 kids living on Skid Row. Kids are part of the fabric here. I see them out my window all the time: Moms making their way through clouds of second-hand crack vapors with 4- and 5-year-olds, sending them off for the day on a big yellow school bus. Teenage girls in teenage-girl gear stand on corners in the middle of a parade of tragedy. They wait for city buses to deliver them from this local facsimile of Calcutta to public schools somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area. At school, they will presumably lie about where they’ve been and what they’ve seen on this fine morning in the heart of what Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton calls the biggest social disaster in America.
You see these kids in the missions, in the shit-hole welfare hotels with the roaches and the addicts and the off-their-meds psych patients and the gang-banging, crack-slanging county jail refugees and the registered sex offenders. But you can spot fresh meat a block away. It’s in the eyes. The mask of shock from struggling to negotiate a typical day down here. It’s on the face of kids like Joey.
A brand new Skids inductee, Joey looks like hell. All day long, he’s been in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission on San Julian and Sixth streets sitting on a pile of duffel bags stuffed with his family’s belongings. I saw him in the exact same spot for the first time about a week ago.
Haggard and frustrated, nails chewed to the quick, the tall 14-year-old kid with short black hair and bags under his eyes stands out from the rest of the shelter seekers in the courtyard. Almost all of them are old enough to be Joey’s parents or even his parents’ parents. Most are filthy. Some are loud and aggressive. Mixed in are a couple of “undercover” hustlers hiding out from someone or something. Others are just strung out in a holding pattern at the bottom. All appear to be in need of a bath and a good 10 years of intensive psychiatric treatment, and even then you probably wouldn’t want to leave them unsupervised around the kids.
Joey’s 5-year-old sister, Karina, dressed in a new set of faux–Juicy Couture pink sweats, is oblivious to the battle zone. She picks one of her “babies” from a stroller packed full of clothes and toys. Her baby is a ragged white doll with blue eyes and ratty blond hair that she holds up for my inspection. “My baby,” she says. I tell her that her baby is pretty and Karina beams a big, wide smile. Joey takes notice and hands me a bottle of water from one of his bags, smiles and says hello. It’s a small kindness from a sweet kid in a tough spot.
He’s been through this before. They’re going to stay in the “safe sleep” tonight — the “high tolerance” emergency sleeping area in the day room at the Midnight Mission. The arrangement is called Project Safe Sleep. There, you can crash out on one of the little cots with all the other homeless people and presumably no one will rob or rape you, and there won’t be any rats crawling across your ankles. It’s relatively clean, but it’s stinky and creepy and dank and God only knows what airborne contagions are floating around.