By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I pop into the Union Rescue Mission to meet with a caseworker to talk about the situation down here. On my way out through the courtyard, Joey’s mom, Darlene, is back on the scene. Darlene is a hefty 30-something chola with every hard knock indelibly imprinted on her being. She is — how shall I put it? — a walking disaster.
Her current boyfriend is a Jheri-curled pretty-boy hustler with a musical note tattooed under his left eye. He goes by DJ Romeo and introduces himself as Joey and Karina’s father, which causes Joey to look down at the ground. I’m skeptical, especially since Joey already told me that his dad was in prison. That they’d been here for a week and that they’d in fact been here before. That he was living at his grandma’s and going to school until his mom came and got him a couple weeks ago. Add to that, Joey and his mom and his sister are obviously Latino and DJ Romeo is black .?.?. not conclusive evidence, but you get the picture.
Darlene stares straight ahead. She is dazed by attrition from a week-plus in the mission with the kids. It’s been a relentless schedule of meetings with agencies and service providers in different locations to procure bare-bones benefits. Joey, Darlene and Romeo each take turns watching over the family’s meager possessions as they go down the street to shower at the Union Rescue Mission. Joey looks after Karina. If they want to eat, their lives revolve around mission meal schedules. If they are lucky and get a hotel voucher for a couple days, it’s all four of them in a small room. Not much privacy, but at least a bathroom.
Romeo is a bit tore up, but still almost cute. His M.O. is a sort of jailhouse posturing. Not prison. County at worst. Romeo smells opportunity and takes his best shot at me, but his hustle is flaccid, his game transparent. “All I care about is my wife and my children .?.?.” he says and launches into a half-baked rant, the through line of which is his paternal commitment. Joey has now put his face in his hands and is staring at the ground.
It’s dark by the time DJ Romeo finishes. It’s dark and it’s Wednesday, so I head across the street to “Homeless Karaoke” at the Central City Community Outreach on the corner of Sixth and San Pedro streets. I want to see if Tim Peters, the CCCO program director, is still around. He runs an afterschool program for kids on the Row called S.A.Y. Yes! Center for Youth Development. (Things can have a lot of capital letters down here, but once you get past all the periods, it’s pretty basic.)
Tim Peters is what we used to disparagingly call a Jesus freak back when I was a kid in Wisconsin and didn’t have a real understanding of what kinds of hellacious predicaments children might suffer in the inner cities of the richest country on the planet. All that kind of judgment just kind of dried up and fell away like an old scab when I started to get to know people who were applying a practical compassion in lieu of any legitimate political will to get children off Skid Row.
Peters isn’t around, but Karaoke Coffee Club is always a blast and tonight is no exception. I have to admit I cried a little when the toothless white guy with the cornrows sang “Achy Breaky Heart.” It wasn’t a big hit or anything, not like when the guy in the wheelchair lit up “I Believe I Can Fly.” But it went over pretty good.
Even here on Skid Row, beyond the Klonopin cocktails and the leg ulcers and the posttraumatic stress disorder; beyond the multiple-personality disorders, and the perpetual hallucinations, the amputations, the STDs, the LAPD and the D.A. and the Department of Social Services and the shelter beds.?.?. . Even here, the “undeserving poor” and the kids get to bust out a little karaoke party for a minute before they shuffle back to the mission or the hotel.
Franklin Aburtha is a trip. The 15-year-old cooked himself up on a hot plate in a welfare hotel from his own original recipe. He appointed himself the voice of disenfranchised youth on Skid Row and is getting acclaim for a documentary he made two years ago called We’re Not Bad Kids. And although I doubt that Cube Vision (Ice Cube’s production company) would have bought the pitch, I’m betting it could win a gang of prizes at Sundance.
Franklin got the video camera to shoot the doc from Charles Porter, the coordinator of United Coalition East Prevention Project (UCEPP) — a nonprofit that attempts to intervene in the rampant drug and alcohol problems in Central City, which is a little like trying to defend against Hurricane Katrina with a sandbag. But they do have an afterschool program and Porter is a real-live community activist with the best crop of dreads I’ve seen in forever.
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