Dying to Get Off Skid Row 

Downtown can be a last chance... or the last stop

Wednesday, Aug 2 2006

The Baltimore Hotel, an SRO on Fifth and Los Angeles streets, is right out of a Bukowski blackout. The people in the lobby are mostly seniors, and they look all but dead. An ancient man wearing pants that haven’t been washed in weeks is glowing with jaundice. He’s the healthiest one in the bunch.

Upstairs on the third floor, a 400-pound man in his 60s, whom we’ll call Mr. N., sits in a dark, dank room watching MASH reruns. Mr. N. is a former merchant marine who moved here from Torrance two years ago. His flesh is white with gray shadows. It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and he hasn’t eaten yet. It’s raining out, and the person who usually comes by to bring his food didn’t make it. Mr. N. has hypertension, incontinence, congestive heart failure and morbid obesity. He doesn’t go outside, and he doesn’t really want to entertain visitors. He allowed me in his room, but said he wouldn’t shake my hand. Then he apologized. He told me he has a daughter, but that they were not in touch. His blood pressure is 180 over 80. His room is a death cell.

Norma, Dorothy and Sandy, two sisters and a daughter from Chicago, also live on the third floor of the Baltimore. The smell here is overwhelming. It’s cat piss with a hint of mildew and something that I think resembles formaldehyde. Hanging silk flowers, a framed rendering of Little Lord Fauntleroy, a small refrigerator, a menagerie of teddy bears, a collection of dolls, a toaster, a big TV — this is Norma’s room, and it’s gotta be the jewel of the third floor. Norma is 76 and doesn’t look like she feels well at all.

click to flip through (6) Vigilant: Angela Moore-Hodge (below), checking in and checking up on those who might otherwise be forgotten
  • Vigilant: Angela Moore-Hodge (below), checking in and checking up on those who might otherwise be forgotten

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Her 82-year-old sister, Dorothy, rolls up to her door in one of those electric carts. “Sandy,” Dorothy calls to her 51-year-old daughter, who trails not far behind her.

“We been living here going on five years,” Sandy tells me, peering through a set of Coke-bottle lenses. “I worked my way to Skid Row. I worked my whole life, and this is where I ended up when I got sick.”

Sandy was an accountant at a company called Gateway Title in Burbank but lost her job when she got multiple sclerosis some years back. “My son lives here too,” she says. “Beau Ellis. He’s 21.”

“He has problems,” Dorothy interrupts.

“Hearing and speech,” Sandy adds.

They’ve told Beau's story before.

“I thought there should have been more than this for us,” Sandy says. “And they’re telling me at the Social Security how lucky I was. Me and my son, we couldn’t qualify for low-income housing, for food stamps . . . for nothing. Because they said we made too much money to qualify.”

“We’re from Chicago,” Dorothy chimes in. “I worked at Helena Curtis in Chicago. My husband lived on Clark Street. My sister, Norma, has cancer. She’s in and out of it sometimes. We all gathered here by her. She can’t hardly walk no more.”

Dorothy says she likes it here. She has a sense of community.

“We haven’t had no problems here. On the street, everybody knows us. They say, ‘If you’re looking for your son, he’s in the store.’ It’s a community. We like the fact of Angela coming here. It’s hard to take my mom to the hospital.”

Angela would be Angela Moore-Hodge. When Angela’s not blowing people away with her rhythm-and-blues singing (the Weekly recently noted how she stole the show at an Isley Brothers concert at the Henry Fonda Theater when she jumped onstage during an impromptu American Idol bit and did “Sweet Thing” by Chaka Khan and Rufus), she’s a gerontologist. That means she has a master’s degree in the study of biological, psychological and sociological phenomena associated with aging. She puts her studies to use by going door to door on Skid Row under the auspices of Healing Hands Medical Group, which she co-owns with partner Randall Maxey, M.D., Ph.D.

Angela’s people — Dorothy, Norma, Mr. N., others — are the kinds of people you don’t hear about much on the Row. They’re the elderly, and mostly they’re here to die. Some are mentally ill, some are strung out, some are sick and feeble, and many are negotiating a world of epic fear with fading faculties. The threat of predators is very real. With their fortunes — perhaps 20 dollars shy of a hundred — tucked under their mattresses, sometimes the only protection is a sharp knife under the pillow.

“They’re so broken down,” Angela tells me. “Roaches in the cereal bowl. No bath for a month.” Last week she walked into a room with a man whose foot was falling off.

“Decomposing flesh. Foot was five times the size it was supposed to be, with maggots crawling out of it. He was like, ‘What are you guys doing here?’?”

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