Coming of Age in the Mouth of Madness
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.
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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.
Joey and Karina are newbies negotiating the noxious world of the downtown rescue missions and flophouses. Like the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street, and Saint Vincent’s Cardinal Manning Center for the Homeless on Winston Street. Others use vouchers to stay in welfare hotels like the Ford or the Huntington or the Roslyn. Some live “off the radar” in makeshift apartments — small 10-by-10-foot rooms with no kitchens or bathrooms in buildings that don’t require IDs, credit checks or security deposits. These are usually shared by a couple of single moms with four or five kids each.
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.
“Before I met Franklin, some of his peers were telling me about how difficult he was,” Porter says, “how he would never come to our program. When he came through our doors, I was expecting trouble, but met a brilliant young man in search of knowledge. He is like a sponge; he takes information and runs with it. He is wise beyond his years.”
I caught up with the young hood-rat filmmaker at the UCEPP on Sixth Street and Gladys Avenue right next to the park the city has deemed unsafe for children due to the number of predators there. Franklin is lanky, light-skinned and wearing black jeans and a T-shirt, with a black L.A. baseball cap pulled over an Afro. He’s more reserved than a Tibetan monk.
“I seen some shit before, but not really,” he tells me. “Not like this. I seen a whole gang of crack pipes before but not a whole gang of people smoking crack pipes. All the smells .?.?. all of that. When they empty the Porta Potties out? Man. I got used to that, but at first, man. You ever smell that? Everything stinking. Crazy people going off their meds. All that stuff. I never seen nothin’ like that. Dead bodies laid out. You ever seen a dead body that’s been there for months? Man, that’s horrible. The first dead body I saw? I was 11.”
Franklin dispenses the details in an ultra-condensed, high-speed discourse. He’s told his story before. It’s a bit of a performance, but not like the Tommy Lee Jones press junket for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada at the Bel Age or anything like that. This is real.
“I was 10 when I moved downtown,” he says. “We had a house, then an apartment in Pomona, my dad and all my sisters and my mom. My dad went to prison though. So, it’s all good.”
I ask him what happened after that. When he homes in on a box of donated chips and candy on the other side of the room, his delivery becomes even more rapid.
“Something happened in that house, so we had to move up outta there,” he tells me. “A fire. But I don’t know what caused the fire. Before we moved to the apartment we was in and outta a friend’s house. Then, our church helped us get an apartment. We got evicted from there. I don’t know why. Cuz everyone over there was Latino. We was the only black kids around there but .?.?. we was mixed anyway. Right after he [Dad] went to jail, the manager evicted us because he was scared of my stepdad. My mom, my three sisters and my brother all went to the [Union Rescue] Mission. We left to Inglewood for a few weeks then moved into the Ford Hotel.”
“And now?” I ask.
“We got two small rooms and a sink and two bunk beds. It’s kinda get crazy in there cuz no one got their space. No one got their privacy, so it’s a whole gang of fights in the house. Everyone screaming in the hallways. Alcoholics going at it. People fighting over crack. Normal routine.”
You could throw a rock from the Ford Hotel where Franklin stays and hit a sleeping senator in silk pajamas staying at a five-star hotel if the window was open and your aim was true .?.?. well, you might need a slingshot, but you get the point.
“When I was in the third grade I was like a straight-A student,” Franklin remembers. “After I got here, I turned into a straight-F student. It wasn’t cuz I was dumb or nothing. I’m smart as hell, thank you.”
He laughs. I ask Franklin if he’s angry.
“I think I got a little anger in me. Just a little bit though,” he laughs again. “Living down here has messed me up bad in my head, I think. Real bad in the head. At first I see homeless people, right? I feel bad for ’em. I throw ’em a couple of quarters, couple of pennies every now and then. Now I see ’em, I don’t feel bad for ’em. They get me angry now. ‘Go get a job, homie. Quit smoking crack.’ Then come ax me for some money. You see the same stuff too much, it’s gonna numb you up .?.?. you ain’t gonna feel no more.”
Just then, right on cue, a paramedics truck pulls up outside the door and tends to a body. Someone is down on the sidewalk.
“That’s a stabbing right there,” Franklin says, craning his neck to inspect the scene before he tells me about the lady who inspired his documentary.
“This lady, Doris, got chopped up on the side of the [Ford Hotel]. I was on the balcony watching it. I said, ‘Ooooh, she got chopped up bad.’ A whole gang a times. And there’s a whole gang of people around her just watching. No one was trying to help her, nothing. Except this taco dude jumped out [from his catering truck] and hit him. Like 15 men right there, just watching her get chopped up. No one tried to help her. So when we went down there, she was already laid out. Lady was naked; [the paramedics] cut all her clothes off. They put this mask thing over her face, tried to pump her with air. Put little electro things. Trying to revive her. She came back to life .?.?. put her in the ambulance. She died anyways.
“After that I wanted to do a candlelight vigil. I wanted to get it on camera. I started talking to other kids. I guess I started talking to them about how does it feel on Skid Row. I play around a lot. I was just playing with the camera. Asking kids. Acting like I was on the news and it just turned into a movie.”
Franklin could have just as easily picked up a gun, or a crack pipe.
“I never really been ashamed,” he says. “I was the only kid in Carver [Middle School] with an Afro. A dirty, dingy, dusty Afro. I never really felt shameful. Really. I’ll ask a kid for a county ticket in a quick second.”
A county ticket is a meal voucher for a public-school lunch.
“Man, I used to collect county tickets and a lot over there cuz I sure wasn’t gonna eat over here,” he tells me. “I ate over here every once in a while. But I got food poisoning. The L.A. Mission has some good food. The L.A. be screaming. The Midnight has some crab salad. That was bomb. My moms be cookin’ on a hot plate with a little skillet. And a pot.”
Christina is a pretty 13-year-old with an openness that defies her circumstances. She and her mom and six siblings got evicted from their apartment in Hollywood, moved in with her grandmother, and then Grandma got evicted too.
We sat down in Tim Peters’ office at the Central City Community Outreach, where she was hanging out with Adam and Joel.
“We had known about downtown,” she says. “It was no surprise when we came down here. We stayed at the Union for two weeks; then we started to get hotel vouchers. My mom would talk to most families down here and they were like, ‘There’s no way out.’ I was 8 or 9.”
After their two weeks at the mission, they went on a voucher-fueled tour of welfare hotels like the Montebello and the San Fernando. Christina saw a lot fast.
“I seen people jumping out hotel windows with my own eyes,” she says. “It’s weird. I just couldn’t be down here if it’s gonna be like that. I’ve seen murders inside of hotels. I’ve seen kids being kidnapped. .?.?. At my hotel there was a woman who was stabbed to death in front of the hotel and the guy shot himself. Yeah. There’s some crazy stuff down here. It hasn’t really affected me cuz I don’t pay attention to downtown.”
“My mom knew what people were doing,” she continues, “so she would just turn your head and say, ‘Keep walking. Don’t look. It’s not good.’ I was thinking these people are crazy. I need to get out of here. The first hotel we went to was the Huntington Hotel. I was relieved. I was happier than I was in the mission because you didn’t have to wake up so early, like 5 a.m. I was around 10. I was downtown about three years. We were homeless for approximately five years.”
Christina’s mom went to downtown mental health services for depression. Tim Peters and CCCO walked them through the seemingly endless application process and waiting lists for long-term housing with supportive services. Now, they live in an apartment in Pico-Union and Christina goes to Carver Middle School. She gets, “A’s and B’s and C’s .?.?. well, really only one C. I wanna start modeling. Maybe do cosmetology. Volunteer at a place. Acting too. There’s a whole world out there for me.”
Christina has a few suggestions for anyone who might find themselves in the same spot.
“You gotta try to get shelter as fast as you can, especially if you have children. Down here people want you in gangs, no matter how hard you are. No matter how old you are. Down here they like to give kids drugs in the hotels. They [Child Services] take away your kids. I be like, do whatever it takes to not get taken away from your mom cuz there’s a 50-50 chance that she’s not gonna get you back. Thank God I didn’t get taken away.”
The Ford Hotel was built in 1925. The target of a city task force on slums in 1999, it was declared a public nuisance and ordered to get its shit straight and get rid of needles and condoms, upgrade security and evict lawless tenants. That was around the same time a mother threw her 9-year-old daughter out of a sixth-floor window before jumping herself. Both died. It’s not a new story.
In 2003, the hotel changed hands and is now owned by Ford Hotel LLC, a company headquartered in Arcadia with a managing partner named Kumar Koneru. In a 2004 piece in the Los Angeles Times, K.K. said he was “especially mindful of addressing the needs of children.” He noted that a ground-floor space had been set aside for a learning center with donated computers.
Despite that amenity, the Ford is jacked up. Even with four janitors, three armed guards and two desk attendants, this squat would make Bukowski run for Topanga’s hills. Kumar’s “mindfulness” amounts to a room in the lobby with Tickle Me Elmo poorly rendered on the door where only the heroic, nonprofit, mobile educators, School on Wheels, dare conduct tutoring sessions. A sign prominently posted in the Ford’s lobby reads: “Toxic substance warning: This area contains chemical substances including tobacco smoke known by the State of California to cause reproductive toxicity and other reproductive harm.”
The Ford is where Franklin saw his neighbor Doris Moore stabbed to death from his balcony. That’s not a new story either.
Chris Coates reports in the Downtown News that according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division, 322 registered sex offenders list their primary residence in central downtown. Three at the Ford Hotel, seven at the Panama Hotel, 17 at the Alexandria Hotel, 20 at the Ballington Plaza. For years, many of those released from the nearby Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility went straight to Skid Row. And though I understand that everybody deserves a place to live, it seems fairly obvious that it’s not a great idea to have Franklin and his underage sisters in this mix.
Zelenne Cardenas, a striking, soft-spoken woman who shares the office with Charles Porter, is outraged. “The thing that slammed me is the amount of opposition that we have gotten from [hotel] owners,” Zelenne fumes. “Rather than cleaning up their locations and making them healthy, safe for the kids that live in there, we’ve seen the owners hire lawyer after lawyer to protect their right to keep the slum housing the way it is.”
Maybe it would help if Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Kumar cuddled up for a night or two in Franklin’s Ford Hotel bunk bed. And maybe it’s the toxicity that we’re warned against that has made Franklin’s 16-year-old neighbor, Maribel,as fidgety as a sparrow.
Maribel is a pretty Latina girl with her 9-month-old son named Alexander squirming on her lap. Her brown hair pulled back tightly, she hands off the baby to her friend as she matter-of-factly discloses that she moved here from Hollywood with her mom, dad, brother and sister after an eviction.
“We went right to the Ford Hotel. I was 12. I was crying a lot. I never saw anything like it. People doing drugs in front of everybody. Crack, coke and speed. It was nasty,” she remembers. “The hallways, they stink. They be stinking like crack .?.?. weed. I don’t want my baby to be seeing people smoking crack. Roaches. People all the way at the tops there are dirty. They don’t clean the rooms. There’s all trash inside the place. Roaches. Mices will come out of there. Crack heads, crazy people. I had never been around people like that. They smoke too much; they just get outta control. Bang on people’s doors. Talking mess to everybody. Starting fights. At first I was scared. Not no more. Now I’m used to it. Now I’m scared for the baby.”
Maribel’s baby’s daddy, Felix, lives in another hotel. They’re saving money to move back to Hollywood.
“I would not like him [the baby] to grow up here. He’s gonna be a year in three months and he’s gonna start walking pretty soon. I wanna go back to Hollywood. We were living near the Walk of Fame.”
Maribel is scared, but Carolyn Phillips is pissed off.
Carolyn Phillips is the directing attorney of the Los Angeles branch of the Homelessness Prevention Law Project, which operates under the auspices of Public Counsel, the largest pro-bono, public-interest law firm in the nation. Basically, they try to reduce the number of homeless people walking the earth.
Phillips is a bit of a bleeding heart, but she’s got huge lawyer nuts to go with it.
“It’s a disgrace for the richest country in the world to have children on Skid Row.”
That’s pretty obvious. So why can’t we do anything about it?
“A lot of people assume that people who are homeless are homeless because they don’t work or are homeless through some fault of their own,” she says. “That there are always issues related or substance abuse or mental illness. When you look at homeless families that’s not the case. What’s happened this year is a realization on the part of some of politicians as well as this agency that traditional notions of abuse and neglect simply don’t apply to homeless families.”
Some politicians? Is she talking about Antonio Villaraigosa? The new mayor of Los Angeles who’s spring-loaded to be the first meaningful national Latino spokesperson in .?.?. ever. Which is great, but what is he doing about the fact that Gladys Park down by Charles Porter’s place is still closed to kids? A couple of years ago, didn’t he and fellow Councilmember Jan Perry make a big deal about cleaning up the park so these kids could have recreational opportunities like other kids?
Phillips came up through the D.A.’s Office under the tutelage of juvenile-friendly assistant district attorney (and perennial threat to run for D.A.) Tom Higgins. So she knows what’s up with the Skids.
“They need to come up with a whole different category that enables them to link these children to health care and early education without finding that they’re being abused and neglected by their parents. That offers all kinds of hope. That’s gonna take political will.”
Political will? She must be talking about Tony V. again. I just saw him on TV giving a speech in Spanish from his house after the State of the Union address. It was a really nice place and his kids looked real polite. Maybe Joey and Karina can kick it with them until Darlene and DJ Romeo get their shit straight and find a pad. I know he’s gonna wanna help out. He’s the mayor.
She goes on: “If the political will was there, we could mobilize county and city cooperation to move families, and therefore children, into housing while other solutions are being figured out.”
Yeah, the political will. Great. But what about my friend Joey camped out in the Midnight Mission’s courtyard in the middle of the festering wound known as City Central?
“Honestly,” Phillips says, “and I don’t want Joey to ever read my scenario for him, but I spent so much time in the D.A.’s Office and in juvenile court that I think it’s just a matter of time until Joey runs away and becomes prey, a victim of crime. Or until he thinks that maybe committing a crime is his way out or Mom loses him to true neglect to the foster care system .?.?. and he’s stuck in that. Unless somebody comes and offers housing and transportation to get Joey into school, Joey doesn’t have a chance. Joey needs school and sports. All of them need sports, school, normalcy, love and routine. He needs to have a bed and place to keep his things. We need to have the political will not to blame these families and children.”
It’s going to take lots of that famous political will. I’ve been living down here for a while now. I’m not sure the prognosis is good.
Police Chief Bill Bratton begs to differ. He helped Mayor Rudy Giuliani take a Brillo pad to New York City in the early ’90s after years of neglect under the stewardship of party-boy press darling Mayor Ed Koch and his bumbling successor, David N. Dinkins.
“One of the probably saddest things about our Skid Row, if you will, is that it’s home to so many families and young people,” Bratton says. “And that compounds the problems immensely. It’s not one problem; it’s a multiplicity of problems and one impacts the other. It’s like a set of dominoes. One domino falls and the whole thing falls.”
“It’s not just in Skid Row; it’s society in general, but in Skid Row it’s exacerbated,” he continues. “So much of what goes on down there is really not the responsibility of the police, but in the absence of so many other social agencies in terms of our being around 24 hours a day and many others being there with less frequent hours, a lot of things end up falling on us.”
Of course, but what about Franklin and Maribel and Joey and all the little kids I see running around down here? What if one of those people who seem to be jumping out of welfare hotel windows all the time falls on one of them?
“Well, in being quite frank with you, my own desire would be to get them out of there. Families should not be made to navigate the streets of Skid Row in the way they currently have to only for the fact that the services they need are located there,” says Bratton. “The city is consciously putting resources down there .?.?. has centralized them down there and I think they are gonna have to decentralize some of those services and in fact segregating some of the services on account of the clients that they have to serve.”
I think I may be spending a bit too much time in the shelters myself, as I have recently contracted some kind of staph infection, and it all seems like an irresolvable situation that is going to end badly for everyone involved, except perhaps for the people who make a living off the misery. And just when I’m about to get in a real funk over this Skids stuff, the chief busts me.
“That’s part of the problem of Skid Row. Skid Row tends to breed frustration and negativism and ultimately surrender.”
I can see how it happens.
“It’s something that I’ve approached as a police chief and I’ve always refused to surrender to that degree of frustration,” Bratton says. “I’m actually a little more optimistic now than at any time since I’ve been here that there does seem to be a confluence of forces that may in fact result in some significant improvements, but the reality is that a rising tide doesn’t raise all boats. Some sink. Young people have to be first priority. That’s what I’m talking about in terms of segregation, you know, getting families and kids out of there before they go into trauma. In terms of those who are already in trauma, some you can save and some you can’t.”
At the end of the day Bratton has an old-school, East Coast Democrat’s sensibility. He’s kind of like a Kennedy with an LAPD badge and without the alcoholism.
“I’m coming out of two cities that have dealt with this problem more effectively than has been done here up to this point,” Bratton says. “That’s Boston and New York. New York devotes billions of dollars to this problem and has seen significant improvement. So you make progress. The idea is to not give up hope, because there are changes and some of our statistics reflect those changes. Until recently, we didn’t have the admission of what Skid Row is — the worst social problem in America.
“It took 50 years to make it what it is down there, so it’s going to take a while to basically deal with 50 years of benign neglect and the intentional location of the poorest of the poor,” the chief continues, and it’s hard to stop him when he’s on a roll. “Skid Row for most of its history was accomplishing exactly what the city wanted it to do; it kept that problem out of sight of the people that counted in the city — the power brokers who go home to Brentwood and the Valley every night. Now all of a sudden the area down there has become much more valuable and the eyes of the rich are much more focused on it.
“It reminds me of the old Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca, where Claude Rains says, ‘I’m shocked, simply shocked to find gambling going on.’ Well, you have to laugh because, after 50 years, the leadership in this city is all of a sudden shocked to find out that there are 7,000 people living on [Skid Row].?.?. . Temper the cynicism with the idea of seeing where things have gotten better. .?.?. Are they gonna be totally solved? Not in our lifetime. Life is just not that fair; it’s just not that just. But it can in fact improve.”
I hope I can become as hopeful as Bratton. I’m not.
But Darrell is. A relentless optimist, Darrell says he wants to be an astronomer. The 14-year-old looks like a normal, well-adjusted kid to the naked eye. Vibrant, articulate, engaging. You’d never know .?.?. if he didn’t say.
“You feel like the best place you can go is to sleep,” he says about his stay at the Union Rescue Mission, “cuz .?.?. anything would be better than where you are.”
Darrell says he and his family used to live near the Magic Johnson movie theater in the Crenshaw District and all go to the same church. Then, same story: single mom with kids gets evicted and has no place to go but the Row.
“We were at the mission for a month and a half and then the church got us some vouchers for a hotel for a couple nights,” says Darrell. “Then we went to my godmother’s house but things didn’t work out and we came back down here to the mission. Before that, I was up there in North Hollywood. Me and another family I know. We was counting on a voucher to get a place to stay for the night and the lady didn’t give us one. And we had nowhere to go for the whole night. That was like broke-down homeless. Like po’ homeless. Like po’, po’ homeless.”
Darrell pauses. He’s self-conscious in an adolescent way. And more .?.?. the stigma of his homelessness is stuck to him like an invisible film.
“I was, like, crying. I was like man. I was fixing to like blow up a lot of stuff when I grew up, too. I was 12. I was going to find that lady [who evicted them] and do what Hitler did to the Jews to her. Maybe worse. I was thinking I’d put her on a desolate island .?.?. send a nuclear bomb.”
Kids are incredibly adaptable. As with Franklin and Maribel, the initial shock of Skid Row wore off quickly for Darrell.
“I heard people were jumping from hotel buildings. People were getting killed in the Rescue Mission. But besides that .?.?. after the third time I went to the mission, I was like, this place is kinda safe though. Cuz, like, the police went through every street like 10 times in three minutes, so everyone is scared. All you have to worry about is, like, don’t do crack and you’ll be okay.”
Darrell now lives in Lincoln Heights. He has his own room for the first time ever.
Apparently he’s doing better than Joey and his “dad,” DJ Romeo. I haven’t seen them or Darleneor Karina for days. A large woman with three kids staying at the Union Rescue Mission told me they were kicked out of that mission for good. She says somebody gave them a hotel voucher for a couple months or something. Says Romeo beats her up. Someone else told me that Romeo got them kicked out of another hotel for selling drugs. Another says that the kids got taken away from Darlene after she left them alone in a hotel. Probably for the best. Who knows? People talk a lot of shit down here.
Speaking of which, I keep calling Tony V., but apparently he’s too busy to talk about kids on Skid Row unless there’s a camera with national feed rolling. The lady in the mayor’s press office has stopped returning my calls. I’ll have to tell her I can’t be held responsible for my gathering rage about these Skids. I don’t know what I’ll be compelled to write. Apparently it has a life of its own. It’s cumulative. Just like Skid Row.
Like the others who have gotten off the Row, but haven’t gotten the Row off them, Darrell still comes to the CCCO afterschool program. To the room with the ratty couches behind the big green door with the sturdy lock and the sign that says “Destiny in God.”
In an adjacent room, 15 children sit in a circle with a couple of young life-skills/moral-development instructors who are teaching today’s lesson about Jesus. It’s all about whom to trust. I’m guessing that would be Jesus and people who believe in Jesus. Soon after there’ll be a healthy snack, homework tutoring and some play time.
Like always, Tim Peters is in his tiny, cluttered office just off the main room. He’s just secured a shelter bed for a disheveled, blond teenage boy when a kid named Terrell storms in and demands his attention. “I didn’t spit on Carrie!” Terrell pleads. “What I’m spit on Carrie for?” Tim patiently hears him out, and tells him he cares about him before Terrell turns on his heels and heads out the same way he came in.
Five-year-old Darion lives in the Union Rescue Mission and is a CCCO regular. He’s small and stammers a little. He’s a frustrated boy who struggles to express himself. I met him a few weeks ago, and he’s obsessed with my fancy-looking Nokia cell phone camera. I let him snap a couple pictures. The little boys here climb all over any man in reach .?.?. a biological impulse to fill the daddy void. If you show up more than once, you are family.
I’m talking to his mom when Darion climbs into my arms and lays his head on my chest. His nose is running. He’s got a cold. His openness with his needs overwhelms me. I’m not optimistic like the chief. I predict a very difficult life for Darion.
Then, when no one is looking, Darion whispers in my ear.
“Take me with you,” he says.
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