Dying to Get Off Skid Row
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.
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.
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“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?’?”
I met up with Angela at the James Wood Community Center on San Pedro and Fifth streets. I tagged along with her and Joanna Amaya, Angela’s 19-year-old assistant, as they made their SRO calls. They do client histories and physicals on the initial visit and follow-ups once a month or every two weeks as needed.
“All my patients have my cell phone, so I’m always reachable,” Angela says. “We deal with Uptown Pharmacy, which delivers their medication to them. If they need medical supplies, we arrange for them to get that also. Basically we try to get them a better quality of life.”
Needless to say, Angela has seen some really grim things down here.
“I’ve had to call adult protective services. I’ve seen people lying in their own fecal matter for days. I’ve seen people with major skin breakdown, where the buttock bone is shown. And what’s called sepsis, where they have fever and are truly on their deathbed. They haven’t eaten. No one’s even come to the door for days. Sometimes we’re going up and the bodies are coming down. Bodies that have been in rooms for days and someone has noticed the decomposing stench. I’ve walked in rooms where patients were totally covered up and a limb was hanging out that was getting ready to fall off. Smelled like a death camp. It’s the smell of death and poverty and ignorance and all those horrible things. I’ve walked into rooms where roaches have fallen on my head. Rooms where people are fighting with knives. I seen people eating food off the floor and killing roaches to get to it.”
Angela’s work has helped shape a wide, compassionate perspective.
“The human condition down here,” she says, “you’re gonna see the best and the worst of people — people who are spiritual, people who are ignorant, people who are on drugs who are great people who happen to have problems. You’re gonna see educated people who have Ph.D.s and all kind of degrees, and because of some catastrophic event in their lives they found themselves here. What you see beyond that is a sense of community — people who feel like they belong here. It’s a community of wounded souls, and they all are here and they understand that they’re wounded and they see that in each other and they gravitate to each other. They try to help each other. They really have a family here.”
That’s literally the case with Norma, Dorothy and Sandy. There’s something eerily familiar about them and their acceptance of these grim digs. It’s a Midwestern sensibility with its rotting roots still planted in the Great Depression.
“He works,” Sandy says of her son, Beau. “They got him a job at the regional center for people like him. He’s a little slow. He’s working now. And he does pretty good, where he can get out in the world and make his own. Without me he’d be lost.”
“I get out all the time,” Dorothy joins in. “I go to the Good Will and the Grand Central Market. We always go to the Food4Less. We take the 18 [bus].
“She just got out of the hospital,” Dorothy continues, looking at her sister, Norma. “After the cancer, she fell and broke her hip. And so she was back in, and they got her in some kind of cast. Before that she couldn’t even walk at all, but now she can.”
Angela is busy at work, trying to take Dorothy’s blood, but the octogenarian has been poked so much she has fewer working veins than William Burroughs’ corpse.
“You see a lot of people come and go,” says Sandy. “They been here and you see ’em going down, down, down. They take ’em out in an ambulance, and if you don’t see ’em for a while, you ask and they say they died.”
Sandy tells me that it’s not bad down here at all, but bad is a subjective term in the Baltimore. Norma tells me about Herbie.
“He lived in my room, the room that I got when I first got in. He picked up the colored woman in a bar,” she remembers, and Angela pays no notice. “Brought her home and she stabbed him. There was blood all over. He didn’t die here. He died in the hospital.”
Angela finishes up her paperwork with the Golden Girls and we’re back making the rounds of the expiring elderly in the SROs, missions and welfare hotels and on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
The Skid Row streets are crawling with saints and healers like Angela. There’s more God down here than in all of Greater Los Angeles combined. People are drawn here for many reasons: commerce, art, privacy. Some are depraved predators, some are just hiding. Sometimes simple survival draws them here. Sometimes it’s for death or some other, less final physical transformation.
Skid Row was the obvious next step for Jeanette Rowe.
Jeanette is the program manager of the Emergency Response Team for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). She combs the streets in a van with her squad, seeking out those who need help getting shelter, medical attention, benefits, Social Security — the works. She’s been downtown for nine years. Before that she did the same thing in Santa Monica for six years, followed by three in Hollywood. The response teams deal with and provide direct assistance to homeless populations throughout the county. Jeanette’s work is the work of a saint with a nose plug, rubber gloves and the immune system of a Russian soldier. Needless to say, like Angela, she’s seen some shit.
As always down here, the problem is compounded. There are the people legitimately here seeking services, and the people here to prey on them.
“One of the things we see is that if they’re getting Social Security benefits, they become captives of other people who are downtown, homeless people even,” Jeanette tells me matter of factly. “There’s a lady that we came across down here who was being basically held onto by some guys in a tent. And they would keep her till the first of the month when the checks would come out, take her to the check-cashing place, get her money and just keep her all the time. They would feed her minimally. She needed clothes. She wasn’t bathing. She was in a lot of distress. She was in her 70s. They were also having sex with her. She was very afraid.
“I can’t tell you how many times I passed that tent and didn’t know till one day she was outside the tent and we actually saw how in distress she was. She didn’t want to file any reports or contact the police.”
How does someone arrive at a place where it becomes acceptable to kidnap, rape and extort money from a 70-year-old homeless woman? I imagine it’s a long process that happens over a long period of desperation.
“It was just some homeless guys,” Jeanette says, her veneer made of Teflon by now. “You know there’s some pretty nefarious folks down here. We actually got her out and got her into a senior facility, but it was very difficult. I think the homeless seniors down here are victimized a lot because they’re defenseless in a lot of ways. Somebody gets them a new blanket or something and it’s taken overnight.”
What Jeanette tells me next is something I already know, but it’s still hard to hear about desperate septuagenarian drug addicts.
“There’s a lady that’s like in her 70s who is slamming dope and smoking crack,” Jeanette tells me. “We spent a lot of time trying to help her. We came across her over on Broadway. She was panhandling. And she’s very noticeable because she can’t stand up straight. She walks in a bent-over posture.”
I know the woman she’s talking about. She looks like she’s picking something up off the sidewalk.
“It took months to even get her to go into the SRO,” Jeanette continues. “Her story is the result of not getting health care from a condition that resulted from a car crash 40 years ago, getting strung out on morphine in the hospital and then getting strung out on heroin, and it’s just ruined her life. I saw her a couple of months ago, and she was all messed up because some guy tried to steal her blanket and he dragged her down the street with it because she didn’t want to let it go. Or she couldn’t let go, or she couldn’t get untangled from it. She stayed in hotels for a while down here and then in the summer she’s back panhandling. She goes just to the fringe of the nice part of downtown and gets money. I saw her one morning panhandling at 7 a.m. That’s beyond uncomfortable. That’s like Fellini.
“As far as being able to help and not harm her, I don’t even know if getting clean is the right advice. She’s very, very old. There’s a couple old ladies down here like that. I’m not talking about alcohol. Nothing’s more upsetting than watching a 70-year-old lady smoking crack at 8 o’clock in the morning.”
At this point, you might be wondering: Who are these people? How did they get here? Where are their families?
Here’s one scenario: “I saw a guy drive up and drop his mother off with her belongings and just drive off,” Jeanette tells me. “She was just the sweetest little old lady. It turns out she wasn’t getting along with his wife, and his wife was expecting her family for Christmas, so he decided his mother had to go. He actually said, ‘Well, somebody will pick her up.’ It’s like . . . this is your mother!”
Here’s another: “One thing we hear a lot is that their spouse died,” Jeanette says. “They lost their house, or even through grieving they start drinking. In some communities, we find seniors who are homeless and they live in the neighborhoods that they always lived in. They can’t leave. And they actually live in the alley or across the street from where they used to live. And the community tries to support them a lot of times. Their spouse has died, and they weren’t the person in that relationship who took care of things, and they end up not having any money and no bank account and they don’t have the support of their children. Their children will show up and want them to move to Texas with them and they’re like, ‘No, I don’t want to leave here.’?”
There’s a thread that connects these senior citizens living out their days on the Row, and it's a heartless weave. The thread is that, apparently, there are not enough people who are aware of the fact that our housing and health-care systems are in such a horrific state of failure that thousands of senior citizens are banished to the streets of downtown. Either that or nobody really gives a fuck. People want to hear about a more exotic, less local brand of human suffering like refugee camps, child soldiers, sex slavery, the global AIDS pandemic, genocide or the seemingly endless variety of Middle East atrocities paraded on the nightly news. We seem to prefer a suffering with a less threatening proximity. The Brangelina kind. Not the downtown kind.
Once senior citizens hit Skid Row they’ve already gone through a lot, and have to go through more.
“Families, their benefits, hotels, rooming houses,” Jeanette says. “Next thing is SROs, and if they can’t manage that . . . the next thing is the street downtown. The folks that are down here have been through every support there is. Social Security isn’t enough. They have conditions and needs that no one else has except very young children. They have dietary needs that affects their overall well-being. Seniors don’t eat, and their minds go. They eat and start to get more centered, and it’s like, oh! He was hungry. There’s something in our culture that discards or overlooks older people who have conditions we don’t want to tolerate. Older people are treated like other people who have serious mental illness. They’re just damn inconvenient to deal with on a long-term basis. The system doesn’t provide for people at the lowest part of the population.”
The number of old people on Skid Row is actually quite staggering, even to Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes downtown.
“There are about 8,000 residential-hotel units in downtown. A conservative estimate of those living on fixed income and who are ‘seniors’ averages 30 percent of the population,” she tells me. “In the 4,000 units of rehabilitated and new supportive housing in Skid Row, the number of seniors would be at about 25 to 30 percent. In the Emergency Homeless Shelter system that is funded by the city of L.A., 30 percent of the population is seniors. Some have lost their housing, many have disabilities like dementia, mental illness and physical disabilities.”
That doesn’t sound good. But don’t worry, the new hundred-bazillion-dollar “Bring L.A. Home" plan is gonna fix shit good. I know because I saw it on TV. Big press conference at the Midnight Mission. Even had a guy from Washington there.
“I have followed the work of the panel from its inception, and their deliberate efforts have provided information and an analytical foundation for the creation of an action plan to create results on the streets, in neighborhoods and in the lives of homeless people,” said Bush’s point person, Phillip Mangano, executive director, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which I think means that he read the LAHSA press release on the plane ride over.
The big plan pans out like this: a recommended 50,000 units of housing over a 10-year campaign to end homelessness in Los Angeles, the “Homeless Capital” of the United States, where, according to the 2005 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, the total number of homeless people in the streets and shelters is 82,291 on any one night.
Here’s a recap of how we hit the Skid Row jackpot.
In June 2005, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors committed $24.6 million for shelter and services. By the following November, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced $50 million would go to the city’s Housing Trust Fund for permanent supportive housing. He also pledged his support for a $1 billion bond measure to develop more affordable housing citywide. On April 4, 2006, the Board of Supervisors approved $100 million to decentralize the homeless services concentrated on Skid Row by creating local homeless centers across the county that would provide basic shelter and services.
Scott Ito, LAHSA's director of development and communications, told me it would take $8.4 billion “to make a real impact on the homeless problem in terms of housing and services.” Obviously, we're a few bucks short.
“The plan is a step forward, and that’s true,” Jan Perry says. “A lot of it is one-time money. It’s an opportunity to put our thoughts to paper and to leverage our money — the city money, the county money — and to demonstrate to the federal government that we’re actually serious.”
In other words, the money going to help these old folks . . . how?
“It will enable and empower certain groups that specialize in building this kind of specialized housing to create focused opportunities for people who are elderly and homeless,” she says. “I want to be supportive of whatever state legislation makes it to the process to involuntarily bring certain categories of people in for a bed at the very minimum.”
Fantastic! But when will I look out my window and not see septuagenarian strawberries blazing rocks in the midday sun on my block?
“When you look out the window and you know that we have the legal tools to involuntarily take someone into an emergency shelter or a bed. When we have a community court that has been established so that we have a venue and a framework from which to make sure that we track people to make sure that they are getting the services that they need and that it is done in a coordinated fashion, so they don’t fall through the bureaucratic cracks,” is what Perry tells me.
“In the case of Carol Ann Reyes — the [63-year-old] woman that they dumped [from a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Bellflower] in front of the mission — they didn’t even make sure that there would be anybody there at the door.”
That was pretty grim. Still, all this involuntary stuff is a little disturbing. Involuntary? I wonder what that means anyway. I envision thick-legged bicycle cops in shorts with lassos hog-tying delusional seniors in the street. Not sure it matters much, since the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the ACLU, ruling that the police cannot arrest people for sleeping or sitting on the public sidewalks of Skid Row because it would violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
For every 133 stories of senior suffering, there’s a story of hope up in here. That number isn’t from a county-funded study, per se, but more of a guess from looking out my window onto Skid Row.
I’m looking at one of those stories of hope right across the street at Gladys Park in the Regal Hotel, where my new friend Vivian Dunn lives. I met Vivian through Lillian Abel-Calamari, a painter with multiple sclerosis who is the program manager for the Single Room Occupancy Housing Corporation’s Project Hotel Alert, which provides housing and support services for the elderly. Lillian shows seniors on Skid Row how to paint and sells their art for them and does lots of other stuff too.
Vivian called Lillian a few years back and thanked her for everything she’d done to help her. Lillian got suspicious and showed up at Vivian’s SRO. She found that Vivian had plunged a knife into her heart. Lillian called 911 and Vivian survived.
Vivian is now 77 years old. When I meet her, she’s wearing a big floral-print dress under a plaid men’s oversize short-sleeved shirt. Her gray hair is pulled tightly back into a ponytail. She has big glasses and fluffy slippers, and she wears a silver peace sign around her neck. Her small, tidy room has pictures of Malcolm, Martin and Mandela. Vivian is smart.
“I’ve lived downtown for 15 years. I had a meltdown at home. I got thrown out,” she tells me. “Police took me downtown to the general hospital mental ward. The doctor came in and said, ‘Turn her loose.’ Little did he know . . . I think the lady in social services there told me I have to go down to Skid Row. She didn’t call it that, I did. To cut a long story short, I stayed there for 18 days, then I went home and took care of my mom for a couple of years. She died, and I decided to come to the only other home I’d ever know. Skid Row. That was in ’89. I had to find a place fast. Andy Robelson at SRO Housing said we have a room you can have, and we sealed the deal. By that time it was August the third, 1990.”
I ask her about the day she stabbed herself.
“I got pretty drunk on Schlitz malt liquor, so I knew that it wouldn’t hurt. I was terribly depressed. Suicidal. Suddenly, I decided to end it all. I just picked up a knife and plunged it in. And then I started to bleed a bit and went and sat down on the bed. Next thing I know, Lillian was there, and she took me to hospital and saw me through. I must have made an impression on them because right away they tried to save me. Rushed me upstairs on a gurney. Next thing I knew . . . It was the most depressing thing in the world. You wake up and you don’t know where you are for a minute, and you realize you’re shackled to the bed. It was a terrible thing. I don’t think of it very often since I got over the depression. I was removed from there after 10 days of healing. I went to another psychiatric institution. It was a good one.”
I ask Vivian about her days now.
“Now I feel terrific,” she beams. “I’m a 77-year-old woman. By now I don’t have too much to do. I come down here about 4:30 to make the coffee. It’s made by 5:30. Meanwhile, I watch BBC news, then I come back down and open up the lobby so they can come and get their coffee and whatever they want. And I feel good about that. I’m a volunteer.
“I won a couple of volunteer awards, and I feel pretty good about that,” she says, smiling widely. “It makes me feel like I’m needed in some way. When I first came here nobody wanted me to help. All young people and all that. It was terrible. It caused me to drink. Having nothing to do in the morning caused me to go to the booze place in the morning and get a bottle and drink. When I got on to this making the coffee, it was about 10 years ago and it was the perfect answer. I like the feeling of being needed by someone.”
Luck is also in season a few blocks away in the form of a 61-year-old joy bomb called Spanky, who lives over at the Midnight Mission. The Midnight Mission is one of the oldest continuously operating human-services organizations in the Los Angeles region. Founded by Tom “Father of the Poor” Liddecoat in 1914, it currently houses more than 238 people in its live-in program and shelters about 80 in a temporary emergency capacity nightly. The Mission serves roughly 2,700 meals daily.
Let’s hope you won’t find yourself at its door in your 70s looking for a place to sleep and something to eat, or mental health services for yourself or your family for that matter. If you do, I’m sure they’ll be waiting for you, as will the people at the Union Rescue Mission, St. Vincent’s Cardinal Manning Center for the Homeless, the L.A. Mission, the Volunteers of America, LAMP Community, the Downtown Women’s Center, the Salvation Army Harbor Light Mission, SRO Housing Corp. and Skid Row Housing Trust or any of the many other nonprofit service providers on Skid Row quietly offering practical compassion in a multitude of ways.
If you’re lucky, you’ll end up like Spanky. Spanky lived on the streets for 35 years. With one good eye, a gentle, melodic, smoky-velvet voice that sounds like a benevolent patriarch in a Disney classic, his magic makes you want to get as close as you can. Although I’ve never heard him play his tenor sax, I can tell he’s a genius. Born in New Orleans, he came to California when he was 7 or 8 years old and he’s been here since.
“I fell off a barbed-wire fence,” Spanky jokes, pulling up his sleeves to reveal a set of tracks that you could drive a freight train on. He served in Vietnam and had his spleen removed after bleeding internally from a mortar round. After that he started playing sax in the All Army Band. Presently he’s the happiest man on Skid Row.
Spanky is level four in the program at the squeaky clean, almost brand-new Midnight Mission, where he lives in a dorm on the second floor. There are five levels in the program. Coming in is level one. Staying 30 days gets you to level two, 90 days to three, and after 180 you’re at level four. When you complete a year, you’re at level five and theoretically ready to re-enter society, though some still aren’t. Spanky will be level five soon.
“I’ll be moving upstairs soon, to a new little apartment,” he coos. “My own little apartment. They are really nice. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Not chasing drugs. Not worrying about getting up and having a wakeup. Not lyin' and cheatin’ and stealin’.
“My whole life has changed. Mission has been absolutely beautiful. All I had to do was get to a place like this and give myself a break. Took me 40 years.” He smiles at his own joke.
Spanky’s a handsome man. Naturally, I inquire about the ladies.
“I got a couple of girls, but no commitments. You know what I’m saying? Exactly the way I like it. I see a couple ladies every now and again when I choose.”
That’s right, player. You call the shots. I ask Spanky if he’s seen the 70-year-old dope-fiend lady who’s bent over at the waist.
“Hasn’t found her way out yet? That’s pathetic. When you hold that other side, you think there’s no way out. Can’t anybody convince you that you can clean up and have another life. But if something happens in your life and you get on this side, you see how stupid you were. How crazy you were. I ask myself what was I thinking all those years. Man, I feel so sorry for her just to hear that. She don’t even understand. You don’t even know nothin’ about the other side unless you go over there.
“Who knew it would get so good for me? Not me, that’s for sure. Other night I came in and it was raining like a son of a gun. I came in here and pulled my clothes off and got in bed. And tears started coming down my eyes. Cuz I remember so well when I was out there in that rain. Rain . . . I don’t care what it is. If I had to have me some dope, I had to go in the rain. I had to go in all kind weather. All seasons. Now I say, ‘God, thank you so much that I understand my blessings.’ I know what I’m saying when I say it. Man, there was a time that I didn’t even think about something like this.
“You need something, you come and talk to me and I sure will help you,” Spanky told me.
Skid Row can crush you into a diamond, or it can just crush you. Spanky is a 10-karat gem. Mr. N., from the Baltimore Hotel, didn’t fare so well. Angela Moore-Hodge said she got a call last week letting her know Mr. N. stumbled out of his door and collapsed. He died of congestive heart failure. The week before his death, Angela had reported Mr. N. to Adult Protective Services when he refused his meds and told her to stop coming to check on him.
Apparently, he was dying to get off the row.
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