Wendell Blassingame is a very popular man. He sits at a rugged old folding table in Skid Row's San Julian Park, acting as a one-man information booth for anyone who needs help. He directs Skid Row newbies and veterans where to find a hot meal, clean clothes or just a place to sit and read a book (the city's nearby public library in Little Tokyo).
He even created the "Where It's At" map, which details the locations of social services, from medical and dental treatment to Social Security and free legal assistance.
"Everyone provides different services, or they even overlap some of the services, but they don't tell you," Blassingame says. "If you don't ask, they don't volunteer no information."
Blassingame, a solid, bespectacled 63-year-old with a walruslike mustache, knows how difficult Skid Row can be to navigate, because he lives there - in a small apartment between two of the area's big homeless missions. He ended up here more than a decade ago after his wife's death left him directionless and a work-related accident left him short a few fingers.
"I really didn't care about anything that existed on this earth," Blassingame says. "I drank a little bit and used an awful lot of alcohol - not a little bit - to try and get the pain away. Slept on the streets a lot."
Blassingame used to haul his cardboard and tent to Fourth or Alameda streets, opting to sleep outside instead of having to follow the protocol at a local shelter. But it was a visit to a nearby mission that delivered his wake-up call. Blassingame said he arrived at the L.A. Mission one day to take a shower and change his clothes. After he was cleaned up, he still reeked of booze. He said he was called a "filthy bum" and asked to leave.
"I came out here and I sit on the curb right in front of the Los Angeles Mission and I started crying," Blassingame says. "I've been called different names in my life but not a 'filthy bum.'?"
So he proceeded to dry out, clean up and find housing in Skid Row - a neighborhood that officials prefer to call Central City East. He gets by on about $500 a month, has his own place, and makes more than a full-time job out of volunteering in Skid Row and serving on the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council.
Blassingame sets up shop in San Julian Park seven days a week. With a Bible, a notepad and a cup of coffee in front of him, he sees a steady stream of residents who come to him for guidance - or just to say hello to a friendly face.
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"I give direction, I give advice, but most of all I give them encouragement," he says. "The biggest enjoyment in the world is if somebody says 'good afternoon' to you, or 'good morning,' and not asking anything in return."
The Marine veteran interacts with hundreds of people a day, both in person and through the "spiritual texts" he dishes out on his cellphone. On weekends, he hosts free movie screenings at the James M. Wood Community Center across the street from the park.
Every Saturday and Sunday for nine years, Blassingame has hosted "Movies on the Nickel," which is not only a movie marathon but gives people a warm place to spend a few hours. On rainy days, he keeps the screenings going until the wee hours - so people stuck in a situation he remembers all too well have a little extra time to stay dry.