Finn is a clinician with a Master's in Social Work from CSU Bakersfield. He lives in the Central Valley of California.
Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter
I am a social worker with an interest in helping the homeless. While looking for places that offered outreach opportunities that engaged with this population, I found many which were located in the Los Angeles area. I really did not want to move to L.A., but I recognized that the second largest city in the nation had a serious homeless concern.
The homeless in L.A. were scattered about, in various pockets of the city. However, one of the main areas where transients resided is known as Skid Row. Bordered by 3rd and 7th streets and Alameda and Main, the neighborhood stretches for several city blocks. I made it one of my goals to visit this community and see what it was all about: how people lived, what sort of services they were offered, and the efforts agency workers made to work with this group.
I shared my curiosities with some street-savvy acquaintances, and told them about how I wanted to "check the area out."
"You better not go alone," A said to me. "Take J with you."
"It's dangerous," added J. "You don't know what these people are capable of."
I paused, a little taken aback. My acquaintances were of the streets and I didn't see any problem with them. At least nothing I couldn't handle. What could possibly happen, I wondered. Aren't we all human, after all?
So J got into my car and we drove down to Los Angeles. All I had to do was put Skid Row into my GPS and directions were provided without any clarification required by the automatic cartographer. This place is so well known - and established - that it's almost a little city of its own, tucked not too far from the fashion district and Little Tokyo.
It was less than a two-hour drive from Oildale, near Bakersfield.
I had water, snacks, a camera, and a notebook. J had brought products of his own, for his enjoyment.
Arrival: Ground Zero
As we neared Los Angles, heading south on I-5, we could see the edge of the skyline appear. Buildings made famous from popular films were clearly visible against a sky filled with wisps of cirrus clouds. We could see people encamped beneath the overpasses and a few more spread out along the underbrush that bordered the thoroughfares. I checked my GPS again and looked for the exit I had to negotiate in order to arrive at the destination. Traffic was moderate and I had no difficulty moving toward the exit lane.
"There's so many here. Is this it?" asked J.
"No. It is within the city and stretches through many blocks. This is outskirts," I replied.
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"She would love it here. She would go crazy." J was referring to A, a homeless advocate herself, even though she could be labeled as "homeless" herself.
We found a spot right off 7th Avenue. As we drove though downtown, we moved through streets lined with blue tarps that looked like they would be more appropriate in a recreational park. Then it dawned on me: this was a campsite and the colorful tarps I saw were tents - homes - for people who were living here. We must have passed by several hundred on just the first few blocks. Most were packed tightly, territories that marked living spaces not much wider than a parking space.
As we stepped out of the car, there was a small noise that sounded like a lawnmower backfiring. I locked the door and J and I stepped on the sidewalk. I checked to make sure I brought enough water. Someone across the street was running and other people - the homeless near an encampment - began to make noise. J and I stopped and turned. Some smoke appeared in the air. Then I could see the flames.
(The video of this incident can be found below)
Aftermath of a Fire
Skid row originated from "skid road," which was a forest track over which logs were dragged. By 1915, skid road had come to be used to indicate a street or area of cheap shops and resorts, a relatively disreputable district. By 1931, the term had become "skid row" and was used for areas where derelicts and hoboes hung out.
A Short History
The origin of the term skid row (according to Almanac.com) came from a phrase used by lumberjacks to describe the path that logs were dragged along to reach the waterways for transport to the mills. The original nomenclature was coined "skid road," which seemed appropriate given the nature of the activity along that path. By 1915, it was used to describe the areas in cities that were populated by transients and the "undesirable" vicinity around these locations, many populated by rowdy bars, houses of ill repute and other parlors deemed inappropriate for more "comfortable" zones.
The early days of skid road in Los Angeles were populated by hobos and other transient types. Near the turn of the century, L.A. was the end stop for the transcontinental railroad which made it a popular attraction - and the end of the line, literally, for vagrants, many of them Civil War veterans. Cheap hotels, saloons, and brothels were erected.
Warehouses and missions soon appeared. Cheap one-room flophouses, appropriate for single men - and eventually single families - appeared. The overcrowded rooming houses eventually spilled their populations into the streets. The access of services - many of them missions which helped supply food and clothing - made the commute more desirable for residents who did not have access to transportation. By the 1970s and 80s, the community emerged. Today, it is estimated that there are about 4,500 who live on the streets with another 12,000 seeking shelter in the single dwelling units.
From History of Downtown Los Angeles' "Skid Row"
Today the Central City East area, including Skid Row, contains a population of approximately 12,000 persons. Approximately 8,000 of them live permanently or semi-permanently in the 6,500 single-room-occupancy hotel rooms and approximately 2,000 persons occupy beds in shelter and transitional facilities, for periods of time ranging from days to several months. The population living on the streets is variously estimated...to be from 2,000 to 5,000 persons....
— Author Unknown
Many might wonder why someone who is struggling to find permanent shelter would have a dog (or other pet). Animals can be expensive to care for and another mouth to feed. When you and I look at someone who is begging for food, it doesn't make sense to cart around another creature.
But pets have many benefits for someone experiencing social isolation or struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. They provide companionship and a sense of purpose. Studies have demonstrated that the compassion one feels toward an animal in one's care has great therapeutic purposes. Many hospitals provide "dog therapy" to assist patients healing from cancers or other conditions. For someone who is "down and out," an animal will offer the owner a reason to live.
For some, animals provide a sense of connection to others in society. A homeless man may seem more approachable and even evoke sympathy if he is with a dog. For others, particularly females, a canine can provide a sense of security and protection. Animals can also serve as burglar alarms for those who are encamped in dangerous urban areas, or in remote places near canals or dried up waterways.
And of course, a pet can be a best friend for someone who has lost all connections.
In the fire, there were maybe two dogs which we could hear barking in distress. They must have been chained up or felt trapped by the quickly moving fire. I am not sure why they didn't try and escape or seek the exit that must have been created by the open spaces in the tarp as it was devoured by flames.
Some Words of Respect
I should mention that while walking around some of the streets, I had my camera out and tried taking some images. I realized that my efforts to chronicle were not appreciated by the residents. Many called out "This isn't a tourist attraction" and "Why you don put your camera away?" and "You'd better watch it. You're in Skid Row, not Kansas."
I did take a few pictures - you can see them here. But I was careful not to invade anyone's privacy. The white man you see with the black woman is the one who lost his dog. I wanted to include him to give him some meaning and for anyone who might encounter him to understand his loss. When I approached, the dog started to growl as I was taking the photograph. The woman stepped up to me and said quietly, "Nah, that isn't necessary." I stepped way and put the camera in my pocket.
A Sudden Fire
Fire Part 2
A Neighborhood of Their Own
It is also important to keep in mind that even though this neighborhood has become well known in popular culture (perhaps even notorious), it is still a community of people. Many of the residents have experienced trauma, social isolation or may be living lives that deviate from social norms. This is their territory, their land. When you breach the avenues that border this town, you are entering a foreign country. Without a passport or an invitation.
As I walked along the streets, I could gain a sense of community - or rather small pockets of nomadic groupings. There seemed to be a comfortable sensibility that lay beneath the outer volatile veneer. There were rules which were understood and a hierarchy of status based upon mores which I was either unfamiliar with or afraid to discover. I wondered briefly where new arrivals were housed or if the anonymous governing bodies segregated the immigrants. There must have been some way movement was dictated. I was certain that to set up in any open spot would recruit an uncomfortable punishment. I was sure there was a process that included being exiled either from this Los Angeles township, or for more serious transgressions, from Planet Earth.
Walking Along the Walkways
A Glimmer of Hope?
I walked down most of the streets with J. I tried to stop at the Chelsea Hotel, but it was closed for remodeling. I stopped in a pizza parlor for a snack. I walked through in indoor bazaar. I said a few words to some of the local residents; most ignored me. I watched other social service agency workers and saw that most of them looked tired and as if they wanted to be someplace else.
I thought about the fire which started when we first arrived and remembered some of the conversations I overheard when walking by the tents. There were walls covered with graffiti and sidewalks glazed with human excrement. Charcoal grills, bottles of alcoholic beverages, and sometimes televisions gave the illusion that this was an urban weekend outing. I was a bit humbled and my legs were tired from the jaunt in this village.
As we approached the car, we stopped to look at what remained after the fire. It looked like a bicycle warehouse had gone up. There were enough parts there for someone to sell to a team preparing for a decathlon. We looked at the burned-out cakes of metal, wood and melted plastic. All charred, some of it still smoking through a sheen of water. Thin wisps of mist filled the air.
"They got a lot of stuff," said the landlord of the building, who had been called out to inspect his property. The tent that burned was pushed up against a tire shop of some sort.
J and I make small talk with him about the fire.
"There were dogs in there," J says.
"Yes," said the man and pointed.
Our eyes move to a towel or blanket of some sort - so white and clean, it looks out of place. Underneath, you could see the animal on its side. We all become quiet for a moment and just stare. The body looked so still and relaxed.
"It almost looks like it's sleeping," one of us says.
Random Images From My Visit to Skid Row
Sources and More Information
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- SKID ROW NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL – EmpowerLA
- Where did the term "skid row" come from? | Almanac.com
- The early history of Los Angeles’s Skid Row - Curbed LA
Why Skid Row—the nation's largest homeless encampment—formed in Downtown LA.
- lapovertydept.org – Los Angeles Poverty Department
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Fin