Monday, August 20, 2007

Iron Butterflies

As I was reading earlier this week about Jamie Foxx's upcoming role as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Skid Row homeless musician turned Disney concert hall performer -- it reminded that I wanted to go back to the multi-part Skid Row feature I read in the LA Times right after we moved downtown.

(photo is of Joe Michaels - Francine Orr/LAT 2005)

Over the course of a month - October of 2005 - LA Times reporter Steve Lopez authored a series of articles looking at the desparation and insanity of life on Skid Row. Someone in San Francisco actually told me about it, when we moved to 4th & Main I finally read it. It's a hard series to read and I can only imagine how hard it was to write. Lopez toured the missions, the alleys and the support services that house the homeless pandemic in downtown Los Angeles. His story even got the attention of the Mayor who turns up in the wheelchair piece meeting the homeless in the courtyard at the Midnight Mission.

I don't know much about Steve Lopez beyond what's in his biography on the Times website. But I know that if you read his series - and you may not get through the whole thing - but if you do read it, you will take away a humanizing picture of a crisis that all of us living downtown are trying to get our heads around.

Click here for a link to the stories Steve wrote back in 2005. I'm not sure much has changed since then.

One thing that frustrates me about living downtown is feeling that one way or another, we are all looking the other way; because we have to maybe - or because we don't know what else to do. I try to be informed and understand the issues but after that I am at a loss. I'm not opposed to volunteering or trying to getting involved, but I'm pretty sure we can't volunteer our way out of this one. It will take a citywide, series of initiatives that tackle what are clearly long term problems to deal with the spectrum of issues that this community is facing.

One night Orlando Ward, who heads the Midnight Mission, explained to me that you see a kind of bell curve in the homeless population. There are the recently evicted/recently homeless who maybe had a job but lost their apartment or vice versa and who have landed on the streets simply because they are poor and lacking a safety net (this is often the case for homeless families/kids). Then there is another shade of folks who started out in that boat, but who have since sucumbed to the hardening of the tented life and will struggle more to get back on their feet, after that there's a pretty sizeable population that is facing drug/alcohol addiction along with living on the street and whether it was a cause or effect some level of depression or mental illness. Then the curve drops off to the other end of folks who have no chance. They have either been homeless for so long or have such severe mental illness that the damage might be irretrievable. I imagine some of these folks who are older could be victims of Reagan-era VA closures or cuts in funding for housing for the mentally ill. Where schizophrenia or severe untreated depression combined with the hopelessness of their situation have had devastating effects.

Ward says for the people on extreme ends of the "bell curve" there are more obvious solutions for those at the beginning of their stay on the streets - housing might be all that's needed. For the folks at the other end of the curve it might be long term inpatient treatment. It's the folks in the middle in the most complicated spot. I went to a meeting at the James Woods' center where one formerly homeless activist said "if you haven't been homeless you can't imagine how low your self esteem gets, you just get used to people looking at you like you have a tail." I couldn't shake that thought. The feeling of invisibility, of shame and the way that might shatter your psyche.

In the end I think it is the labryinth of addiction, of mental illness, the sheer anxiety of having no place to live, no place that is safe and no guarantee of the basic requisites for life, food, water, shelter that leaves I think many politicians bewildered. Where even to begin? And for many it seems like a long-term problem in what for many elected officials is a short term career. Most politicians want a fight they can win, something they can point to as they term out of one office and head for another. It's hard to imagine Skid Row fitting that bill.

Still, I have been waiting for some kind of platform of issues to emerge maybe from City Hall - or the City Council - waiting for one of our leaders to step to the plate and say if we did x, y & z we'd be on track to making improvements in this nightmare. But I gotta say it seems like a slow train coming.

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