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PhiLAnthropist: Walking on Skid Row

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"The measure of any society is how they treat their weakest element. The widows, the orphans, the strangers on the land. How we do anything is how we do everything. We're not doing so well on Skid Row." ~ Sam Slovick

For many people living in Los Angeles, Skid Row truly embodies the phrase "out of sight, out of mind". The homelessness, drug abuse, prostitution, violence and mental illness that continue to thrive on Skid Row has successfully been tucked away within this 50-block concentration of shelters, missions and other social services. As a result, it has remained out of the eyes, ears and minds of the majority of Los Angeles residents. Estela Lopez, Executive Director of the Central City East Association, describes it as a real-life Dante's Inferno. And this is after the area has seen improvements in the past few years; the number of people on the street has dropped from 2,000 to 600 and most of the tents are gone. Most recently, however, blogdowntown reports that the numbers are again on the rise.

Three years ago, with the support of Councilwoman Jan Perry and the Midnight Mission, Estela began the Skid Row Neighborhood Walk (mentioned last month in LAist). The walk aims to raise awareness while putting (and keeping) the focus on and commitment to Skid Row. Their partnership demonstrates that the business community and the missions are working together to bring attention and peace to the streets.

Estela is truly a remarkable woman who brings an enormous amount of energy, heart, and compassion with her every time she walks - be it in the cold, rain or amongst only a handful of other walkers. She extends this genuine care and concern to each individual on the street that she takes the time to talk to and offer help. Another purpose of the walk is to give those individuals in need of aid an easy means of obtaining it. Members of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority accompany each walk and provide on-the-spot assistance. This past walk, Estela stopped after noticing a woman who appeared to have overdosed. She was curled up next to a man in a wheelchair. Estela reached out her hand and introduced herself to the gentleman, asking if they needed help and would like to go somewhere for the evening. The man explained that he was a Veteran and unable to obtain housing since he did not have an ID card. He then confessed that he was an addict and at the beginning of every month his benefit checks go straight to the drug dealers that populate the area, lurking outside of the missions and recovery centers.

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Many times, Estela says, people refuse the help. However, sometimes they will embrace the offer. Such was the case with this Veteran. Estela's heart went out for this couple; his appreciation and candid honesty touched and moved her. While these encounters are no rare occurrence, they never get 'old' or easier to see, especially when it comes to her interactions with the women struggling on the streets. She recounts the time she met a woman who had just given birth to a baby on Skid Row, and the baby was born addicted.

It is situations like these, with the Veteran and women that provide her with the balance and ability to come back day after day, despite knowing that after she goes home each night, it is likely that an individual she saw that day won't be there tomorrow. Each month, she opens and closes the walks with a few remarks, and reminds walkers that "People don't live on Skid Row, they die on Skid Row". It is this statement that really highlights the core purpose of the walk. Thanks to the heavy concentration of social services coupled with a lack of appropriate infrastructure, Skid Row, according to Estela, has turned into something comparable to an insane asylum, where drug dealers, drug abuse, prostitution, mental illness and violence run rampant, all in the shadows of City Hall just a few blocks away. Sam Slovick, in his excellent five-part Good Magazine documentary series on Skid Row (although, some may disagree), explains that Los Angeles is the first 3rd world city in the United States, all within one of the richest economies in the country. That's a big problem that demands action and awareness. This is what the walk strives to achieve in addition to reminding people that the focus needs to remain on Skid Row, beyond the 15-minutes of fame it may get around each holiday season. The walk provides individuals a safe means of gaining a perspective of Skid Row beyond hearing about it in the news or from inside the confines of a car window. Any walker, including Estela, will tell you that each walk leaves a profound impact on each individual. The hope is that this impact will linger and people will tell and bring their friends and neighbors, write their Congress men and women, volunteer at the Missions - anything to make a big deal and shed more light on Skid Row.

The problem is complex and there is no simple or quick solution, but it is crucial that residents of Los Angeles remember not to put this area on the back burner. One can not hope for change without action, so when enough people start to express care and concern and realize that the area known as Skid Row must be treated like every other community, then one can start to look for improvement on the horizon.

Estela, Councilwoman Jan Perry and many other community members walk the first Wednesday of every month, warmly welcoming newcomers.

Walks begin at 6pm at the Midnight Mission at the corner of 6th Street and San Pedro. Police Officers and BID security accompany each walk, providing safe passage for anyone who wants to join but may feel a bit of concern.

Top photo by Tom Andrews/LAist