It’s not often that I go out without my camera, but that’s what I did on Skid Row in Los Angeles the other day.
“Be careful,” my contact at the shelter told me. “Watch out for yourself,” said the security guard in the garage as I handed him my keys and walked up the ramp toward the bright light of the street.
They had good reason to show concern. Skid Row consistently ranks in the top three most violent neighborhoods in the country. The other two on that list are right next door. But that’s not why I decided to leave my cameras in the truck.
I’d been doing interviews in Los Angeles about housing security and homelessness for the past week, and I hadn’t yet been on the streets. I talked to people who ran the shelters. I interviewed folks who lived in the shelters and others who had once been on the streets and had found a path to stable housing. But I did the interviews in offices. In the shelters. I hadn’t yet been on the streets myself and it was bothering me.
Los Angeles is ground zero for the housing crisis in America. When they did a census of who was unhoused in 2019, they counted about 65,000 people, but advocates think the number is likely closer to 80,000. Skid Row is roughly 50 city blocks. Depending on who you ask, there are 4-5,000 people living on the streets just in that neighborhood.
I was stunned when I first drove down South San Pedro Street. I’d seen clusters of tents as I passed through the city, but here, the streets were lined with them. Some cobbled together. Others tattered or collapsed, maybe abandoned, but maybe not. I wanted to show the scene in order to tell the story. That’s sorta what you do when you’re a photographer. But I couldn’t figure out how to do it well—with any kind of dignity—so I left the cameras behind.
But still, I needed to see it for myself, walking down the street, not just through the windshield as I drove by. I’ve been to the slums of Nairobi. Worked in the shanty towns of Honduras. But I’ve never seen anything like this.
There were people urinating on the street. There are just a handful of public bathrooms for the thousands who are there, so what’s a person to do? Mental illness and addiction underlie some of the stories of homelessness. It was all on full display for my walk. One woman stood in the middle of the street with her head in her hands. A man shouted at nobody in particular. Another rocked back and forth on his heels as he pulled at his face. It was sad. Heartbreaking, really. But there was also music. Singing and dancing. Laughter and art. People braiding hair and stopping to talk with friends.
I only walked a half dozen blocks. There were no chance encounters. No transformative conversations at an intersection waiting for the light to change. Just a sea of humanity trying to make it through another day, with struggles and joys like the rest of us. Different, but the same.
I took two photos with my cell phone on the walk. One of a row of tents, that didn’t show any people. The other of a wall with a message scrawled across it that said, “It’s not how you fell down, it’s how you get back up.”
The challenge of homelessness is big. But it’s not impossible. I met people who are working on effective solutions. Policy changes. Innovative approaches. I heard from people who have turned their lives around. Mostly because someone was there to lend a hand. Lift them up and get them back on track. It seems the thing we need most is simply the will to make a difference.