Homeless. Poverty. Loneliness. Desperation. These are words that strike fear in our hearts. Luckily most of us have a warm place to sleep at night. We have food in our refrigerators and friends to rely on. This is not the case for the people who live on Skid Row. With our nation facing one of the most difficult economic times in history, more and more people are facing the reality of landing on Skid Row. And it's a harsh reality. I've been spending time on Skid Row for over three years. It has been a very sobering experience. When you first get down to Skid Row the smell sometimes will knock you back five to ten feet. It's a mixture of urine, fear, and sadness. Sometimes when going down there it's like entering an insane asylum. There are people walking in the middle of the street talking to themselves. There are those lying in the middle of the sidewalk screaming nonsense. There are those standing in the corner urinating and smoking crack. This is Skid Row.
I have seen things on Skid Row that have made me really question where our country is going. A couple of weeks ago I was hanging out and a patrol car stopped in front of the group I was hanging out with. A policeman came out and asked me what I was doing? I told him I bring food to the folks down here and talk to them. He said I shouldn't be doing that and made me give my hand to him so he could fingerprint me. I asked him why he needed to fingerprint me and he said, "To see who you are and if you have any outstanding warrants. We have to keep account of who is down here." I could not believe an actual police officer told me I was not supposed to be helping people down here. On another occasion I was approached by a man who said, "If you want to come home with me and hang out I will give you some money." I have been offered drugs, offered crack pipes, and accosted. One day I was walking back to my car and a guy tried to jump on top of me. Luckily I got away from him and ran to my car. This is life on the row.
In the time I've spent on Skid Row I've met a man named M. M sits in the same spot every day. He's been down on Skid Row and homeless for 24 years. He can't explain the reasons why he has been down here for so long. "Why I am here I cannot say for certain. I really don't know. I have thought about it a lot and I still don't know. " Life for M down on Skid Row is a daily struggle. Every day he and the other residents wonder if there will be any food to eat or will they have a place to sleep. "The longest I've gone without food is twenty four hours. Sometimes people come by and give me a sandwich, a burrito, or other things. I won't go to the soup kitchens. I have been harassed and bothered down there. One time I was standing in line and a guy jumped in front of me. I let him. Then he told me that I had been in line two or three other times and I told him I had not. He told the people at the kitchen and they said I had been there more than once so I had to leave. I asked him do all black people look alike to you and left. There is so much foolishness that goes on down there I won't go back."
During the day M reads books or talks to those who walk by him. Everyone down here seems to know him. At night he moves to an area with an overhang and sleeps in a sleeping bag. The overhang provides him shelter from wind and rain. "I've only had one person mess with me while I've been asleep. They started yelling a bunch of nonsense at me and woke me up. Other than that I've never been bothered. You have to be awake and walking around before 6 am or the police will start bugging you or arrest you." I asked him how he knew when it was time to wake up and he said, "You just do. Also you hear the people around you start talking and you know it's time to get up or there will be trouble." M could go to a shelter to sleep at night but prefers not to. "There is always some nonsense going on down there. I've been ambushed a lot there. People mess with you, they try to start fights with you, and it's just crazy. One time I was standing in line and someone came up behind me and starting hitting the back of my leg with his shoe. I told him to quit and he would not. After he kept on hitting my legs I turned around and hit him back. Then his friends came over and tried to gang up on me so I left. I would rather sleep on the street."
The police are a constant presence down here. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it's a bad thing. The police often harass the homeless down on Skid Row. They make them relocate to other streets even though they are not doing anything. They make fun of them and ask them why they are down there. They also bring them down to the police station for even small things. "One time I was arrested for jay walking. I had crossed the street with three guys behind me. The police followed us and arrested me and let the other three go. The officer said I had two jay walking tickets and took me in. I knew I had another ticket but how was I going to pay it?" Another time M was taken to the police station because they thought he looked like someone else. "One time I was sitting on the sidewalk and a policeman came up and started talking to me. I didn't think anything was wrong until he told me he had to take me to the police station that I had broken into a drug store or grocery store. So he took me down to the station and showed me a picture that was supposed to be me. It didn't look anything like me. The only reason me and the guy looked sort of alike is that we were both black and had a beard. The police let me go, but told me not to go too far because they may change their mind about me."
Life can be dangerous on Skid Row. The people who exist down here have to be constantly worried about being beaten up and abused. Predators will beat up on the defenseless for no reason at all. "One time someone cracked me over the head and arm with a golf club because they did not like the way I answered them. They thought I was being smart with them so they started hitting my head and arm with the club." To this day M's arm still hurts. He does not have access to medical care. He does not even have access to basic medicine such as Tylenol or cold medicine, things we take for granted on a daily basis. "I've never been really sick. I've just had colds and I've had to tough it out until I got better."
M has very few processions. He has a radio that he likes to listen to the news on. He has books given to him by strangers that he reads. His favorites are westerns. He sleeps in a sleeping bag given to him by a friend. He has the clothes on his back and that's it. "I have to turn hermit sometimes. I have the clothes I have on and that is it. I have to wait until I have enough money to do my laundry so I can have clean clothes." He gets a little money given to him by people walking by. He never asks for it. He uses this money to do laundry (it costs a dollar to wash and a dollar to dry at the Laundromat around the corner), take a shower (a shower costs fifty cents at the same laundromat) and buy tobacco. Recently M left his things to go take a shower and when he got back everything was stolen. It was not the first time. "I've had all of my stuff stolen a couple of times. I just have to make the best of it."
This is M's life. This is the everyday life the homeless people face on a daily basis down on Skid Row. M once told me, "Once you are down here you have to be down here. You have to forget the outside world exists or you will never survive. "