“The truth of the matter is, there’s no one — and I’ve worked in this field of recovery for some years — there’s no one that I’ve ran into yet that has ever told me, when they was in the fourth grade and they were talking about career day, that they were gonna end up on Skid Row.” Redd’s observation makes clear both the daily banality and the perpetual shock that characterize life on Skid Row in Los Angeles. No one anticipates living there, and yet, some 11,000 men and women do.
Most residents struggle with mental illness and/or drug addiction. But, as Catherine Keener narrates in Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home, “It wasn’t always this way.” The documentary’s opening sequence illustrates the sharp contrasts of today’s Skid Row: shots of figures slumped on a sidewalk or dancing in the street are intercut with low angles on decrepit storefronts, overshadowed by slick new office buildings. As the neighborhood gives way to gentrification, the differences between rich and poor are increasingly distressing and also increasingly familiar.
If these differences exist everywhere in today’s United States, in Skid Row they are especially visible. According to Lost Angels — screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 27 and 28 June, each show followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Thomas Napper — such visibility makes the place a kind of ongoing social experiment. As Kevin Cohen (KK) puts it, Skid Row “has a Third World element to it,” impoverished and hopeless and sometimes terrifying, but it has attractions too, especially for individuals who have struggled to make sense of a more regular existence: “You don’t pay bills, you don’t pay car notes, you don’t have responsibilities.”
Featuring interviews with charismatic members of the LAMP Community, like KK and General Dogon (who makes it his daily business to protect his neighbors from harassment and abuse), the film invites you to see Skid Row not only as an emblem of failure and pain, but also a place where actual people live. Beautifully shot and resolutely respectful of its subjects, the film showcases their generosity and self-reflection, their energy and frustration. As LAMP Community founder Mollie Lowery observes, their very existence is set against tremendous emotional and physical odds, as they “have to wake up every day, to face another day being a stigmatized, marginalized person in the world.”
Lowery points out that the shape of this stigmatization has changed over time. Again, this has to do with a widening gap between “them” and “us,” as “they” are cast out. “Back in the mid ’70s through the mid ’80s,” she says, “We didn’t call them homeless. Back then, we were emptying out mental hospitals by saying, ‘We have the meds now, you can get on disability, so go forth and take care of yourself.” Now, Skid Row has become a kind of “open asylum,” where the patients are abandoned to their own resources, where they self-medicate or don’t, where “We criminalize them because of their behavior on the streets.”
Lost Angels shows how this process works, most devastatingly in Los Angeles’ Safer Cities Initiative, “launched with a vengeance in September 2006” by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then Police Chief William Bratton (he has since been replaced by Charlie Beck, in 2009). The program promised to use “two prongs” with regard to Skid Row, a crackdown on serious crime and a big expansion of services. According to Gary Blasi, a professor of law at UCLA, “One of those things happened and the other one didn’t.” Cops cited, ticketed, and rounded up homeless people, but the money to improve their conditions never came through. KK phrases the resulting dilemma this way: “You can’t sit on a crate? What the fuck is this, a plantation?”
KK’s observations are consistently acute, challenging all kinds of assumptions. Making his way down the sidewalk, his arms wide as if to embrace the street around him, he draws a vivid picture of prevailing “double standards.” “In this part of town, you can’t be caught with a beer, but across Broadway, where the lofts are and stuff, every Friday night, there’s full of…” He pauses and looks directly at the camera as he continues, “And don’t take it personal, but whites running around with drinks in their hands, laughing and walking their dogs, and crossing the street in the middle of the street.” Here he walks out into the sparse traffic to illustrate: “Like this! The police are riding by, waving and smiling.”
Lost Angels doesn’t press hard to show the effects of racism in the evolution of Skid Row, but they are everywhere to be seen. Certainly, there are white residents, emotionally damaged, addicted, and mentally ill, and those subjects here, including KK’s common-law wife of nine years, Lee Anne, are also remarkable and insightful. That said, it’s clear enough that people of color comprise the majority of the poor and homeless, here as elsewhere in America. The fact that Skid Row, in this and other aspects, is so like other places only underscores Lost Angels‘ argument: the problem is systemic, not abnormal, and its victims are like you, not different.