2011 brought a shift in my work: I applied for and was accepted into Public Allies Los Angeles, Class of 2011-2012. I now work in Central City East, at SRO Housing Corporation as a Public Ally and Case Manager in the seniors program, Project Hotel Alert. I began working there in September, and I've learned so much.
Like most people, I avoided the blocks between Los Angeles Street and Alameda and Third and Seventh-- which wsn't difficult, since this population of needy citizens and their service organizations is so well quarantined in this city. When I lived at 18th and Main, I considered the implications of gentrification that went with my living in the area. So when I found out that one of the opportunities I had as a Public Ally was to work in Central City East, I felt that I had a chance to get to know an area that, frankly, I'd been taught to (and did, to some degree) fear. And when I did get the position at SRO, it felt serendipitous.
So, for the last three months, I have spent most weekdays working at Fifth and San Julian, which some might call the "heart" of Skid Row. Union Rescue Mission and LA Mission are across the street, and Midnight Mission and LAMP Community's Frank Rice Access Center (and many other service providers) are not far, as is a park that sees much activity during the day, populated by a variety of low-low-income people, from the recently evicted, to the recently released from LAC + USC, to the recently released from prison, to military veterans, to people recently diagnosed with AIDS, to people living with addiction, to people with mental health diagnoses, to people who might have been born there, to people who will die there, to people who will leave almost as quickly as they arrive. Oftentimes, people fit into more than one of those categories.
It was hard for me to say "people who will die there." I work with seniors who live in Skid Row, some who have only been in housing for a few months, some who have been in their SROs for decades, and some who are still trying to find housing. Some are just barely 60, some are in their 80s. It is not out of the realm of possibility that one of my clients might pass away. I try not to think about that, and focus on the present, and what assistance I can be to them while we are both here.
What's wild is that in the first half of 2011, I worked just 4 blocks away in a totally different world. And that walking down Fifth street from Maple to Main is like passing between two different worlds, each equally wary of the other.
While the Occupy LA encampment was dismantled by Los Angeles police, the encampments near LA's actual Wall Street grew. During the last week of 2011, the streets where I work and on which many people live were piled with more trash than I'd seen since I started. What I'm carrying with me into 2012 is questions. The other 1%, the 1% of Americans (according to Wikipedia) who experience homelessness in a given year, are concentrated into a place that is regarded more as a quarantine zone than a neighborhood. But it is a neighborhood. It is a community. How can Central City East (Skid Row) be a healthier community? How does Los Angeles need to change in order for it be a healthier community? How does society need to change?