Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Working in Skid Row

Last month, I was invited to write an article about working in Skid Row for the Public Allies National newsletter. Here it is:

I don't really know how to pose for portraits. 2/14/12
As a case manager at SRO Housing, I work with seniors living in the 50-block area of Los Angeles known as "Skid Row," which holds the largest concentration of homeless people in the country. Yes, there is trash in the streets.  Yes, I have seen people use drugs in broad daylight. These are the images that people expect and fear in Skid Row, but I've come to understand that this is only part of the story.  Beyond its needs and problems, there is also great potential.  I've learned to look at Skid Row as a community rather than as a scary, chaotic place. 
Consider two people who live in the Norbo Hotel, an aged, brick building that sits between the heart and the outskirts of Skid Row. 
Mr. W is a United States Army veteran.  A tall, sturdily-built man, Mr. W’s precise posture is telling of his time in the military. He has a painful leg injury that inhibits his walking.  He asked for my help getting a pass to ride buses in Los Angeles for free. He was so happy when he received his pass and thanks me profusely for helping him gain more mobility. When I informed him that he would no longer receive home-delivered meals due to a change in the program, he said “I’m okay, you’ve helped me so much with this pass, I can go get my own food--I have no complaints.” 
Mr. E also lives at the Norbo. For much of his life, he was burdened by alcoholism and drifted from city to city with few periods of stability. By the time we met, however, he had overcome his alcohol addiction. He tells me often that he is amazed that he has a home now and is paying his rent on time, visiting his doctors regularly. He attends support meetings to maintain his sobriety. 
When I visit with Mr. W and Mr. E, I see real strength and independence. 
I won’t deny that I still find Skid Row intimidating in some ways, but viewing this neighborhood as a community makes it possible to also see its resources – both in the people who are here to help and in the people who are here looking for help.
Knowing this, I walk these streets with a sense of possibility, not fear.
One of the core values that Public Allies stresses is Asset-Based Community Development. That really resonates with me since I've had first-hand experience as part of a group of people committed to making something with the resources that were already around us. 

A value that Public Allies Los Angeles stresses is critical self reflection. For me, it's always been difficult to draw the line between reflection, and ruminating the living daylights out of-- myself, mainly. I mentioned in a recent training that I LOVE "process." I guess that's why I blog here (and here, and here). My hope is that at some point, the critical self reflection I engage in will help me to engage in critical action as well. What do I mean by critical action? That's a question that I'm still swimming around in, figuring out the answer. At this point, I know that it has a lot to do with figuring out a way of living that is more just, more equitable, and more humane. Something new, or something old that we've forgotten, that can create healing. This comes, in great part, from walking through a place where I see, hear, smell evidence of the need for healing daily. And I see the glimmers of possibility beneath all the structural barriers that must be taken down.

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