The Heterogeneity of Life

Early February, I went on a work trip to Los Angeles to attend a conference I have lusted after for the past three years — the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s Annual Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness. I stepped off the plane at LAX, and although it didn’t feel exactly like the Northern California I call home, it was certainly close enough. Throughout the following days, I began the etchings in my head of what this blog post would be, and I figured it would be called something along the lines of, “Ok, SoCal, I get it now.” I was wrapped up tenderly in its fabulousness. And then I went to Skid Row. And everything changed. The words I would use to paint my luxurious bed in the historic Biltmore Hotel and my indulgences in the tasty food surrounding me were suddenly cloudy, as if the dirty water in which my brushes sat had fallen and spilled across my canvas. I had to figure out how to make sense of the art again.

When I was writing my thesis last year on a recent federal homelessness policy, I was knee-deep in scholarly articles written about the homelessness phenomenon, some from the 1980s, some written just months prior. I waded through the research, looking for common themes, and there was one in particular that sewed together every other topic, from defining the word “homeless” to the programmatic responses to the homelessness crisis. Author after author stressed the heterogeneity of homelessness. I agree with them, but I’d like to take that statement further. After visiting Skid Row, there is no way that my post can now so simply be about my extravagant, blissful times under a happy southern Californian sun. I can’t discuss that now without knowing that to some, that sun is a hot and inhibiting flame beating down on an already beat down day. And so this post is about my trip, from beginning to end, from glamour to destitution — the heterogeneity of life.

And life when I first started in Los Angeles was rich and pleasing. I was in love again. Waiting for my shuttle at the airport, I was tickled by the warmth of the outdoor air in early February. Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” became the cliché soundtrack to my return to the promise land. For as cliché as it may be, when accurately combined with a sunny Los Angeles day, it reminded me of something really important — All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die. My downtown express shuttle was soon packed full and we hit one of LA’s many freeways. My big eyes took in LA’s smog-covered hills and charming midday traffic, as I slipped farther and farther into euphoria, tingling with the excitement of getting to explore. As we approached my hotel in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, I took note of things outside the shuttle’s windows that I wanted to come back to by foot.

IMG_0025When I go on trips, I book the cheapest hotels I can find. Nine and a half times out of ten, they are nothing I remember lovingly. But this was a company trip, and I was going to stay where they told me to stay, which was where the conference was being held. And walking into the Biltmore was not like walking into a hotel, but rather an old Castilian palace, intricately painted with murals on the walls and ceilings, woven with marble detailing, and sparkling with antique chandeliers. When I got up to my room, I promptly squealed like a little girl and did a flip and dive into my king-sized bed that swallowed me whole. Then I jumped back up and opened my old wooden shutters. The humming city sun soon flooded my room and I looked out in ecstasy at a city that already felt like we had been dance partners for ages. Next, I ran to my suitcase and pulled out a floating summer dress and minutes later, I was waltzing my way back to the street level.

Under those Los Angeles blue skies, strutting just came naturally. The sun literally hugged you. The people around me looked strung out on Vitamin D, overdosed on sunny days. Their heads were in the clouds, but why wouldn’t they be? The people who passed me on the sidewalks walked with that California sloth, knowing they had somewhere to be, but knowing more importantly that nothing could be more important than this moment under the sun. They were all such unique people, while concurrently fulfilling their own stereotypes. They were a cast of characters. There was the suave Mediterranean man with his slicked back hair and tight jeans. There were the many grungy, but trendy skateboarders, kicking their way down the mild concrete hills. There were the suits, who appeared to not be too concerned about the fact that they were suits. There were the blonde ladies and the Mexican families, and everyone seemed to be happy with where they fit. And then there was the saxophone player. How could you forget the saxophone player? He was an older African-American man with scruffy gray hair and worn clothes and a smile in his eyes that could last for years. He stood on the corner and his songs filled the entire intersection. They hung in the warm air, floating.

A warm melody of breeze blew through my hair and twirled the bottom of my dress, as I walked my way to Pershing Square. There was an incredible something (release, freedom, joy, who knows) about not having to wear tights in the winter. My bare legs shinned toward the sun and my feet took surprise at the fact that I was in sandals. I was having one of those moments where I couldn’t help, but smile. The refreshing beauty of this location lied in this thought — smile and you shall be smiled upon.

Pershing Square was alive with the booths of local farmers, crafters, and food vendors. I lost myself in a citrus stand. It had every type of orange, tangerine, satsuma, tangelo, clementine, you could dream of. They sat plump, ripe, and colorful in piles across the tables with samples of each cut up in front of them. After a few samples, I continued my walk in the warm sun with a bag of fresh, ripe oranges in hand until I was stopped by a rough looking Rastafarian man. He told me stories of his mentor and explained to me his dreams of making his big reggae break in LA. He genuinely wished to fill the world with good music, and so I gave him five dollars in exchange for one of his self-recorded CDs and a soulful, “Thank you and God bless you, baby.”

Everywhere I walked, I looked up. I was in love with Los Angeles’s ability to be a modern city with such romantically old architecture. The tops of buildings were molded with beautiful designs. I next found myself on a cobblestone side street made up almost entirely by restaurants selling gyros. A big-hearted woman pulled me into one, and I sat at one of the outdoor tables to do some work over lunch. If I had to estimate, I would say that ninety-five percent of the items on the menu came with avocado. I had a nice long chat with the waitress about guacamole. My stomach hugged me, knowing soon in my trip, it would finally get the good Mexican food it so desired.

Later that evening, I adventured onto the Los Angeles metro, which no one really uses unless they have to because everyone is far too spiritually connected to their vehicles. I was on my way to West Hollywood to meet a friend I hadn’t seen since I was in Greece in 2008. Soon into my trip, perhaps looking like I needed to be taken under someone’s wing, I was taken under the wing of an interesting young Russian girl. She sat next to me on the metro, telling me I looked too nice to be from around here. She helped me understand where I was going and presented some fun conversation. Although later, I became aware of the fact that part of her kindness might have stemmed from an odd relationship she had with her ex-boyfriend who conveniently lived in West Hollywood. “Are you going to see him?” she asked me, and I was so confused. “He makes films, but not ones that will really get you anywhere, so I always try to keep an eye on him and girls I think might be going to see him. Just say no, not worth it, you know?” Only in Hollywood would I be having this conversation, I thought. At that point, I was content to part ways with my metro guardian and leap into a happy reunion with my friend over indescribably spicy Thai food.

I fell asleep that night listening to my new reggae CD and smiling knowing that I would soon see two more people I love while on my trip, my brother and a dear family friend, Carmen.

I awoke to the reason why I was actually in Los Angeles — the conference. The halls of the main floor of the hotel were bustling that morning with government workers, researchers, and service providers, all there because they want to end one of our country’s most appalling social wrongs, homelessness. My day was packed with workshops on the most recent research on youth homelessness, community panels sharing their implementation struggles and successes of federal homelessness programs, and many other topics related to homelessness. It was a lot of information to take in, but it was all good information. I was happy to be there and excited to see so many people working on such an important issue. The following day was day two of the conference. It involved another set of workshops and some interesting keynote speakers at lunch, including Barbara Ehrenreich, poverty advocate and author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It was after hearing Barbara Ehrenreich speak that I noticed that despite being an interesting and very important conference for sharing national strategies to end homelessness, it was leaving me feeling a bit disconnected from the people we were actually trying to help. The information was being presented in a sterile bubble, away from the actual issues. I needed to get back to the place where I could look into the eyes of why I’ve chosen this path in my life, why this issue. And so for the last breakout workshop, two colleagues and I stepped out early with the intent of walking to Skid Row. This is where everything changed. This is where the illusory feeling of a perfect environment got a taste of reality and a need for a re-evaluation.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Skid Row is a section of downtown Los Angeles that stretches from East Third to East Seventh streets and is enclosed by Alameda and Main streets. It is officially known as Central City East and is populated by one of the largest numbers of homeless people in the United States. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2011 homeless point-in-time count estimated 4,316 homeless individuals on a single night in January within the confines of Skid Row’s city blocks. What’s most remarkable to me about Skid Row is that it isn’t tucked far away in some distant, rundown town. Skid Row exists about a six-block walk from the extravagant hotel in which I was resting my head in sheer delight.

Before walking these few blocks from the hotel, we each changed out of our formal business wear from the conference and into the most casual clothes we had packed in our suitcases. Then we walked, and we talked amongst ourselves, as the stores and restaurants lining the streets soon transformed into Single Room Occupancy units and churches by day, emergency shelters by night. I was completely unsure of what to expect. I hadn’t really done something like this before – knowingly walk into an area of town deemed “dangerous.” My jaw was nervously clenched and I noticed myself anxiously massaging the fingers of my left hand with my right hand. I didn’t know where to look, and so my eyes either stayed straight ahead or wandered in endless circles, always conveniently missing the faces of those around me.

The streets had changed from being full of people walking, going somewhere, to being full of people just standing, sitting around in groups, wondering when they would have somewhere to go, to walk to. The streets were dirty with garbage and stains blanketing the concrete. Makeshift tents huddled in clusters along the sidewalk, attempting to create a community within the space of the exiled community members. It was quite evident which building walls had been re-designated as restrooms, as the base aroma of urine was drastically heightened for these dozen or so steps we’d take, as if we were entering an elevator with a man who had sprayed on far too much cologne.

A couple of blocks into our walk, I realized that I hated myself. My unrequited fear was making me be the person I didn’t want to be. I wasn’t looking the people around me in the eyes. What was I so afraid of? Perhaps I thought if I didn’t look at them, I could pretend this outrageous atrocity, this violation of human dignity, didn’t exist. I resolved from that moment on, to look these men and women in the eye as I passed them, to give them that benefit of being a part of the human race. And it wasn’t until I did this that I could truly experience my surroundings and I wasn’t afraid. The people we passed didn’t even ask us for anything, they didn’t panhandle, as they would be stereotyped to do. They didn’t harass us. All they did was say, “Good afternoon, how are ya doin’ today?” Like any decent human being would do.

Photo by: Kate Brown

One man sat alone on the curb of a street corner, laughing hysterically to himself as we passed. It was as if we were hilarious to him, we were some inside joke he had with himself. I’ll never forget the eyes of another man we passed. He was an African-American man who looked about fifty. He was so thin with sunken eyes that looked deep into mine as he passed us. He wore a black t-shirt that had white lettering on the front reading, “Lost Soul.” Another woman we passed wore a white t-shirt that declared, “Man cannot live on bread alone.” She was right.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to ask my companions about their children.

The street population of Skid Row was so diverse. It represented all races, all genders, all ages, and they were all connected by the fact that they didn’t have a place to truly call home, a stable place to return to every night. People laid on the concrete, each passing the time in his or her own way. One young woman read a tattered book that looked of the genre one finds in the supermarket. A man passed the time by playing an old, old guitar that looked like it had seen just as much in this life as he had. The more social residents congregated in a small grassy park outside of one of the many Single Room Occupancy units, talking, listening to music from an aged radio, and watching after the children.

Skid Row did show that art can flourish anywhere. There was art in the most horrible of places. One long concrete wall was brightly painted with a mural of real emotion. Part of the painting symbolized one resident’s life turn from receiving a purple heart to ending up homeless on the streets. The mural was intermittently interrupted by white metal signs warning that it was against the law to sit or lay down on the sidewalk. It gave no alternative on places that would be ok to rest one’s weary feet. Leaning against this wall, standing alone with a lost look in his eyes was one man who had clearly wet his pants. Whether he had another pair of pants in which to change into was unknown, but I imagined rather unlikely.

We eventually made a loop to start heading back to the hotel at an oddly placed business in the middle of all of this destitution. It appeared to be a Mercedes dealership of some kind and it made it starkly known that visitors without the proper funds were not welcome anywhere near. It was surrounded by the most steadfast barbed wire barricade I had ever seen.

After making our loop, we were facing the direction of where we had come from and this view was such an unfortunate metaphor. Casting their shadows down over Skid Row were the building towers of every big bank and major corporation one could think of. I thought of the capability the banks have to put so many more onto the streets, but also of their ability, their opportunity, their potential to save many lives.

When we got back to the hotel, there was not much left to say. The three of us were each subdued into our own minds, wrestling with all we had just seen. We did agree upon one thing verbally — we were glad we had gone. We hugged and said our goodbyes and parted ways. I quickly looked around for some place to sit, to try to digest and write down my thoughts while they were fresh. I needed to do something with what I was feeling. But before I could find a place, I got a call on my cell phone. My brother had just arrived at the hotel to pick me up. In a matter of moments, I was in my brother’s car, headed towards Orange County. I was back to the other side of life, and with the ability to enjoy it.

I’m not sure what exactly I’d like readers of this post to get out of this. I’m not sure if I have some grand concluding statement that I’d like everyone to ponder. All I know is that something has to be done for those in our communities living in these types of situations and it has to be something greater than what we are currently doing now. All I know is that this isn’t right. The heterogeneity of life just seems to be too vast, too devastating. We’re all just a step away from the other side at any time, so shouldn’t we be doing more to help those who are mired in it? Wouldn’t we want them to do this for us too? Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But I hope that somehow my experience with this example of life’s heterogeneity can someday lead to something better.

Click here to view more of Kate Brown’s photography and work.

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