New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Up from the Depths

February 09, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Economy, Pat LaMarche

A Homeless Veteran Strives to Escape LA’s Skid Row

by Pat LaMarche

{Editor’s Note: NCV Contributor Pat LaMarche is on a journey to explore homelessness and poverty in the U.S. NCV will post updates from her travels…}

We’ve parked the RV we’re using to travel our 5000 miles through the nation’s impoverished communities at my cousin’s place. Frank lives in San Marino, California. Google says Frank’s house is 12.9 miles from Skid Row. Moving back and forth between the two locations, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that’s true.

One thing that is true is that it almost never rains here. Months will go by without a single drop. So why are the streets in San Marino and Skid Row wet? Well, in San Marino they water the lawns. And, if you suspend your 21st century concept of sanitation for a few minutes, you can figure out what’s happening on the streets of the nation’s unofficial homeless capital. Streets where thousands live, eat, and dope themselves to the gills. It’s tough to walk absentmindedly through the 10 square blocks that make up Skid Row. There are too many puddles to avoid and a noxious rank stench.

Amid that squalor you’ll find some of the sickest, dirtiest, angriest, and most forlorn of our nation. And all with good reason, although I hesitated as I typed angriest, because somehow there seem to be folks with homes that are far angrier than these forgotten souls. A few quick glances at the comments under a news story about homeless people needing a hand will yield diatribes from these housed angry people. Many are angry because they think the homeless and impoverished want something to which they are not entitled. So I ventured into Skid Row looking for a representative of the one group of “have nots” that the angry “haves” don’t mind helping: veterans.

Believe it or not, veteran impersonation is an issue on the street. I’ve been an advocate for the homeless for a very long time and one thing I am certain of is that many homeless people lie. Another thing I’m certain of? If I were homeless I’d lie too. If there is a person the system has failed, it’s a person with nowhere to live. Trusting anyone with the truth after you’ve found yourself with nothing is foolhardy. That said, one of the big lies – mostly to garner respect – is that a homeless person is a military veteran. Because of this reality, when I asked folks if they were veterans, I asked to see their ID.

I personally don’t care whether a person is of this “respected” and allegedly valuable group of homeless people, but I know the angry taxpayers do and I wanted to remove all doubt. (By the way, I use the term “allegedly valuable” because if veterans were literally valuable, they wouldn’t be homeless in the first place.)

I found Lincoln James. He showed me his ID with his real name and pertinent information on it. I recorded those things about him, but I have not used them here. You can take my word for it, Lincoln spent 4 years in the Air Force and was honorably discharged.

Lincoln’s been hanging around Skid Row since January. He started coming here on day passes from the rehab he was attending through the Veterans Administration. He’d enrolled in December because his parents begged him to kick his heroin addiction and because he wanted to get clean too. He’d been in the program about a month when he started coming here when he “wanted to get into things.” Eventually the VA kicked him out for thirty days. He’s been at shelters and on Skid Row ever since.

Lincoln agreed to share his story with me and I offered to buy him some lunch while we talked. As we walked the four blocks to a lunch counter, we passed a very thin haggard looking woman – squatting with her pants pulled to her ankles – urinating on the sidewalk. I interrupted what he was saying to ask if seeing things like that bothered him. He said that it did: a lot. Lincoln said that he thought it bothered everyone. But they all lived that way – himself included – and nobody said anything. Nobody acknowledged it. He said that he saw things that everyday folks would shudder at if they came down to Skid Row. Things like people engaging in vulgar sex acts. I had seen them there, and I had to agree, I was shocked. Especially because the acts themselves wouldn’t have seemed vulgar if they’d happened in the privacy of a home and not on a dirty sidewalk with dozens of onlookers – and if the participants hadn’t been wasted and wasting away.

Lincoln said he thought it would bother people that never came to Skid Row too if they had any idea. “What sucks is that a lot of people would care if they were exposed to it.” Lincoln said he used to be like the people who don’t know. “They go to work, go home, go to sleep. They don’t get the big story. They just get little tidbits. A lot of people don’t know the severity,” of what goes on at Skid Row, he said.

Lincoln was readmitted to the VA this week. He’s getting another chance to kick his heroin habit and go home. After lunch, when I said goodbye, I asked him if he was excited. Lincoln said he was excited to have another chance. “When I first started kicking – I could’ve done it. It just would have required a little suffering. When I was first detoxing I had fantasies about doing everything I want to do – go back to school, get housing, save money.” But, Lincoln said, a little while being clean made him feel powerful again. “Addiction has a way of tricking you into unplanned behavior. I would think about taking a week and using all kinds of stuff. Illegal stuff along with the methadone. It’s almost like there’s another guy that lives in your head and knows all about you but you don’t know about him and he talks you into things.” That’s the guy that talked him into life on Skid Row.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for Lincoln the veteran. One man who will hopefully make it out of the homeless capital for good – away from the nastiness no one could believe who hasn’t witnessed it. And I grieve for the thousands of others who never will.

Pat LaMarche has extensive experience working with the nation’s poor, most recently as Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. As a former journalist and award-winning broadcaster, LaMarche spent more than two decades studying and reporting on poverty issues both in the U.S. and abroad. During her 2004 Green Party Campaign for U.S. Vice President, she took to the streets to uncover the lives of the homeless in what she called the “Left Out Tour,” resulting in the book Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (2006). Among other venues for her work, LaMarche is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

EPIC Journey

First installment: Babes of Wrath

Second installment: Who’s Responsible?

Third installment: Up from the Depths

0 Comments to “Up from the Depths”

  1. someday people shelters and animal shelter should not exist but in the meantime there are too few of both 🙁

  2. Pat, this story made me cry. Thanks for your insight and your remarkable writing. The stories need to be told. Bless you!


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