Written by: Liv Rosenbloom
n invisible border divides downtown Los Angeles into a flourishing cultural hub moved by an artistic undercurrent and a rabbit hole of homelessness and hopelessness. The Starbucks on 6th and Spring Street is just one intersection of the gentrification and destitution that dichotomize this city.
Take a walk outside the coffee shop and where you turn determines what you experience. Should you go left, you’ll stumble upon Bottega Louie on 7th Street, an upscale restaurant famous for its French macaroons that are sold at $2.50 a piece. Turn right, and after a few blocks you’ll see you’ve entered a place that doesn’t exist in the media’s collective depiction of Los Angeles: a place rarely shown in movies and television, though it is only eight miles east of Hollywood.
It was at this Starbucks that I first met David. We introduced ourselves before leaving and heading right.
Just before 6th meets Wall Street, David exchanged the sidewalk for the middle of the road as a place to walk. There was much less traffic here than on the sidewalks with the mishmash of dingy tents that crowd them. The tents appeared to be empty, with some residents sitting on the cement that separated their makeshift homes. Two young boys wove their way through the tents, singing modestly at the ground. This typical June day in Southern California was almost too warm to be spent outside, let alone spent broiling in a poorly-ventilated tent.
Where the tented village stops, the Midnight Mission starts. Hundreds of individuals were lined up for food. At first, they seemed to think we were jumping the queue as we walked towards the administrative section. But when they saw David, old friend after old friend stopped us in our tracks. They stared at him with a sense of wonder and admiration. David didn’t leave a single conversation without offering his blessing of some sort.
On this day, the office of Ryan Navales, the Manager of Government and Public Affairs at the Midnight Mission, served as another representation of Los Angeles’ various contrasts. David explained to Ryan that we were following the ghost of his twelve years spent living on Skid Row for my short film about homelessness, The Unseen. Ryan briefed me on the Midnight Mission’s efforts to alleviate hunger and homelessness. David and Ryan are proof of the effectiveness of the organization’s programs.
Just a few years before, these two men had been on the other side of the building, waiting in line for a meal. And while Ryan and David have found their way off the street, most friends from their past have not. David exchanged a crevice under a bridge near Sixth Street for an apartment. That crevice is now crammed with the blankets and belongings of someone else.
“When we marginalize to the degree that we do now,” Ryan told me, “we’re creating a whole subcategory that’s being dehumanized… I wish people would stop using ‘the homeless’ as a noun. It’s an adjective. It’s describing men, women, children, families— it’s describing people.”
This rhetoric highlights a crucial attitudinal problem we, as a society, have about homelessness. We have become so accustomed to and desensitized by urban poverty that the humanity of the issue is overlooked. Our discussion of homelessness has taken form as a politicized debate centered around money. Policy change is certainly necessary to systematically address the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles, but the emotionality of the problem cannot be sacrificed. When the primary concern of the conversation is financial, the lives of people affected by the policies are not given the attention they deserve. The stigma surrounding substance abuse, poverty, and mental illness additionally inhibits us from improving what the City of Los Angeles has declared to be a “state of emergency on homelessness.” To solve the problem, we must first understand it. We must use the most powerful of human emotions— empathy.
After standing with the individuals served at the Midnight Mission for twelve years, today David stands with those that serve. He paints portraits of his friends who once lived on Skid Row as part of an Americorps program aimed to support homeless individuals. He jumps at every opportunity to tell his story because he is living proof that there is hope for homelessness. He is committed to giving back to a community that, in his own words, gave him so much.
“Helping myself to help others” is David’s motto, and it should be all of ours, too. David is not only a beacon of hope for the people of Skid Row— he is a testament to the fact that love heals.
For a look at David’s artwork, visit http://www.davidmaskew.com