May 29, 2011

Home Hunting

The free breakfast line for the homeless the city of Los Angeles wants shut down is located near artsy lofts. 

In the late 90s, the city pumped public money into private loft developments on the edge of Skid Row, and people with money started moving in. 

Forget about the moral question of using public money to drive out a population of people because they are poor, since that sort of thing plays no part of public policy. Neither does race. The city would rather have pretty privileged people of whatever color living downtown than people of whatever shade pushing shopping carts.

For the record, the people who have moved into the expensive lofts on the edges of Skid Row are of all colors, though mostly white. The mentally ill homeless people being driven out of the neighborhood with all the free services are all colors, though mostly black.

The police want the free oatmeal and coffee line shut down and say they have received a complaint from nearby residents about the line. So over the past month I have been speaking with people who live in the nearby lofts, some while on their way to work, some while they are walking their dogs to the new dog park across the street, which Officer Jack Richter was instrumental in creating, according to the dog owners. Richter is the officer leading the shut-down of the free food giveaways in Skid Row, including Catholic Workers’ oatmeal and coffee line near the dog park.

I’ve talked with seven people altogether. Four supported the Catholic Workers' breakfast giveaway, which lasts for 40 minutes twice a week, saying it was a good thing and very orderly. Two didn’t have an opinion. One didn’t like it. His name is Greg. I spoke with him a couple weeks ago, and then last week after Greg complained to the authorities across the street about the breakfast line, I spoke with him again.

Greg said the homeless wouldn’t congregate near his building if we didn’t give out food. He said he appreciates the effort we put in to pick up trash, but he doesn’t like having to step around homeless people on his way to work. Sometimes after breakfast is served and we leave, Greg has seen a homeless man urinate.

“What you guys are doing is good,” Greg said. “But nobody wants to see someone urinate outside their home.”

Yes, who can accurately call Skid Row home? Does it belong to the poor and homeless who have resided in Skid Row for more than a hundred years? Or is it home for those who have money and began moving in in the late 90s?

It would be nice if it were both of their homes, which it is.

This is Part 10 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 11.

May 25, 2011

Training Time

It’s not unusual to live in this house and in this community and not ever perform a particular chore. Take me, for example. 

Welding all my stays since 2006 together, I have lived here nearly two years, and yet I have never prepared the oatmeal that is served at the Fourth Street Bridge twice a week. It is this oatmeal, as well as the coffee, that the authorities say is illegal to give to the homeless and must be discontinued.

So Sarah, who has lived here for about a year, and who is leaving to return home to Canada in a week, told me to meet her in the house kitchen at 6:15 a.m. for my training. At 6:15, Sarah was nowhere to be found. I put the time to decent use with a cup of coffee and a cursory look over the sports section of the newspaper.

When Sarah finally wandered downstairs at 6:30, I had learned my most valuable lesson: I don’t need to get up at 6:15 to do this job. I can sleep an extra fifteen minutes.

After employing three people to search and locate the proper scoop, Sarah dumped six heaping scoops of rolled oats in a 15-gallon pot already filled with boiling water (an earlier riser turned on the burner). Then she instructed me to toss in two large handfuls of raisons before she threw in large dashes of cinnamon as well as margarine and a smaller dash of salt.

When she put the salt in, another hippie in the kitchen said he never made the oatmeal with salt, and so a little discussion ensued about which way is better, with or without salt. Sarah appeared to have won the discussion by saying that salt is one of those ingredients that tingles the body and makes it feel good.

Since the vast majority of homeless folks in downtown L.A. are single men, they are referred to as “the guys.” So when I tell you that the guys downtown raved about the oatmeal, as they often do, you understand what I mean.

And now that I have been trained in how to make a vat of oatmeal, you understand there may be an expectation I make the meal sometime in the near future.

This is Part 9 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 10.

May 20, 2011

The Trend

When you live in this community, you receive a $15 stipend a week. The houses don’t have heat. Money that would go toward operating a furnace instead goes toward food and shopping carts for the poor.

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker receives no funding from the church and doesn’t cost taxpayers anything either.

Checks arrive in the mail and keep the place going, somehow, for more than 40 years now.

Within the community, there is what’s called the core community members, who have been a part of the place for at least several years. Catherine Morris and Jeff Dietrich, former nun and former hippie, respectively, are the longest-serving community members, arriving in the early 70s.

There are also the formerly homeless folks called house guests, including those who stay a little while to get clean or heal an injury, or to die, and those who have stayed more than a decade.

And there is the transitory community of hippie volunteers who stay for a year or two, or less, or more, before moving on to volunteer or just live simply elsewhere in the world. Some plan a come-and-see visit before moving in. Some show up on the doorstep and take a chance, as much of a chance as the community takes on them.

I have found community life to be a wonderfully evolved way to live, but it’s not without the obvious challenges that sharing bathrooms and a kitchen and common space, as well as chores, brings.

Although the police haven’t showed up for a couple weeks, my friends aren’t optimistic that their breakfast giveaway, which has provided oatmeal and coffee for 24 straight years, will survive the judgment of the city. Eliminating and limiting access to food is part of the playbook for many cities dealing with those without homes, not just Los Angeles.

This is Part 8 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 9.

May 18, 2011

Story Sides

The city says feeding people on the sidewalk is unsanitary. The homeless don’t have the opportunity to wash their hands before eating.

Homeless and poor people have allergies, just like everyone else, and sometimes the food given away for free on the sidewalks of Skid Row contain ingredients that make some people sick. Fights sometimes even ensue during a free food or winter coat giveaway because of accusations that someone cut in line or took the last meal or coat.

In addition, the trash that results from these free food giveaways in the form of plates and bags and discarded food is too much, and local businesses shouldn't have to put up with it.

City officials say the major missions in Skid Row are the best places for the poor and homeless to eat. Folks do not track trash into the street after eating inside a mission. There are no surprise ingredients in the food at the missions, so allergy reactions aren’t a concern. If there is a scuffle, mission security handles it.

“Feeding people on the street is not hygienic, it’s not sanitary, it’s not good for their health,” said the local city councilwoman in the L.A. Times story last year.

City officials want the homeless and poor to interact primarily if not exclusively with the major missions. The major missions receive city money to operate and have been strong supporters of the city’s crackdown on the homeless and poor that officially began in 2006.

* * *

Charitable organizations like the Catholic Worker say sharing food with one another is a basic human right, and something the gospels have instructed people to do for thousands of years. Outlawing their oatmeal and coffee breakfast giveaway is the truly unsanitary act because the homeless will end up eating out of dumpsters and garbage cans for a morning meal, which creates more trash and unsightly behavior.

The homeless know their own allergy concerns better than anyone else, and a rare reaction at a free food giveaway is hardly a reason to shut them all down. Likewise, once in a while there is an argument about cutting in line at a food giveaway, but that’s also not a good enough reason to shut them all down. The Catholic Workers say their non-violent method of separating disputing parties is more effective than strong-armed security measures anyway.

The Catholic Workers also say they not only sweep up trash generated by their giveaways, they sweep up all other trash on the block in an attempt to make nice with the nearby businesses and residents and avoid scrutiny.

Although the L.A. and Midnight missions still serve three meals a day six and seven days a week, respectively, the Fred Jordan Mission cancelled its breakfast a month ago. The Union Rescue Mission used to offer multiple meals a day to anyone off the street, but recently it has begun charging the homeless $210 a month for a cot. Although lunch is offered to anyone on a first come first serve basis, breakfast and dinner are provided to only those who pay the monthly fee, which increases to $300 by six months.

The Catholic Workers say that shutting down food giveaways while directing the homeless to the missions at a time when the missions have cut back on free meals shows the real motive of the city: Make life as legally difficult as possible for the homeless in the hopes they leave the downtown area.

A note: Since the website shutdown last week, blogger won't let me upload photos. Also, I didn't hear back from Officer Jack Richter. 

This is Part 7 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless. Here's Part 8.

May 16, 2011

Indoor Inclination

Today I’m participating in Lydia Kang’s and Leigh Moore's little project of having bloggers write something funny about themselves.

Before I do, here's what's coming up Wednesday in my reporting series about the city of Los Angeles shutting down food giveaways in Skid Row: the city's and the Catholic Workers' side of the story, unless the police arrest people for serving food to the homeless in the morning, in which case I will have that story, of course.

And here's (one of many) true exchanges I had with homeless men soon after arriving in Skid Row in 2006.

Me: I like it when it rains. We don’t get enough rain.

Homeless man: That’s because you sleep indoors.

This is Part 6 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 7.

May 13, 2011

Right Room

I moved into the community house in East L.A. for the month of May. I'm staying in Dave's room, who is away. Dave's room used to be my room. Before me, it was Gustavo's room. Before Gustavo, it was Manuel's room. 

The only significant change to my old room is the addition of a Bob Marley flag next to a painting of Jesus Christ and Dan Berrigan, which, of course, I believe to be an excellent addition to the wall.

My old bedroom is in the back house, which is a five-bedroom house behind the gingerbread Victorian where most people live, including LACW community members as well as formerly homeless guests. There’s also a two-bedroom apartment above the garage that is used to temporarily put up homeless families and overflow guests, which I have been on occasion.

The apartment’s shower is the best of any on the property, but this opinion is not universally shared.

“The house,” as the Victorian is called, was built in 1889 by a political and business bigwig of Boyle Heights, and it sits on one of the highest hilltops in L.A.

From the third floor balcony, majestic sunsets over downtown L.A. close the day. From the side porch are sweeping views of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in the winter. From my bedroom window in the back house, I wake up to the sun rising over East L.A.

Not a bad set up for a bunch of poor people. The land and houses were bought and donated by a former community member with a knack for making money. That’s how this place functions: People donate, money or time. When the squeaky old blue hippie van finally died, a couple members of what’s called the extended community bought another van. The spiffy new van does not have nearly the amount of left-of-center bumper stickers that the old van boasted, but it’s on its way.

I hope I’m on my way to interviewing Officer Jack Richter about the Catholic Workers’ breakfast line as well as the larger issue of shutting down giveaways in Skid Row. I spoke with him briefly on the phone earlier this week and he expressed doubt that I could be fair presenting the city’s side. I told him I could. Hopefully we can get together soon.

It’s nourishing to be discussing and writing about a relevant issue like how best to deal with poorest people in a place like Los Angeles’ Skid Row, which has been called America’s Jerusalem.

It’s also fun to be doing my first immersion journalism project on the fly like this, writing for writers I respect.

And it’s nice living in this community again.

This is Part 5 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 6.

May 6, 2011

Sidewalk Stand

A former nun and priest bought a laundry van with unpaid war taxes, painted "free lunch" on the sides and hauled a pot of spaghetti cooked in their home in Pasadena to grimy Skid Row one spring day. 

Chris and Dan Delany served that pot of spaghetti outside a mission next to St. Vibiana Cathedral where Dan happened to have been ordained. Homeless men who lived on the gray streets as well as tenants in the small hotel rooms lined up for a plate. This was 1969.

The next day they cooked something different. The variety of meals depended on what had been donated and what was on sale at the store.

Since 1969, the volunteers, hippies and radicals that have been a part of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community have served food on the sidewalks of Skid Row. Since 1969, the police have shut down the food line more than once, but it was always eventually allowed to continue at another location in Skid Row.

But the city isn’t interested in allowing the oatmeal and coffee giveaway to continue at another location.

This is the neighborhood with the largest concentration of homeless people in the country.

A community member, Sybilla, drew and wrote messages in colored chalk on the sidewalk for those in line this morning. I made plans to shoot nine-ball with someone in line. And the police didn’t show up

It was a good day.

This is Part 4 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 5.

May 4, 2011

Little Late

Oatmeal and coffee had been served, supplies had been packed into the minivan, and the homeless had said their thank-you’s when the LAPD arrived. They arrived with seven cruisers and a city truck built for hauling away equipment of all sorts.

Here’s the funny part: Everyone would have been long gone but the minivan battery died so everyone was waiting for one of the hippies to pop the hood and figure it out and save the day.

So as late as the LAPD was to our free coffee and oatmeal line, a meeting between the Los Angeles Catholic Workers and the Los Angeles Police Department this morning was meant to be.

No one was arrested, and that’s because the pots were already packed away. A county health inspector said the food line was in violation of a few health codes, such as you can’t serve food on the sidewalk without a four-sided canopy, a sink and a portable bathroom.

Basically, you need a roach truck to do a legal curbside food giveaway, and that’s too costly for most charitable organizations.

The Los Angeles Catholic Workers do not plan to be in court May 18 for Jeff Dietrich’s arrest last week, but if the LAPD arrives before 8 a.m. Friday, there will be more arrests and more court dates.

Everyone knows the city can shut down the food line very quickly if it wants: Just keep making arrests, which appeared to be the plan this morning.   

The lead officer is Jack Richter. He directed me to Central Division Station last week for an interview as to why the city is shutting down free food giveaways in Skid Row since last summer. The front desk at Central Division put me in touch with someone and we’ve traded messages, so I hope to have that interview soon.

This morning had a lighthearted end, with a handful of my friends waving and singing “Happy Trails” as the police drove away.

A note: The waving and singing was the thing to video, which I didn't do, and shows just how green I am with pretty much anything other than a notebook and pen. Duh, singing doesn’t carry in photographs?:)

This is Part 3 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 4.