Richard had been an addict for more than 40 of his 58 years when he came to the Cardinal Manning Center (CMC) in March 2013, hoping to land a spot in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles’ new “Emergency Transition” program.
Moreover, something he only dreamed about while living in his beat-up 1991 Ford Escort station wagon for a year after getting out of prison — having his very own place — happened last Aug. 30. That’s when he moved into a freshly painted furnished room in a former hotel now operated by the Skid Row Housing Trust for homeless individuals.
“People on the street were mentioning about this place that they still call ‘Misery House,’” he said on a recent Friday at the Winston Street center. “So I came down to check it out and met a guy named Connor, who became my case manager. He could see I was determined, I wanted housing. But I wasn’t gonna find nothing on GR [General Relief welfare program for indigent adults].
“So the folks here helped me with all that. And now I’ve got my own place. It’s a single room. We share the kitchen and bathroom. But I’m happy with it. I mean, everything was new: bed, ice bucket, fans and fresh paint. I was surprised. I was grateful. The first impression I got, it was gonna be bedbugs and all that. Nah, everything was clean.”
Richard was also taken back by what he found at the CMC. The last time he stayed there years ago, clients slept on Army mats on the floor. Now it’s more dorm-like, with the Emergency Transition program and MAP (Men’s Advancement Program) for working residents who want to save their earnings. It’s changed a lot, says Richard; it’s not like the L.A. Mission, Midnight Mission or any of the other mega-agencies on skid row.
“I was more comfortable here,” he reported.
‘I finally cleaned up my act’
Raised in the City Terrace neighborhood of East Los Angeles when drugs were epidemic in the late 1960s and ’70s, he watched his uncles using and selling, vowing he’d never do that. But he was sniffing paint by the age of eight, then graduating to smoking marijuana and heavy drinking, and finally injecting crack cocaine to get high and heroin to come down. He never joined a gang, but hung around with gang members.
He supported his duel addictions by being a “middle man,” easily crossing gang territories to buy drugs for gangbangers who wouldn’t dare to be out of their own “hood,” and was paid both in cash and drugs for himself. “That’s how I supported my habit for a long time,” he acknowledged.
“But I finally cleaned up my act after getting out of prison this last time, and this program helped me,” he pointed out. “And I enjoyed being here. Everybody was respectful. And the staff, they were always there if you had any problems. So I felt safe in here compared to the other places.
“Right now I go to NA [Narcotics Anonymous], CA [Cocaine Anonymous] and AA [Alcohol Anonymous] meetings Monday thru Friday. That’s part of my housing. That’s a requirement. And I still come here to help out with bingo on Fridays, for movies, one of my NA meetings and ‘alumni’ meetings, too. Everybody knows me now, so they respect me.
“But see, I don’t use,” declared Richard in a raised voice. “I’m not gonna jeopardize everything I’ve got. No, I came this far. I’m doing great. My case manager where I live says I’m doing excellent. Oh, man, it’s real good. I thank God.”
The City of the Angels’ skid row had its origins in the 1880s. The area was literally the final western stop in the nation for trains. At the same time, residential hotels began to open their doors to transient seasonal laborers. And by the 1930s, it had become a mecca for hobos, alcoholics, prostitutes and other characters on society’s margins.
Fast forward to 1975 when the redevelopment plan “Policy of Containment” concentrated social services for the homeless in the community.
Today, the parameters of the 54-block area near downtown Los Angeles are commonly accepted as Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south, along with Alameda and Main Streets to the east and west. According to census figures, skid row’s population is more than 18,000 residents, with a pretty stable population between 3,000 and 6,000 homeless men, women and even children.
Across Los Angeles County the number of homeless increased from 50,000 to 58,000 in the 2012 biennial estimate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a 16 percent jump. During the course of a year, 190,000 people experienced homelessness. Mayor Eric Garcetti has called the findings “troubling.”
Two closely related, contentious homeless issues concerning skid row have been sleeping on the street and the removal of tents, blankets, cooking utensils and other belongings.
Back in 2003, the City of Los Angeles dredged up an old “anti-camping” ordinance banning sleeping on public land. To force the homeless to stay awake and keep moving, LAPD officers discarded their possessions. But three years later, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of six homeless people. The main legal argument was that the anti-sleeping law violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.
The court ruled that the “LAPD cannot arrest people for sitting, lying or sleeping on public sidewalks” in skid row. The ACLU, however, agreed to a compromise where the police couldn’t arrest the homeless or take away their possessions between 9 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. People could sleep on the sidewalks, with the exception being not closer than 10 feet to a business or residential entrance.
Still, the matter wasn’t closed.
The Los Angeles City Council rejected the compromise on Sept. 20, 2006. Ten days later, the LAPD was back arresting transients on skid row for sleeping on sidewalks. And then came one other twist. A week later the city tacitly approved the compromise by not appealing the court’s decision.
Just last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Los Angeles has to pay $700,000 to lawyers who successfully fought the ban on sidewalk sleeping.
Another hot-button homeless issue that recently returned was “patient dumping” on skid row. In January, Los Angeles announced a $250,000 settlement with Beverly Hospital in Montebello for allegedly putting a discharged patient in a taxi that left her on the street in skid row. This echoed patient dumping cases nearly a decade ago that caused a public outcry, with vivid news accounts of homeless people in hospital gowns and socks walking the mean streets of skid row.
Celebrating ‘incremental’ steps
“So what we’re doing here at Cardinal Manning is providing supportive services and preparing clients to be job sufficient when they move into permanent housing,” said Njambi Kingori, acting director of the CMC. The center provides temporary six-month or “bridge” housing for clients before they move into their own housing.
“We’re able to do that by partnering with housing agencies like the Skid Row Housing Trust,” said Kingori, “and in the meantime, helping them address barriers to housing and behaviors that would get them back to the street.”
The life-changing assistance can come from counseling homeless men in the Emergency Transition program who receive help for mental health issues. Or it might be the hands-on case management or support they experience from group activities. Or it can be the ego boost they get from addiction groups like Narcotics Anonymous.
Kingori, a native of Kenya who holds a Master of Social Work degree from UCLA, says studies have shown the combination — along with permanent housing with wrap-around supportive services — is the best-practice intervention for chronically homeless individuals.
When asked if Richard is a success story, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about one of the 31 clients the CMC got into permanent supportive housing last year.
“Absolutely,” she said. “He’s someone who has moved into housing and been there for at least six months. He’s also been able to maintain the personal goal of sobriety from drugs. We have to be able to celebrate every small incremental step our clients make in their lives, and he’s taken some pretty big steps.”
Yet, after a moment, Kingori cautioned, “And keep in mind. Even when they’re successors, it doesn’t remove the fact that they have challenges that are ongoing. We go through challenges, too. So it’s how they handle these challenges.”