When Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole, she emerged into a world of fantastic contradiction. It was an upside-down society peopled, or “animaled” in some cases, with surreal takes on reality.
If Alice was driving a 2021 Tesla instead of chasing a time-obsessed rabbit, and if she were driving along the streets of downtown Los Angeles, she would have had the same experience — finding herself in a world that did not make any sense.
I drive the streets of Skid Row as part of my new day job, and I see homelessness up close and personal. Skid Row is a land of troubled souls. There are those down on their luck, having experienced unfathomable shocks to their lives. Many others have been ravaged by their drug and alcohol addictions or mental illness.
It is so easy to look the other way, so easy to even look down at these people, so easy to not see them as people at all, but statistics.
If a modern-day Alice were driving her car down San Pedro Street between 4th and 6th Streets, she would come upon as strange a land as one inhabited by talking dodos and disappearing cats. She would also find a large edifice of contradiction: a high-rise luxury loft apartment building.
More than once, its presence has made me question whether I took the wrong exit on the Hollywood Freeway and ended up in a not-so-wonderful Wonderland.
Only a couple of blocks before Skid Row begins in earnest, this refurbished multi-storied building looms, advertised by a sign nearby reading: “Luxury Los Angeles living and loft apartments with a view.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” I thought to myself, so I looked up the building’s webpage. I found out that to live half a football field away from a sea of human misery and be the master of 730 square feet of loft space would set you back more than $400,000.
The website is glossy and well-produced. The loft apartments shown on its virtual tour look exceedingly inviting. The images of the indoor and outdoor areas are cast with young happy people enjoying the good life, as the website promised 24-hour security, private parking, a community pool, on-site gym, and easy access to the best that Los Angeles has to offer.
What the website failed to mention was that, to get this slice of comfort and prestige, one must navigate a surreal world inhabited by people staggering in the street in ragged clothes, some of them ranting as intensely as the Queen of Hearts or mumbling as incoherently as the Mad Hatter.
As chaotic and desperate as the streets outside appear, the inside of this luxury compound is presented just as calm and orderly. Which is the real world and which is make-believe would be something a modern-day Alice would have difficulty discerning.
The reality of this region, the reality of our city, is that just a few short blocks from seats of city, state, and federal power, and blocks of well-maintained buildings where the levers and pulleys of a first-world economy are manipulated, there exists a valley of tears.
I had a hard time imagining why anyone would plunk down nearly half a million dollars on a living space smaller than some walk-in closets in a mega-mansion. They are certainly people sophisticated enough to realize the location of these loft apartments is so close to the unsophisticated living in tents and cardboard boxes.
Maybe they don’t see that. Maybe they are like the rich man in the Gospel of Luke, who goes about his life completely unaware of the beggar Lazarus suffering just outside his door.
I wonder if there isn’t a bit of that rich man in all of us.
The very term “rich man” has become much more subjective since Luke wrote down his Gospel. For instance, the immigrant family that lives in a converted garage, with access to electricity, clean water, and even a menial job, is stupendously richer than their counterpart who stays behind in their home country. And many of us who consider ourselves middle class, and even lower middle class, would be people of immense wealth in other parts of the world.
The challenge Jesus makes so uncomfortably clear is that we are either Lazarus or we are the rich man. I hope the rich people buying these apartments will see the disparity outside their doors and do something. I hope and pray the rest of us, rich beyond what we deserve, take the Gospel of Luke to heart and do something as well.
If there is an answer to fixing homelessness, I do not know it. But in the immortal words of Alice in Wonderland, “I do not see how he can even finish, if he doesn’t begin.”