Feeding the Homeless on L.A.'s Skid Row

The thousands of homeless people who live on Skid Row in Los Angeles have many problems. But access to food is rarely one of them.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This weekend, NPR's Ina Jaffe reported on Los Angeles's Skid Row and some of the innovative methods police used to serve thousands of homeless people who lived there. She walked around the row with police Captain Andrew Smith. She learned something unexpected about charity. Here's a Reporter's Notebook.

INA JAFFE: L.A.'s Skid Row can leave the most articulate people struggling for words to describe it: heartbreaking, shameful, Third World, surreal and apocalyptic are some of the words I've heard and probably used over the years that I've reported stories here.

It's shocking the first time you see women here with their children. It's shocking the first time you realize how many people who live on these streets are elderly or disabled. But some things you know, or think you know. The large number of mentally ill, the thousands of drug addicts, and the hordes of dealers who prey upon them, the diseases rampaging through a population short on shelter and short on food.

But wait a minute. It turns out that last assumption may be wrong, according to Captain Andrew Smith who is in charge of LAPD's Central Division. No one on Skid Row, he says, has to go hungry.

Captain ANDREW SMITH (Director, LAPD Central Division): The three big missions - Union Rescue, L.A. Mission and the Midnight Mission - feed people and they do tremendous job at it.

JAFFE: The missions serve thousands of meals a day, every day. And they're supplemented by more spontaneous acts of charity, the kind that most frequently spring to mind during the holidays.

Capt. SMITH: Church groups and private citizens come down here. And sometimes a guy will come down with 200 Subway sandwiches. Or you'll see someone down here with 50 chicken dinners. They'll just pull to the curb and they'll start passing out chicken dinners. Well, people say, look, everybody is getting in line for a free chicken dinner, they must be hungry. Well, you know what, if you pull up behind our police station and say you're giving out free chicken dinners, you'll probably have 50 cops in line waiting for a free chicken dinner. That's how folks are.

JAFFE: But for the homeless, there is a difference between those free meals at the missions and the ones on the street, says Smith. The random acts of kindness by well meaning strangers have a downside.

(Soundbite of sirens)

Capt. SMITH: Unfortunately, when they take the free chicken dinner out here on the street, and they don't get into the mission, there's no social worker, there's no outreach worker, there's no case workers, there's no medical screening.

JAFFE: One last chance, he says, for a deeply needy person to run into someone who could help get them off Skid Row for good.

SIMON: NPR's Ina Jaffe.

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