Escape from L.A.'s Skid Row Can Prove Difficult

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In Los Angeles, Skid Row is where the homeless shelters are. For the people who wind up there, it can be a hard place to escape. One woman's story emphasizes the problem: She was taken to Skid Row from a hospital and spent the next six years living on the streets.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles over the past year, the city attorney has investigated dozens of allegations about hospitals dumping homeless patients on Skid Row. That decrepit section of downtown L.A. is where the shelters are. For people who wind up there, it can be a hard place to escape, like one woman who was escorted to Skid Row by hospital workers and then spent the next six years living on the streets.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has her story.

INA JAFFE: Even homeless people live some place.

Ms. KIM GARIAH(ph): Okay, my favorite place, almost my favorite place - right there on that street, on Sixth Street.

JAFFE: Pointing down a trash-filled block, 49-year-old Kim Gariah points to the exact spot she once called home.

Ms. GARIAH: Where like that first tree starts; right now, it's filthy. We used to clean up the street, the sidewalks.

JAFFE: Kim still lives on Skid Row, but she's no longer on the street.

Ms. GARIAH: And this is what it looks like.

JAFFE: Her tiny sixth floor apartment looks like a college dorm room with a private bath. There's a computer on the desk, books on the shelf and stuffed animals on the bed. She lives in the kind of building that's called supportive housing, with psychiatric and health care services right on the first floor.

Kim is going to community college now. She's been sober for two years, and she's taking her medication for depression and for schizophrenia.

Ms. GARIAH: Like when I heard the radio in my head one night, I would turn my head and the channels would change. I was listening to a radio in my head.

JAFFE: Nevertheless, Kim used to have something like a regular life. She got married and divorced, had jobs as a bookkeeper. Then, seven years ago, her fiancé went to jail. Hard to figure out exactly why the way she tells it, but she wound up losing the apartment they'd shared.

Ms. GARIAH: And I slipped out. I wanted to commit suicide, but instead of doing that, I called the police and the police took me to the hospital.

JAFFE: The hospital was in the San Fernando Valley, where Kim lived when she was stable. The hospital took her to Skid Row, nearly 30 miles away. They dropped her off at a rehab program, but it was geared toward drug addicts.

Ms. GARIAH: And that's not my problem. And I was kicked out of there after two days and there was nowhere to go. I had no idea and no clue. I think I might have had a change of clothes.

JAFFE: And no money?

Ms. GARIAH: No, no money. I didn't know a soul.

JAFFE: Anyone who's been to Skid Row can describe what it looks like. The teaming filthy streets, the sidewalks lined with makeshift encampments, the drug paraphernalia lying in the gutter. But describing the life is better left to someone who's lived it. There are the neighbors, for example.

Ms. GARIAH: They'll fight you over food, they'll kill you. They really will kill you for a dollar. They really might.

JAFFE: And the frequent arrests for sleeping on the street.

Ms. GARIAH: I can't even count. I can show you half of my rap sheet, or several pages of it.

JAFFE: And even if you are sleeping on the street, you still have to find a way to make a living. Kim recycled cans.

Ms. GARIAH: Because I didn't become a prostitute like a lot of these women.

JAFFE: And she sold needles and syringes.

Ms. GARIAH: Clean, you know, new.

JAFFE: Where did you get these things?

Ms. GARIAH: I would pick them up off the streets. So you take those in, and you exchange them; if you take in five, you get 10 back.

JAFFE: Oh, to a needle exchange program.

Ms. GARIAH: Needle exchange.

JAFFE: Clearly, Kim learned to make Skid Row work for her.

Ms. GARIAH: Now, I know where to get food. I know where to get clothes. I know where to get a shower.

JAFFE: Skid Row has been like a brand name for homeless services for decades, explains Bob Erlenbusch, head of the Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness.

Mr. BOB ERLENBUSCH (Director, Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness): All the hotels, the big, big signs, all face towards the railroad tracks. So if you were coming in on the rails, you know, during the Great Depression or even before, you could find your way to very, very inexpensive housing and some of the missions just by looking at the big signs and sort of walking there.

JAFFE: In the beginning, the Skid Row population was mostly white men down on their luck, maybe alcoholics. Now the population is overwhelmingly minority. And they're not coming from the train station. They're coming from around L.A. County. The reason, says Erlenbusch, is simple.

Mr. ERLENBUSCH: Out of 88 cities in the county of Los Angeles, only 25 actually provide services for homeless people and allow the citing of programs.

JAFFE: Up until recently, says Erlenbusch, the official public policy towards Skid Row was known as containment.

Mr. ERLENBUSCH: Skid Row is beginning to be surrounded by all this development, and they just said here's the line in the sand and you can't cross it, and behavior that would be absolutely unacceptable at any way, shape or form by a civil society was left to happen.

JAFFE: Kim Gariah is amazed that she survived that.

Ms. GARIAH: Now that I've been inside for so long, I almost am afraid to go back outside anymore.

JAFFE: Still, she says, she's not quite ready to leave Skid Row. She's become attached to the same people she feared when she was on the street.

Ms. GARIAH: I would really, really like to be able to help people. I'd like to see somebody that really needs help and doesn't look like they're ever going to get it, go talk to them, let them know that I'm there.

JAFFE: She can see people like that just by looking out her sixth floor window. But she prefers to look out at the skyscrapers of downtown and glimpse the city beyond, the city she might get to know one day when she decides it's time to leave Skid Row.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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