A world apart: I lived on skid row
A teen spent four years on skid row, just blocks away from and in the shadows of high-rise buildings and prosperity.
If you saw me at school, you wouldn’t know that I lived with my family in a rundown hotel on skid row for four years. Living on skid row was a very bad experience. When I look back on it, I’m mostly angry. Angry about being down there, angry about not having the basic things to get by. I’m still angry, but I’m trying to turn the experience into something positive instead of letting it be a sore spot. It’s made me want more. I want to make a lot of money, be successful, be in a position where I don’t have to depend on the government.
How do kids end up on skid row? For me, it started with my mom’s drug problem at the beginning of seventh grade. I had been living in South L.A. with my mom, brother and sister. All of a sudden, we didn’t have hot water or gas. On New Year’s Day 2000 my mom woke me up and said we would be staying with some relatives. From there we moved around a lot until we had nowhere to go.
In June of that year, we moved to the Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter on skid row. I’d never seen a place like skid row before. There were a lot of homeless people just out and about. You walked down the street and saw tents and cardboard boxes blocking the sidewalk, people selling drugs or cigarettes, other people sleeping on the sidewalk. People walking with a 40-ounce beer in their hands. You walk down the street and out of nowhere someone starts talking to you or cusses you out or you see people talking to themselves. I wasn’t scared, but it made me nervous.
Then my sister rented a room for herself at the Ford Hotel, which is like a rundown apartment building in the same neighborhood. My mom, my brother and I moved in with her. I thought we’d be there for only a few months and then we’d move into another apartment. But that’s not how it worked out. We were in the same room for four years.
When we first moved in, I was surprised. The room was smaller than my old bedroom. That slapped me in the face. I thought, how are four people supposed to live here? There’s no bathroom or kitchen. The first night I was scared because I saw a cockroach two inches long. All four of us slept in a king-sized bed. The only other piece of furniture was an old, rusty brown cabinet. Then we got furniture from other people’s rooms when they moved out. We bought a hot plate and someone gave us a refrigerator. We got our TV, VCR and pictures from our relative’s house. But it still didn’t feel like home.
The money was gone so quickly
The room was $99 a month. My mom paid for it with checks from the government. On the first of the month my mom would cash the checks and give us $20 to get something to eat at McDonald’s. Then we’d go to the grocery store and she’d give me spending cash. I’d try to save it, but she’d come in the middle of the night and ask me for money. After two to three days the money would be gone. We used food stamps to get groceries for the rest of the month. There were times when we didn’t have nothing to eat so we’d go to the Mission to eat. My mom eventually told me that my brother got a check for $830 a month for a disability. She got a $230 check for me, which was social security benefits from my dad. It made me angry because she had all this money, where’d it go?
Living in the hotel was a mystery. Often, the electricity would go out for a few hours or they would shut the water off without notice. Sometimes, floors would flood and the fire department would come.
It was like living in a madhouse. There’d be people walking down the hallway talking to themselves. Some would go weeks or months without taking a bath. That’s not normal. You go on one floor and it smells OK, then you go on another floor and it smells like somebody died.
At first, there were only a few other kids in the hotel. One kid had been living in a house but his dad couldn’t pay the mortgage. Another kid’s house had burned down.
I stayed in my room most of the time because I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. In that neighborhood, there are no parks for kids, no community centers, no after-school hangouts. It’s not a normal community. It’s an area where you put your outcasts. Next to skid row are high-rise buildings and prosperity. A few blocks separate skid row from the business area and the fashion, toy and jewelry districts. It amazes me. You have all these stores, banks and businesses, a Macy’s, but once you cross Los Angeles Street you’re in a totally different area. That’s when you start seeing homeless people and prostitutes. Living there, I felt dumped on by society.
After six months I heard about a nearby church from my brother—finally, a place to go. The Dream Center had activities on Tuesdays. They’d take us out some Saturdays to the beach, the park or Six Flags. That was cool. We didn’t have to pay for anything. I met friends and the majority of the kids lived on skid row. It was nice to know there were other kids going through the same situation, although we didn’t talk about it much.
The Ford was one of only four hotels on skid row that took in families. As more kids moved in, they started expanding the activities. The manager of the hotel took us to movies, the park and the beach. They set up a play room for older kids where we would watch TV and movies. But then the manager changed and the room was hardly ever open. The bathrooms got worse because the janitors weren’t doing their jobs. The toilets would get clogged, there would be water on the floor and the doors wouldn’t lock!
My mom kept saying we would move out in a few months. She wanted us to be out before Christmas so we could get a tree and have a dinner. But after Christmas 2001, I felt that all hope was lost because we were still there. After that, I didn’t believe my mom when she said we were going to move out. I didn’t understand why we had to go through what we were going through. Why did my mom have to have a drug problem and why did I have to be at the Ford? Sometimes I was angry at my mom for us living there, but I didn’t say anything to her.
My mom didn’t want me to stay out too late because it’s very unsafe on the streets, especially at night with prostitutes coming out and fights. There are hot spots where I didn’t go, like the park at San Julian and Fifth Street. It’s not really a park, it’s concrete with benches and a gate surrounding it. People use drugs and there are homeless people there all the time. The police are there on a regular basis.
I got used to seeing the cops all the time, but they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is to protect and serve. The cops are making arrests but there are still drug dealers on the streets, people doing drugs on the corner and fights break out on a regular basis. So it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much to keep the community safe. If it were a more well-off area, it wouldn’t have been that way.
When I was around 14 or 15, we started begging once in a while when we didn’t have any money. We’d say, "Can I have a dollar for the bus?" Then we’d buy something to eat.
When we had money we’d go to CityWalk and see a movie. As a teen, you want to buy a CD. You want to go someplace and spend money. That’s the rite of passage for being a teenager. You’re not worried about what you’re going to do five years down the line, you’re still trying to be a kid.
While I was on skid row, I graduated from Carver Middle School and went to Reseda High School. The bus ride was an hour and a half each way. I got up at 5 in the morning. I would get home at 5 p.m. on a good day. I’d be tired and the homework was difficult. I managed to get a couple As and Bs my first semester. If we weren’t living on skid row, I would have done better and I would have gotten a job when I turned 16. But I couldn’t get a job because I got home too late. You want to have money in your pocket when you go to school. I didn’t have that half the time so I couldn’t buy snacks or lunch.
I had trouble finding nice, clean clothes to wear. I also had trouble fitting in because I was the only kid from skid row. If I made a friend and I wanted them to come over, I couldn’t do that. I also didn’t have a phone to talk to them. That made me depressed because we couldn’t do things that kids do. I would just see my friends at school.
In the fall of 2003, when I was in 10th grade, the bus drivers went on strike. We were stuck on skid row for about a month and a half. I felt like I was trapped inside a cardboard box. I couldn’t go to school. Most days I just stayed in my room.
When the bus strike ended I went back to school but I wasn’t excited. I knew I couldn’t make up the work because I was so far behind. It was like trying to get into a moving car. My teachers didn’t know my situation and I didn’t tell them. After that I didn’t go to school a few times a week. I failed that semester.
I tried to get back on track when I started 11th grade, but the work got harder, especially biology, algebra and English. Also, I didn’t have the materials, like a computer or folder if we had to do a report. It’s hard to be motivated about school when you live on skid row. You look around and you think, what’s the point of trying to do better? There are plenty of people who did go to school and had jobs and they ended up there. I can go to school, go to college and the same thing could happen to me, I could end up there later in life.
I saw someone get murdered. A woman who lived in the Ford was stabbed by a guy in front of the hotel. I went downstairs and she was covered in blood. Police caught the guy, but she died the next morning. There were a lot of people outside and nobody did anything, they didn’t help her or tell her it’s going to be all right. That was the saddest part. Nobody should have to see that, especially her kids. She was a nice person. She would volunteer in the play room and watch other people’s kids. After that, I was thinking, this is a messed-up place to be in, I can’t be here.
A few months later, my mom put me out over the stupidest reason. We didn’t have much of a Thanksgiving. The next day, the TV wasn’t working. I tried to fix it and my mom got mad at me. She told me to get out. We had been arguing a lot and I guess she got fed up. I moved in with my oldest sister the same day. I knew that I wouldn’t be coming back.
I want a better future
I’ve been living with my sister in her apartment in Inglewood for a year. I’m in school, but I’m not doing so well. June is graduation, but first I have to pass the exit exam. I know I need my diploma to get to the next step. I can get a job and my own place, then go to community college. I’m ready to be on my own.
When you’re living on skid row, the situation can go one of two ways: you can choose to get out of there or you can choose to blend in and stay down. I got out, but in a way it feels like it’s the same sequence of events. Although I’m not living at the Ford anymore, I’m still in a small space, I don’t have many clothes, and I still don’t have any money. I hate that so much. So much that sometimes I wish that I wasn’t alive.
But there’s always a bright side to things. I know that one day it will all change, and that it will be better for me. Somewhere down the line I’ll be on my own two feet.