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Walking with Estela Lopez and Three Years of Skid Row Walks

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Wednesday, July 02, 2008, at 12:06PM
_IGP6943 Ed Fuentes

Estela Lopez leading the July 2007 Skid Row walk.

Neighborhood Watch Walks happen all over the country. In the case of Skid Row, a different group of people walk together. Neighbors from surrounding neighborhoods, college documentary filmmakers, social workers, teachers, and city officials, and residents of Skid Row are among those who have walked with CCE's Estela Lopez and LAPD.

Tonight is the third anniversary, for the Skid Row Neighborhood Watch Walk, sometimes called the Walk. An interview with Estela Lopez, Executive Director for Central City East is after the jump, and like the Walk, you will take something away from it.

Has the purpose to have a Skid Row Walk changed since its inception three years ago?

Yes and no. The purpose was and still is to focus attention on Skid Row. L.A. has many competing needs and Skid Row is a place few people––whether they are residents, visitors or businesspeople––ever see and experience first hand.

We believed that by doing this, we could bring eyes and ears to a place that at the time felt like the forgotten edge of humanity. Nearly 2,000 people were on the streets, dying more than they were living. And those eyes and ears could turn into voices demanding a change.

The Walk took on another purpose mid-way through its first year, but more by default than by design. It was heartbreaking to walk past scores of people who were physically sick or mentally ill. I had become familiar with the L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Emergency Outreach team during my time as a LAHSA commissioner. We requested their involvement in the Walk. They agreed and are with us every month with specially outfitted vans to help transport even physically challenged people off Skid Row.

Councilwoman [Jan] Perry also contacted the New Image Shelter and arranged for space for those transported from the Walk by the LAHSA team. Once that was in place, we now had experts who could offer assistance obtaining benefits, medical transport or shelter options.

The Walk became a place to network, and that has value in getting grassroots groups in touch with LAPD and politicians. While that's important, does it take away from the experience?

Many people participate in the walk from throughout Downtown and from different parts of L.A. I speak with all of them and know that once they arrive here, it is impossible for them to disregard their surrounding. That is a victory for the Walk. I try to always end the Walk with a few remarks encouraging the participants to go back to their neighborhoods, their offices, and tell people what they witnessed.

I have seen your relationships with some of the people on the streets. What person who has been helped still inspires you, and is there one person you remember that despite all efforts, were not able to help?

I am particularly drawn to the women, for whom Skid Row is an exceptionally dangerous place if they chose to sleep on the street. Councilwoman Perry and I met a woman who had worked for both TRW and the school district, but she was in a tent with three men on Gladys Street. She was high, but not incoherent. We asked her why she was there. Her response was: "the devil drug."

Another woman, a known prostitute in the area and narcotics addict, was lying on a horribly dirty sidewalk, and told me about having just delivered a baby. The baby was still hospitalized due to being born addicted. This was the woman's third child born addicted.

Neither of these women accepted our help. But perhaps the image that has lingered with me the most was the young girl, maybe not even 18, perhaps a runaway. She was cowering inside a "porta-potty" that was covered in feces and urine...and heaven knows what else. Her face was bruised, and her arm bore the marks of addiction. She was clinging to a blanket. We tried to coax her out. She was crying but telling us to leave her alone.

This was early on when we first began the Walk and I think this was the incident that left me feeling that we could not continue to just walk. We needed to have hope walk with us. That was when we reached out to LAHSA.

Those who do the walk often take away something each time. What is the initial reaction by a new person, and has that decreased with cleaner streets?

Actually, for people who do the walk for the first time, it is still quite an impact. Even though we are far from the days of 2,000 people on the sidewalk––we still have roughly 600––the need is still un-met to find adequate services for those who need and want them. We are still within walking distance of the County Jail, from which homeless inmates wander down to Skid Row every night looking "to get laid or get loaded." Parolees mix in with the population here to become invisible from authorities and not be traced.

The poor souls who suffer from mental illness, which may or may not also be addicts, still sit on doorways completely lost in their own realities. And the people who work here, the children who live or go to school here, still stand at bus stops terrified of their environment, but they have no option.

The harsh realties you are sharing have an impact just by what you recall, much less witness in person. Is there a ray of hope people take away from the Walk?

Gosh, I can't speak for others. But I always see hope everytime I stand in front of the Midnight Mission on "Walk Nights" and wonder if anyone will show up. And then, one by one or two by two, people begin to gather. Every one of those individuals means Skid Row matters beyond those of us for whom it is a part of our daily lives. On the Walk, sometimes conversations lead to ideas, ideas lead to proposals, and proposals lead to action. So, hope remains a partner on our Walks.

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