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Skid Row residents discuss what it's like to live in 'the world’s largest recovery community'

By Paige Osburn
Published: Monday, January 23, 2012, at 09:00AM
Paige Osburn/KPCC

Lucius Smith does sudoku.



Exactly one week after Chuck D and Flava Flav ruled the stage at Gladys and 6th, Lucius Smith is packing up his bag and leaving Skid Row… for the 110 Freeway underpass.

“It’s alright, if you find a good place to sleep,” said Smith with his ‘Silverdome’ on his back as he walks up 5th towards Los Angeles. Silverdome backpack tents are sold at stores such as Sears, according to Smith, and at $29.95 it is his “big ticket purchase”.

“Honestly, I come down [to Skid Row] to eat, but I sleep elsewhere,” Smith went on, explaining that “it’s alright if you find a good place to sleep.”

Smith has been homeless for six months. He played Sudoku as he walked, pausing only to remove his glasses should I ask for a picture.

So where is a good place to sleep?

“Oh, you know,” he began. “A place where there’s not too many people around. It’s quiet. Not too much cars. Nobody can kick you while you sleep. You wanna be safe.”

Smith claimed to be in talks to move into a low-income SRO project near Downtown. But between mounting bills for medication (he’s been HIV positive since 1984—“I’ve been lucky so far, but one cold, poof”) and the sudden loss of his long-time friend to AIDS have left him, suddenly, jarringly, falling without a net.

“I’d known that guy about 20 years,” said Smith of his friend as voice cracked. “But we’d had our apartment seven years. The death of that person really, really got to me…I still think about that person every day.”

The fact that Los Angeles' Skid Row is home to a lot of homeless people is hardly news. Likewise, its struggles with crime and drugs have also been covered at length (when Foursquare has a check in point called the Skid Row Crack Stop, you know the knowledge is universal).

But many residents wear the area’s reputation like a badge of honor and are quick to emphasize that most of them are there because of circumstance.

“Let me invite everyone down to Skid Row, the world’s largest recovery community,” said Kevin Michael Key, a member of the Los Angeles Poverty Department Theater Troupe. “Drugs and alcohol—there’s a multitude of treatment facilities but there’s a difference between treatment and recovery. Recovery happens out in the street.”

Key himself is a Skid Row resident and a “recovering lawyer—a member in good standing of the other bar.”

“But,” he added, “you also got women escaping domestic violence situations. You have disabled veterans who served their country and then can’t find housing. People who are recovering from a state of homelessness. This is a community. We take people in and comfort them.”

Much like Betty Wilson and Juanita Woods.

“I work in West L.A., make $550 a month… all that go straight to the hotel,” complained Wilson, throwing up her hands in disgust. “There no refrigerator there. But,” she allowed, “at least I got a wonderful nice manager.”

Wilson is originally from Arkansas. She’s been in L.A. three years, and is now staying at the Cottonwood Hotel, “7th and Tahoe.”

“I came here because my mother got sick,” she explained, “and she been dead three, four years. But L.A…I mean, it alright.”

“I don’t like LA!” her friend Juanita cut in. Juanita hails from Greenville, Mississippi and has been in LA five years, hopping from South Central to Inglewood, to the sidewalks of 5th Street.

“If someone help me move away, I’d have no problem moving. I go to church. I’m a Christian. I believe in God. I got a husband, a wonderful husband, and kids. No one that come through here from outside realize that.”

Wilson just shook her head and added, “I just want me a refrigerator.”

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