Homeless veterans honored on Skid Row

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Of the roughly 48,000 people believed to be homeless on any given night in Los Angeles County, about 7,400 of them are veterans. An annual Veterans Day luncheon was held today in downtown L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood.

Rodney Samuels leads the veterans in “The Star-Spangled Banner” at James M. Wood Community Center (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In a community center right across from San Julian Park, about 150 veterans are being honored. A band made up of veterans, called “Back In Time,” performs, as veterans, most in their 50s and 60s, most of them African-American, dig into plates of steak and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. Among them Robert D. Smith, who served in the Army twice, drafted in ’68, and re-upped in 1980. Smith recounts coming back from war, and a friend calling his uniform a “monkey suit.” He says his friends were spit on at airports when they returned. After that mistreatment, Smith says, the veterans he knows appreciate this type of recognition.

The event was sponsored by the SRO Housing Corporation (SRO stands for Single Room Occupancy), a group that provides affordable housing for low-income people and the homeless, including one residence, the Southern, that’s exclusively for veterans. CEO Anita Nelson says there are several reasons why there are so many veterans on Skid Row, “it’s the demand for affordable housing, jobs, plus they have a lot of needs when they come back.” She said among the obstacles facing veterans are “getting employment, dealing with post traumatic stress disorders, just being reintroduced and living independently.”

An emotional Councilwoman Jan Perry receives a gift basket at a Veteran’s Day Luncheon on Skid Row. This is the 10th year that Perry sponsored the event. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ervin Munro  is director of social services for SRO Housing. He’s got bright white hair, a big smile, and is wearing his dogtags. Munro served during Vietnam, 1965 to ’67, and says he’s noticed that veterans often have a harder time asking for assistance. “They’re used to standing on their own two feet. They’re used to doing ​for ​people, and not being served,” Munro said. “And so it’s a very difficult, a very humbling experience to have to ask for something like that. Especially when you’re homeless, no housing, no food, no source of income, that’s very humiliating.”

Ila Prewitt, a Vietnam and Korean War veteran, lived on Skid Row off and on for 18 years. He moved away three years ago, but he comes back to this luncheon every year to see old friends. Even though he’s wearing his Armed Forces button on his black baseball cap, he says on Skid Row you didn’t always know who served as a veteran. “At the time everybody kept their personal lives to themselves. And you didn’t they’re a veteran or not til something happens,” Prewitt said.

A banner thanking Councilwoman Jan Perry for her service to veterans. Photos by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Councilwoman Jan Perry first organized this luncheon event. She represented Skid Row until this year, when redistricting pushed the neighborhood into Councilman Jose Huizar’s district. Perry choked up when the veterans presented her with a signed banner, thanking her. She says even though this isn’t part of her district anymore, she’s still close to the people here.

“There are some signatures on there from gentlemen who are World War Two veterans, and it touched me very much,” Perry said. “So I am connected, you know, whether they like it or now. I’m not going to worry about the boundaries, I’m going to go where I want to go and help the people I want to help, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Perry says she wishes we could remember veterans every day, not just on Veterans Day, by providing adequate housing and health and recovery services – especially to these people on Skid Row.