A Day in the Life: Homeless on Skid Row

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Dawn with Ricardo Medina, a staff member at the L.A. Mission, going over her resume
Dawn with Ricardo Medina, a staff member at the L.A. Mission, going over her resume (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Dawn Lee Ghan, 41, is one of about 47,000 homeless people in and around LA. Until this month she stayed on Skid Row, the city’s longtime ground zero for homelessness. She’s since moved into a group apartment in Covina, but before she found a place to live, I followed her for a day.

Poverty complicates everything she does, from buying a cup of coffee to having hours of unscheduled time with no job or home. Here are four moments that stood out to me as particularly telling in terms of the daily reality of homelessness:

The Green Apple Market
The Green Apple Market is a 24-hour bodega right in the heart of Skid Row. Dawn comes here a little past 6:30 for her morning coffee. Because of the byzantine rules that govern food stamps, she is not allowed to buy a hot cup with her card. She doesn’t have any cash, so instead she uses her food stamps to purchase two much more expensive cold, bottled Starbucks drinks for about $5. For Dawn, even the most basic morning ritual is an exercise in weighing short-term gain against long-term prudence. Later in the day, she returns to the Green Apple to use the ATM. She doesn’t have any money in her Wells Fargo account, but overdraws it because she needs the cash.

Why are you homeless?
During a quiet moment inside the chapel of the L.A. Mission, a Skid Row shelter, I ask Dawn about her background. It quickly becomes clear that the reasons she’s homeless are straightforward and mysterious at the same time. The straightforward part is an unstable upbringing, poverty and a longtime meth addiction. Her mother raised Dawn and her older sister in the San Gabriel Valley, and Dawn’s first bout of homelessness was during high school, when she left home for a short time. The story gets murky, however, when she says she’s been sober for the past four years. If that’s true, why has she been homeless again for the past five months? Dawn blames it partly on an abusive relationship that recently ended, and a health problem. It’s all a bit convoluted, but she’s not unique in this way. Experts say it’s rarely one thing that leads to chronic homelessness, and untangling all the reasons any one individual is on the streets can take weeks or months. That’s one reason solving the homeless crisis is so difficult.

Dawn at the job fair
Dawn at the job fair (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Hope at a job fair
Dawn’s main task today is attending an annual job fair at the L.A. Mission. She arrives a little past 8 a.m. About 40 employers have set up information tables around the shelter’s dining room. At one point Dawn spots L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis in the room and makes a beeline to her. Dawn wants a job helping other needy people, and Solis and the other supervisors oversee social services in the county. Dawn hands Solis her resume and tells her about her recent internship with AmeriCorps, doing outreach to other homeless people on Skid Row. Solis compliments Dawn on her pluck. Dawn’s most promising lead of the day, however, comes from an organization called Easter Seals. They’re hiring aides to work at an assisted living facility in Glendale. Dawn fills out an application and does a quick interview on the spot. Later, she emails her resume from an office at the mission. She’s excited about this opportunity, but the job only pays $10 an hour for a few hours of work a day. It’s a long way from what she will need to climb out of homelessness and a negative net worth.

An empty afternoon
After the job fair, Dawn doesn’t really have anything else to do. As her day transitions into a long, empty afternoon, it’s a window into how being homeless is stressful and boring at the same time. She spent the first half of her day in a frenzy of activity, getting dressed and preparing her resume for the fair. Now she’ll wait out the afternoon aimlessly wandering the streets of Skid Row. The neighborhood looks like one enormous homeless encampment, with tents lining the sidewalks and crowds of people loitering around them. As she walks, Dawn explains which streets are known for which drugs: The heroin street, the heroin and crack street, the spice corner. This is one ironic thing about Skid Row: right outside the doors of the many nonprofits that serve homeless addicts, dealers prey on the very same people. Eventually, Dawn and I say goodbye outside Skid Row’s Union Rescue Mission. I walk a few blocks west, ending up in downtown’s historic core, right outside a luxury pet supply and grooming shop. It’s only a half-mile from where I left Dawn, but feels like a completely different city.

Dawn taking a smoking break
Dawn taking a smoking break (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)