SECO NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL
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Steve Lopez on Skid Row
Steve Lopez on Skid Row
The call comes in at 11:18 in the morning. Possible overdose on skid row, just half a block from one of the busiest firehouses in the United States.
Firefighter-paramedic Dave Chavez, 42, grabs a blank incident report and marches toward his Rescue 9 ambulance with partner Juan Penuelas. At 11:20, they pull out of the station, and Chavez is taking in the devastation on San Julian Street in downtown Los Angeles.
People stumble and rant, they lie in filth, they trap you with eyes that threaten and plead. Roughly 10,000 people flop on skid row streets each night, up to half of them mentally ill. The landscape is relentlessly bleak, the stench of rotting trash and misery everywhere.
We're on the scene at 11:22. The possible overdose is on her side, writhing on the grimy sidewalk. A few of her friends close in like a flock of ghosts, ulcerated skin ripped raw by needles.
The woman is 25 and says she shot up 10 hours ago. Right here in the open, where heroin is easier to buy than a quart of milk and crack pipes light the night like fireflies.
"I think it's syphilis or gonorrhea," says Sporty, a bony addict who calls the distressed woman his friend. "It's driven her mad."
No, says a female junkie. She got some bad heroin and the needle prick got infected. She was so desperately ill, they'd all been telling her to go to the hospital, but she wouldn't listen.
Chavez examines her with hands encased in white rubber gloves. She looks young and old at the same time, with broad cheekbones and haunted eyes. She squirms and wails, jerking too wildly for Chavez to get a blood pressure reading or a good EKG.
"What's your name?" he asks, trying to calm her.
The answer is mush. She tries again and again, rubber-mouthed.
It sounds like she's saying "Kristina," which Chavez writes down.
Her tongue is dry and caked, and she says her eyes are burning. It doesn't add up, says Chavez, who thinks she's "got some other things on board" besides heroin. He wants to tap a vein in case he needs to run an IV line, but she's got nothing left for Chavez to work with.
"You can see the track marks in her neck," he says, pointing out the chicken-footed etchings. Twenty-five, and she's destroyed herself, drugged out and curled up on wretched streets.
Chavez finally gets a blood pressure reading and a pulse rate of 75. She's stable, or so it seems. The siren parts traffic as the ambulance starts off on the well-worn route from skid row to County-USC Medical Center.
The firefighters call it the Big Screen. It's Station 9's gaping front door, through which they sometimes watch the show outside: the platoons of wounded vets, the mumbling hordes haunted by voices, the doe-eyed children of skull-faced addicts.
At night, crack-addled prostitutes trick in and out of Porta-Potties down the street. Amputees roll by in wheelchairs. Dealers brazenly peddle slow death. Chavez once watched an argument turn into a knife fight directly across the street from Station 9. The loser, his throat slashed, crossed the road for help, then collapsed and died in the firehouse driveway.
Skid row exists because we've created it — although until now, with the downtown renaissance approaching its borders, we've mostly been able to ignore it.
By shutting mental hospitals, adding thousands to the rolls of medically uninsured, skimping on rehab and keeping social services out of respectable neighborhoods, we've guaranteed this teeming human landfill.
Paramedics like Chavez are left to deal with the wreckage. He delivers babies on sidewalks and treats open sores crawling with maggots. He can tell you about Naked Man, who strolls about in the buff and carries on erudite conversations as if he were in coat and tie, and about the once-esteemed professor who wandered the streets in a death spiral after his family perished in a car crash.
Chavez knows the rain will bring bogus 911 calls from those trying to scam a dry night in the hospital. He knows shoplifters in handcuffs at the local police station will fake an overdose to get out of jail.
"I try to treat everyone the way I'd want to be treated," Chavez says. "You meet some of the nicest, most interesting people out here."
On my shift with him, I saw Chavez move like a dancer under the most stressful circumstances. He gently questioned a middle-age woman who had been robbed, badly beaten and dropped next to a dumpster in a skid row alley, her left eye swollen shut and her hair a stringy, bloody mess.
"Are you with me?" Chavez called to her when she seemed to be fading out. Then, straddling her gurney, he perfectly tilted his patient sideways at the precise moment she vomited a stream of blood and mucus, knowing full well she might have choked on it if he hadn't.
He was nonstop motion, quick, nimble, calm. It was battlefield ballet.
Kristina has taken a turn for the worse on the way to the emergency room at County-USC. By the time Chavez and Penuelas pull her out of the ambulance, she's rigid, her eyes wide and blank.
"Circling," Chavez calls it. As in going down the drain.
"Let's get her in," Chavez says. "I've got a pulse of 32 on her."
Chavez is running as he pushes the gurney through double doors. Kristina takes what sounds like a last breath as she flies into the yellow light and constant chaos of the emergency room. The sick and wounded watch her go by, waiting their turns by the dozens, witness to the endless horrors that race in off the street and crash through the door.
It's in the hands of doctors and nurses now. A team of 10 closes in around Kristina, with four students peering down from a balcony to see how it's done. Chavez hangs around in case they've got questions for him and because he still can't figure out why things went south so quickly.
Another overdose victim lies next to her, along with a guy who fell off a forklift.
"They've got a stabbing victim coming in too," Chavez says, and a young man comes through the doors flat on his back and covered with blood.
"He's got no pulse!" someone yells as another team goes to work on him.
Kristina is bad and getting worse.
"Clear," says a doctor, trying to jump-start her with a current.
The jolt lifts her off the gurney.
"Three hundred," says the doctor. "Clear."
Three-sixty. Another shot.
How many times has Chavez seen this? Too many to count, and it all runs together in the end, as much of a blur as the ride from skid row to the hospital.
"We have a rhythm," a doctor says, but when I look to Chavez, he isn't ready to celebrate.
He's seen them come back for an instant and then fade just as quickly.
"Is she back?" I ask him.
Chavez looks at Kristina and then at the emergency staff.
He turns back to me and shakes his head.
"She's gone," he says.
Her eyes are still open, looking at nothing. Kristina's clothes are removed and her body is wrapped in white plastic. They make the last fold and she's gone, and the stabbing victim next to her isn't far behind.
Chavez leaves the emergency room with heavy steps. Over coffee a few minutes later, he's still wondering why Kristina turned so quickly and what did her in, besides the obvious ravages of heroin.
"I just hate that helpless feeling," he says. "You're standing there watching, and there's nothing you can do."
But the calls keep coming, so there's no time to dwell on it. Besides, Chavez has probably saved more skid row people than he's lost.
"You can't let it get to you," he says. "If it gets to you, your career is over."
Chavez should have moved on from Station 9 by now, worn down by the endless wail of 911 calls and the psychological toll. Others deal with it for a few years and then, jumpy and jaded, bounce back to firefighting. Or they transfer to quieter stations and the relative comfort of ordinary disaster.
Not Dave Chavez. He has kept this same job — a young man's job — for 10 of his 23 years with the Los Angeles Fire Department. He keeps at it because he's good and because he likes bringing along the younger talent.
And maybe, too, because there is no better way to honor his father, a retired firefighter, than to work in the busiest station and handle the job like a pro. At the end of his shift, Chavez often stops at the Cerritos home where he grew up. He and his dad sit there with their coffee and their stories, and the day begins.
Back on San Julian Street, I break the news.
"Who's dead?" Sporty asks, hyped up and jittery.
Kristina, it turns out, wasn't her real name. But nobody knows what it was. No one knows her last name, either. They think she was from El Monte, but who could say?
All they know is that she slept here among them when she wasn't in jail. They say she had a baby recently. No one knows where the baby is. No one knows anything out here, except where to get heroin. She wet herself regularly, too far gone to bother getting up, no strength left for anything but the needle.
Those are her things, someone says, pointing to a black garbage bag that contains everything the dead woman owned. No one wants to open it. It wouldn't be respectful.
The bag is still there at midnight, under three bouquets of flowers and a sign:
"We Miss You Homegirl."
Sporty is still there, 34 and a former gang member. So are most of the others who live in this encampment. A woman of 20 is sitting on a blanket, calmly lighting a crack pipe.
"We treated her like a leper," Sporty says of his fellow addict, suggesting a social order among junkies.
Even as drugged out as he is, it's eating Sporty up, the way he and others gave her such grief for not taking better care of herself.
"I feel sorry I didn't treat her a little better," he says. "I wish I had treated her with a little more humanity."
I wonder if what's really bothering Sporty is that he's dying too, killing himself the way she did. Right here on San Julian, a half block from the firehouse where Dave Chavez is waiting for the next call.
A few hours after a homeless guy named Virgil died of an overdose in the portable toilet, the blue plastic outhouse at 6th and San Julian streets was back in business. Not as a toilet, but as a house of prostitution.
Five portable toilets stand at that corner in the darkened heart of skid row. T.J. says she sometimes has a customer in each of them — a john in every john — and scurries from one to the next, taking care of business.
"I run this corner," says the stocky 52-year-old woman, whose initials stand for Thick and Juicy. "I'm the madam, and those are the cathouses."
T.J., who keeps her wardrobe in one of the outhouses and changes every few hours, is wearing a sheer red top, nothing underneath, and skin-tight black pants. She's bummed a Newport and has it to her lips, but can't find a light.
As she speaks, a rat skitters up from the sewer and through a grate, past a discarded brassiere, a smooshed apple and an empty bag of Fritos. Rats run into, under and around the portable toilets with a brazen sense of entitlement, as comfortable as house pets.
Sights like this are common on L.A.'s skid row, a rock-bottom depository and national embarrassment. A place where disease, abuse, crime and hard-luck misery are on public display and have been for years, conveniently out of sight and mind for most Angelenos. No matter how many times I go in, I come out shocked all over again.
A couple walk past the 6th and Julian toilets now, pulling shirts up over their noses to block the stench. At times, the toilets are actually used for their intended purpose, and the unspeakable odor that envelops the corner is toxic enough to buckle your legs.
This is not the only place on skid row where business thrives in Porta-Potties. Prostitution, drug dealing and drug abuse are common in toilets across the eastern flank of downtown. The outhouses were put here to keep people from defecating on the street. Instead they provide a hiding place for crime, and urine still runs in the gutters.
"I've seen one prostitute and three guys in a Porta-Potty," says Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Andy Smith. "That's a record. Four people. I don't even want to think about what was going on in there."
The usual, no doubt. A cheap trick, a quick hit. The prostitutes aren't generally working for food or shelter, both of which are available, says Smith. They're working for drugs, and skid row is the bottom of the barrel for prostitutes — a cursed landscape that makes the darkest corners of Hollywood look glamorous by comparison.
"They're getting from $5 to $10 for oral sex," Smith says. "They'll brag that they're getting more, but when one of our undercover officers goes in, it's always $5 or $10."
Five dollars buys a crack rock, and if you doubt the power of that drug, you only have to look at what the prostitutes will do to get it.
Anyone who passes the Porta-Potties at 6th and San Julian knows what's going on. It doesn't take a detective. On a balmy night, I watch from a distance at first, moving in closer when a distress call emits from one of the stalls.
Now a thin young woman in a slinky dress is trying to wrestle someone out of the portable toilet. The woman turns to me and a photographer and pleads for us to go get help.
A passerby peeks into the toilet and says the woman in distress appears to have overdone it with crack.
"It makes you hyperventilate like that," he says.
The person in trouble, it turns out, is T.J., who later swears to me she wasn't high; she was having a nervous breakdown. The slender young woman trying to yank her out of the portable toilet by her arm is her friend T.T. It stands for Tall and Tiny.
When the door opens, T.J. is wearing nothing but black underclothes. She's sitting on the lap of a man perched on the toilet, and the man's arms are wrapped around her in a bear hug. He's apparently trying to calm her down.
"She needs help!" T.T. orders, her torn corduroy dress slipping down to where it barely covers her.
I dial 911, but when paramedics arrive, T.J. has cooled off and moved into the toilet where she keeps her wardrobe. She tells them she's OK, and the paramedics leave, counting themselves lucky they didn't have to venture into an outhouse crawling with rats.
"T.J. lost her brother a while back, and her friend died here today," says T.T., who walks with a horrible limp, swinging sharp elbows to throw her emaciated body left and right. She claims she destroyed her hip playing basketball, an injury that ended her dream of a scholarship, and there wasn't much to fall back on in her broken family.
She came west from New York, quickly hit the skids, and landed on this corner four or five years ago.
"Death is part of it," T.T. says of the scene out here, which she describes as " 'Escape From New York,' without Kurt Russell."
She's 24 but looks younger, with hair dyed the color of Sunny Delight and teeth white as powdered cocaine. With no warning, she suddenly loses the street-tough pose, and her body slacks as she cries big wet tears for the 9-year-old daughter she never sees.
"I never even had an ID," she says, ashamed of herself. It's as if she doesn't exist.
T.J., whom she calls Mama, seems to be the closest thing she's got to family here.
"She don't want me to die like this," T.T. says.
We cross the street to get away from the distraction of steady business. T.T. stops and leans against a wall outside the Midnight Mission. She sees a family approaching.
"Kids!" T.T. yells for all to hear, down the street and around the corner.
That's so anyone smoking crack or shooting up will take cover, says T.T.'s friend Molly. You've got to watch out for the kids, so they don't see too much out here.
When T.T. walks away, Molly talks about the working girls on skid row who are known as strawberries.
What's that? I ask.
That's what they call girls who turn tricks for the price of a rock, Molly says. Some of the girls don't just do business in those toilets, she says. They live in them.
Molly tells me she doesn't need to be here because she lives "in a castle" in Monrovia.
Then why is she here?
Because everything you need is here, she says.
"I'm a heroin addict."
Before midnight, T.J. emerges from her outhouse wearing the see-through top and a snappy black brim. She's flashing seven rings, a bracelet and a necklace.
Not a good day, she says. Virgil, the guy who O.D.'d earlier, was a good friend. Some of the men are just lonely, she says, and she takes them into the toilets to cheer them up, listen to their stories or share a smoke.
"I'm not a prostitute," she claims, playing coy. "I give God's word in there 99.9% of the time. Of course, there are those occasions … "
And on those occasions, her portable toilet serves as "the head office" of her bustling enterprise, T.J. tells me. T.T. is second in command, she adds, because "she thinks like me."
What do you do if the johns get rough? I ask.
She yells out "Daddy," T.J. says, and a big bouncer comes hauling up San Julian Street, where, generally speaking, heroin addicts encamp on one side of the street and crack addicts on the other.
T.J. also has gangbangers watching her back, she claims. Not that she needs cover. Some call her Little Miss Tyson, she boasts.
It all began five years ago, by her accounting. She drove out from Ohio with a beau who got drunk, the rotten snake, and dumped her on skid row, never to be seen again. T.J. did what she had to. She's a survivor, a pro.
She runs this corner.
T.J.'s chief associate is now limping into the street and calling out to a regular as he walks by.
"Hey, baby," T.T. sings, trying to lure him into her lair.
At least two of the toilets are in action, with someone bumping the inside walls of the one next to T.J.'s. A middle-aged gent is taking a young woman by the hand now and leading her into another toilet.
"That's my daughter," T.J. says proudly.
Your real daughter?
"No, that's what I call my girls."
I ask T.J. if it's true she lives in the outhouse.
No way, she says. She's got an apartment in Inglewood.
But sure, if it's late or she's tired, she stays in the portable toilet. Maybe 15 days out of a month, she sleeps in there. Why not? She's got a pillow in there and all the comforts, she says, letting me poke my head in for a tour.
"This is my closet," she says, pointing out some clothes and a hanger on one wall. "That's my library over there."
I see two books, including a Bible.
She's even got a stereo, and T.J. flips it on to show off the wrap-around sound.
The rats don't bother her, T.J. says. Sometimes they'll pop in as if they're her roommates.
"They're cute," she says.
How does she sleep in such tight quarters? I ask.
You pile the clothes over the toilet for bedding, T.J. says, and then curl up sideways.
Or you roll onto your back, prop your feet up on the wall and close your eyes, home sweet home.
There is no such thing as skid row disease. But if there were, Lonnie Whitaker, 49, would have it bad. He hobbles into the office of Dr. Dennis Bleakley, lowers himself onto a chair and goes through the long list of what ails him.
He has seizures, tested positive for TB, had hepatitis that might have been from a used needle, just got out of prison, hears voices and can barely walk.
"From my hips all the way down to my feet, it's like it don't wanna wake up," Whitaker says, telling the doctor he was in a car accident four years ago and was initially diagnosed as paraplegic. Until recently, he used a wheelchair.
It's a grim list, but nothing Bleakley, 63, hasn't heard a hundred times.
He took this job five years ago, his 10th as a doctor. He had experience. He had options. And still he came here to 6th and San Pedro's JWCH Medical Clinic, where the small-town boy from Pennsylvania thinks of himself as a family doctor.
On Monday, he arrives before the rain, but not before his patients. A line forms outside the clinic, at the Weingart Center, as he approaches in a raincoat and sneakers, walking east on 6th Street.
He knows what he's in for. Anyone who's bottomed out on skid row is at high risk of nasty diseases — tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV to name a few.
And a lot of his patients have been neglected for so long, they're looking for more than just medical attention.
"You know, one of the hardest things for me is to express myself," Whitaker says, telling Bleakley he has spent nearly his entire life — from the age of 10 — in juvenile detention and prison.
"I can't read. Can't write. That's something I just don't tell people. To get a job, at 50 years old, what am I gonna do? I don't wanna go back to prison. But being on the streets, I've got to do something to take care of myself."
The good news is that Whitaker is in a residential recuperation program at JWCH. Bleakley examines him, chats some more and orders a round of lab work. At least the guy's got a place to stay.
Skid row, Bleakley says, is "the lower depths," the place that gives a face to all the problems society has shoved into a dark and seedy corner. Policymakers should be ashamed and good citizens shocked at the amount of preventable disease that festers on the streets and spills into the clinic. And one thing that really bothers Bleakley is that addiction, a killer disease, is treated as a moral choice.
Three-fourths of his clients are addicted, half are mentally ill, the majority are African American. Bleakley doesn't expect a national policy debate any time soon.
He's here in part because nobody cares, and compassion was one of the first principles drilled into him at Case Western Reserve University, his Cleveland medical school.
He's here because he likes the patients. Most of them don't self-diagnose on Google or invent diseases they don't have. They stream in, 100 or so each day, to see Bleakley and two other doctors. They come without insurance or money and often say thanks on the way out.
"He gives them dignity," says Christopher Mack, who walks me out the door of the clinic and into the streets on his daily mission of outreach. "Dr. Bleakley is top of the line," he says, looking dapper in black leather jacket and braids, four sets of beads around his neck. "TOP of the line."
Part of Mack's job is to chase after skid row patients whose tests come back positive or whose meds have come in. He knows what corner to find someone on or what bridge to look under. Today, with rain clouds threatening, Mack is rounding up clients who are high risk for HIV, signing them up for a prevention class.
Mack waves and hugs his way down the street, a long, slow process.
I ask how he knows so many people here.
"I was one of them," he says.
We turn the corner onto San Julian Street, one of skid row's many outdoor drug parlors. At a drop-in center, he finds a shriveled 51-year-old man named Anton "Tony" Montgomery, who appears to be at death's door. He's got AIDS. He can't breathe.
"Right now I'm so weak," he says with eyes that remind me of the woman I watched die just the other day, a woman who was scooped off this very street.
"His T-cells are gone," Mack says, telling Montgomery he's got to take care of himself.
A 23-year-old woman recognizes Mack and rushes toward him, eager to answer his HIV-risk questionnaire. Yes, Nicole says, she's had sex recently, and suicidal tendencies and thoughts, and she smoked crack last night.
Mack asks how much.
"Too much and not enough," she says, drifting into incoherent scats before fluttering away like a frightened butterfly.
Back on the street, a barefoot woman rolls around on the pavement, wrestling demons in a death match. She sits up in mortal agony, her body caked with filth, her breasts exposed.
"It's poison," Mack says of the crack that devours these people. "It's not no cocaine the way it used to be." The way it was when he was hooked. You used to get it in powder form and rock it with baking soda, he says. It wasn't this pre-rocked stuff that's out here now. Who knows where it's from or what it's got in it?
"I smoked cocaine from 1979 to 2000," Mack tells me on 7th Street, and I understand his true value to this mission.
People here don't see just Christopher Mack the outreach worker. He's Christopher Mack the former addict who picked himself up and made it. For everyone out here, he's the hope.
"They had me dead to rights," Mack says of the event that turned him around. He was caught in Inglewood, picked up with cocaine on him. It was a second offense, and he was looking at five years in jail when he had a spiritual reckoning.
He heard a voice: "Someone told me, 'You won't see one day in prison.' I been clean and sober ever since."
It's just people out here, he says, wiping away tears. People who got hooked the way he did.
We make a turn and come upon the place where he last saw his brother, an addict, not too many months ago.
"He had just taken a blast. I hugged him and he called me his angel. He died in MacArthur Park three weeks later."
We walk another block and duck into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, 40 people gathered around a table and ready to go cold turkey. Mack introduces a recovering friend who's now helping others out of addiction.
"He's a part of my hope," Mack says.
"How are you?" a woman asks, walking past him.
"Blessed," Mack says. "And you?"
When we get back to the clinic, Bleakley has been through several cases of diabetes and high blood pressure. He's treated a man with a tooth so badly abscessed his face was the size of a pumpkin. I see a tall thin woman leave his office and ask what her condition is.
"Schizophrenic, TB-positive," he says. "The usual."
Lonnie Whitaker, his first patient of the day, has had another setback. He's been asked to leave the residential program. I see him limping toward the street with his belongings in a sack, and he tells me he was kicked out for accidentally lighting a piece of tissue with a cigarette. (The staff later explains it a little differently.)
"Can you help me?" Whitaker asks. "I got nowhere to stay."
I send him across the street to the Midnight Mission.
Bleakley, meanwhile, is whittling down the waiting room crowd.
It may be that 85% are doomed, he says, but if you can save 15%, what's wrong with that?
"If you can save even one," he says.
He's in a wheelchair, ducking behind a trash can. I step forward to see if he's OK and inadvertently scare him.
Sorry, I say.
"I wet myself," the bearded man tells me. There's a puddle under him on the pavement.
Wheelchairs are everywhere on skid row streets. Shiny and new or old and battered. Motorized or manual. Sometimes, when darkness falls and downtown empties out, wheelchairs own the road.
What kind of country treats its disabled and mentally ill this way?
How can we look the other way when the sick and the lame, the disabled vets and mangled castoffs are sleeping in wheelchairs on trashed and stinking skid row streets?
A couple of years ago, when I noticed the legions for the first time, I was at 6th and Towne. A priest was about to hand out blessings and dollar bills to a flock of hundreds. It looked as though a hospital had shut down and dumped its patients on skid row. Wheelchairs, crutches, walkers.
"God's been good to me," a man named Felix Jones said as he got his money from the priest. Jones had lost two legs to gangrene and was going blind on skid row.
Why the high spirits? I asked.
"I feel good in my heart," he said.
Monday night, I decided to go find 10 people in wheelchairs, one after another, to see how they ended up here. The broken-down brigade.
No. 1: David Shannon, 68
He's on Winston near Los Angeles, hunched comfortably in his chair, a blanket over his head. You quickly learn to sleep like that, he says, when options are limited and rats command the pavement. Next to him, another disabled man is rolling dice with the rodents. He's out of his chair and on the sidewalk, out for the night.
"I got hit by a bus a while back," Shannon says, and it aggravated an injury he suffered in 1957 as a soldier. Life has been no bed of roses, and one bad break after another put him here. "But I guess the old man can take it."
No. 2: Lucille Reid, 56
She's in her chair in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission, hoping to get a bed inside because it's about to rain. A stroke put her in the chair in July. For a while, she and buddy Charles Muldrew, 59, a Vietnam vet, both lived in a single-room-occupancy hotel.
"It was roach-infested," Reid says, so they fled.
While I'm talking to her, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appears. He had called me earlier about a young heroin addict I wrote about in the first part of this series. She died with no veins left for the paramedics to tap. He was also shocked by our story about the Porta-Potties being used as a brothel, just a block away from an LAPD station. He said he wanted to hit the streets with us Monday night.
How could I object? The whole point is to get some attention for the abomination we call skid row. It's like the set of a Third World refugee camp, backlit by the L.A. skyline.
While Villaraigosa talks to Reid, who seems increasingly likely to be stuck out in the rain for the night, I go back on wheelchair patrol.
No. 3: Dorothy Kenyon, 67
"I've got two flat tires," she says of her motorized chair. "I've got to get them fixed tomorrow."
She's already tucked into bed, one of the lucky ones who scored a cot at the Midnight, where she's sharing a room with more than 50 people. The room set aside for families is overflowing again, so six children are sleeping out here with the adults.
"I've been homeless since January," Kenyon says. Then, three months ago, "my kidneys collapsed and I fell over backwards." Been in the wheelchair ever since. She's wondering how she'll pay to fix the flats.
No. 4: John Yost, 79
He's a few beds away from Kenyon. His wife, an alcoholic, is out on the street. Yost's legs gave out on him 10 years ago, after he and his wife moved to San Bernardino from Lebanon, Pa. Nothing has gone their way since. One thing I should know about people in wheelchairs, he warns, is that not everybody who's got one needs it.
"They steal them," he says, from people who do. Then they use them as carts or try to sell them.
I look around for the mayor, who's talking to a young mother with three children. One boy is in a stroller he's too big for, crying his eyes out. The woman tells Villaraigosa she voted for him.
A few minutes later, Midnight Mission publicist Orlando Ward tells Villaraigosa that conditions on skid row are the worst he's seen in his seven years of working there. He sees mothers shooting up, and whereas one relatively docile gang used to control the drug trade, several gangs now compete, with bloodshed common. Ward knows of a guy on the street who sells dope he keeps hidden in his baby's diaper.
Villaraigosa's been doling out hugs at the mission, but Ward tells him to watch out. Disease is rampant, with a particularly nasty staph infection bouncing through prisons and shelters.
No. 5: Joe McMichaels, 62
He's at Main and Winston, his left leg gone below the knee.
"I got hit by a truck," he says. It happened two years ago.
"My leg is gone forever."
I ask how long he's been on the streets.
"I have a permanent mailing address," he says. "In Pasadena."
Tonight, maybe he'll stay at a drop-in center on 7th Street.
Why not go home to Pasadena?
"I have a permanent mailing address," he says again, and then he heads south on Main, using the worn heel of his shoe to pull himself slowly down a dark and lonely avenue.
No. 6: Adriana Arjona, 36
She's making good time, rolling east on 5th in the middle of the street and banking left on Los Angeles. The rim of her left wheel is coming loose, creating the illusion of a lopsided wobble. A bag containing all her clothes hangs off one handle; a bag of birdseed dangles from the other. She likes to feed the birds.
Arjona says in Spanish that she was hit by a car six years ago and has been in the wheelchair ever since. She pulls up her pant leg and shows a scar from knee to ankle.
Someone gave her a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe a while back, and, like a miracle, it brings her luck. She holds up the painting and passersby give her money. If she gets $40, she goes to a hotel. If not, to a shelter. Right now she's headed to a shelter, but she gladly pauses and smiles proudly as she shows off Our Lady, her savior.
No. 7: Kenneth Bradley, 55
It looks like a wheelchair convention across 7th Street from Station 9, one of the busiest firehouses in the nation. Four wheelchairs are parked against a trio of Christian outreach storefronts closed for the night, and Bradley comes by in a fifth. A spinal infection put him in the chair two years ago, he says.
I look around and Villaraigosa is there again, taking it all in.
"I've counted about 25 wheelchairs," he says.
I had been telling Villaraigosa that if you spend any time on skid row, you'll see people lighting crack pipes and shooting up right in front of you. And now a man sitting on the street sticks a needle into the crease of his arm, looking for a vein he hasn't already worn out. A few feet away, a man in a wheelchair lights a crack pipe.
Some of these folks are aware this is the mayor of Los Angeles standing here. To the junkies, it doesn't matter who he is.
It's the first time I've seen Villaraigosa speechless.
No. 8: Jerry Cano, about 40
Over the past several days, Cano has alternately yelled at me and thanked me for being on skid row. He has wanted to talk and wanted to wheel away. He was in a car accident in Culver City five years ago, he tells me.
"We have nothing to hide," his girlfriend tells him, asking him to open up.
Cano looks depressed, angry and just plain tired.
"I don't wanna be a junkie no more," he says.
No. 9: Ronald A. Bedan, 65
He's slumbering in the alcove of a taco shop but seems to wake up practically in mid-sentence, telling me about his career in corporate America, his clothing line in Canada and his plans to introduce a quality burger to the menu of the taco shop, which is owned by a friend and potential business partner.
The nearby intersection of 7th and Stanford is known for its transsexual prostitutes, but there's not much activity there at the moment.
Bedan, wearing a Johnny Walker cap, says dizzy spells put him in the chair, and he's spent 10 years on the streets.
A rough life, I tell him.
"It was rough for Jesus," he says.
No. 10: Dewayne Jackson, 56
Emphysema ruined him, Jackson says. He used to work just across 5th Street, near San Pedro, at Jack's Market. But now he can't get around very well, and when he got back to his temporary room at the Weingart Center tonight, the doors were locked for the evening.
He's going to have to sleep sitting up.
"I don't wanna be out here," he grouses. The rain is coming and all he's got is a blanket.
It's well past midnight when I tell him goodnight and good luck. As I begin to leave, a man comes toward me. He's pushing a wheelchair with plastic roses on the seat. Both are for sale, the roses and the wheelchair.
"I'm the rose king," Ali Gholani says, but he also sells wheelchairs. This one, he says, was given to him by a friend.
"Thirty dollars," he tells me, saying it's worth at least $80 or $100. "Thirty dollars, come on. It's a good deal."