November 19, 2019

Touring Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row

A group of 20 people sits perched on the steps at Biddy Mason Memorial Park in downtown Los Angeles. Standing before them, their guide, Avram Mandell, issues the following instructions:

“Make sure to stare people in the eyes. Treat them like they’re human beings.”

The instructions come ahead of a visit to Skid Row as part of “Collaboratory,” an annual gathering with diverse programming for more than 250 Jewish community visionaries and activists from all over the world.

This particular event, which took place on May 2, was a  “Homelessness Tour,” and is a staple of Tzedek America, the organization Mandell founded that provides social justice experiential education through a Jewish lens — often in the form of the immersive tours he leads.

After departing on foot from downtown’s Japanese American National Museum, home base for “Collaboratory,” Mandell distributed “Understanding Homelessness” field guides. The four-page pamphlets included passages from Jewish texts and startling statistics on the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, including that there are only nine public toilets available to the 1,800 homeless people who sleep on Skid Row’s sidewalks and alleys each night.

“That’s 200 people per toilet every night,” Mandell said. “That ratio is way worse than what the United Nations recommends for refugee camps.”

Mandell enlisted the help of his friend Neel Sodha, a private tour guide, to lead what he coined a “Gentrification Tour.” The group made stops at landmarks such as the Bradbury Building, the Grand Central Market and the historic Spring Street District, learning about downtown’s heyday during the first half of the 20th century. Sodha gradually segued into how a combination of factors, including real estate development, legislation and “Greyhound therapy” — the practice of cold, East Coast cities bussing their homeless to warmer climes — led to the present-day situation of 58,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County and the creation of a 60-block confined area of homeless encampments (Skid Row) a few streets over from the wealthy epicenter of downtown’s resurgence.

“Skid Row slowly immerses you into the stark realities of poverty in our city and the issues we are dealing with.” — Avram Mandell

“This part slowly immerses you into the stark realities of poverty in our city and the issues we are dealing with,” Mandell said. “With any tour, we try to provide ample background and context.”

After a short break at Biddy Mason Memorial Park, which included a group analysis and discussion of a Maimonides quote on charity, Danny Park, a Korean American who grew up near Skid Row, joined the group. Park, 33, quit his job at Nike two years ago to start “Skid Row Coffee,” a pop-up coffee shop run by and for local residents. Park, whose family has operated a small market in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, told the group about his plans for the pop-up.

“The goal is to provide a social space for Skid Row residents with a focus on job training, job creation and addressing food insecurity,” he said. Mandell then urged Park to share a piece of exciting news about the budding catering side of his pop-up business.

“Oh, yeah, we’re catering our first bar mitzvah in June,” Park said.

Standing alongside him was Javon Burnett, 30, an African-American resident of Skid Row who works for Park’s pop-up. Charming and affable in a black hoodie, Burnett told the group that he produces his own podcasts about the African-American experience, and welcomed the group to his neighborhood.

“There are a lot of great things happening around here,” he said. “I’m just happy you’re here to see what’s going on and to learn about it.”

As the group traversed sections of Skid Row past tents, Arielle Sokoloff, 29, who works for a Jewish nonprofit in New York, walked and chatted with Burnett. Afterward, she said talking to him “gave a face” to homelessness.

“In New York, I haven’t done much research or engaged with the issue of homelessness much and I wasn’t expecting anything like that to happen here,” Sokoloff said. “I was just really drawn to his personality and passion for his community. He’s around my age and leads such a different life. I just kept asking him questions and enjoyed hearing his take on how things work in Skid Row. I felt like he really opened up to me.”

The group also paid visits to the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), a nonprofit organization that serves and empowers homeless and formerly homeless women, and the Union Rescue Mission (URM), a private Christian homeless shelter.

“It’s a very humbling experience coming to places like this,” Reuven Margrett, 41, who lives in Jerusalem, said from inside the DWC. “It’s great knowing there are social institutions that very sensitively try to find solutions to help people. There are good people — very good people — out there.”

One of them is Peter Coward, a case manager providing social services at the URM who spoke about the Skid Row clients he works with on a daily basis, including those who have trouble getting children enrolled in school without proof of a home address.

That struck a chord with participant Michelle Ruggier, 41, a mother of three who lives in North Hollywood and works for a Jewish nonprofit that serves adults with disabilities.

“Enrolling kids in school is something so straightforward that most of us just take it for granted,” she said. “It seems like it should be a no-brainer that kids should be able to go to school. Apparently, it’s not.”

After the tour, a hopeful Mandell told the Journal that personal stories more than anything are what drive change in everyday people.

“I think what moves the needle in our society and inspires people to action is hearing other people’s stories about how they’ve made change in the world,” he said. “If you see how [Park] saw his community from the viewpoint of his family’s market and wants to help residents in the neighborhood where he grew up, then you start to think about what you can do to help. That’s the question you need to ask once you know things like Skid Row Coffee exist.”

A few days after the tour, Ruggier told the Journal that she was still processing what she saw and planning how to get involved.

“I was just talking to my friends about Skid Row Coffee and we’re going to try to take our kids to volunteer at some of their events,” she said. “There’s just so much more that we can do as a community.”