I recently joined a group of rescue ministry workers for a walking tour of Skid
Row in Los Angeles, California. I managed to snap a few pictures that sum up the essence of Skid Row. We walked past people snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana. Some had a stark-raving mad look out of their eyes, while others screamed obscenities.
Los Angeles County leads the nation in unsheltered homeless. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, from 50,000 to 60,000 people will be on the streets on any given night in Los Angeles. About 44,000 of them will be unsheltered.
It’s not that people aren’t trying. My friends at the Los Angeles Rescue Mission and the Union Rescue Mission work tirelessly to help people in Skid Row. But nowhere in America are so many unsheltered homeless living on the streets.
As the director of Gateway Rescue Mission in Jackson, Mississippi, I’m familiar with homelessness and its myriad causes. Still, the magnitude of streets lined with tents, feces on the sidewalks, and thousands of hopeless, burned-out people just blocks from the affluent financial district blows my mind.
A friend who lives in California explained that many of the street tents are actually controlled by gangs that rent the tents for illicit activities. While in California, news broke about rats near the Los Angeles City Hall drawn by the homeless population.
In the face of this crisis, where is the leadership? There’s plenty of blame to go around. Lack of affordable housing is a popular refrain. Public officials shout their support for more shelters, but nobody wants a shelter in their backyard. In some corners, one’s right to be stoned out of your mind in public is highly esteemed.
Los Angeles is not unique in having a homeless problem. We all have our own little Skid Row nearby. I’ll see homeless people at work tomorrow. But when typhus and flesh-eating bacteria show up in growing numbers among the homeless, somebody needs to take a leadership role.
We elect political leaders to solve problems, not make them worse with idiotic policies that fuel the fire of mass, systemic homelessness.
Here are a few takeaways from my visit to Skid Row that I will share with you. First, don’t do drugs. Regardless of the growing chorus to legalize illicit drug use, it’s a bad idea that fuels the downward spiral of society. Second, model a responsible life for others to see and follow. I’d much rather be Ward Cleaver than a heroin junkie hustling for my next fix.
Work hard to build a successful life. Others need to know that it’s possible to succeed. Interestingly, markets teeming with small businesses exist a stones throw from Skid Row. People sell delicious food, toys, clothing and electronics next door to abject poverty. These folks get up early in the morning and work hard all day to make a living for their families. Kudos to them for having the guts to do that right next door to squalor.
Also, make good choices. Many of the people in Skid Row choose to be there. I don’t understand it, but it’s a fact. Enough social services exist in Skid Row to keep you from going hungry. The same can usually be said for my town and yours. But choose to work hard and build a good life. Don’t choose to live on the streets and smoke dope. And for goodness sakes, don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s some sort of virtue in homelessness. There’s nothing noble about taking a dump on the sidewalk and fighting off the rats when rain forces them out of the sewers. Pitiful, yes. Noble, no.
Finally, have a grounded spiritual approach to life. Religion is decreasing in popularity. However, a good religion calls us to be our best rather than succumb to our worst.
Be a leader in your community. Show compassion to those around you trapped in addiction and poverty. But don’t stop there. Work hard to develop yourself. Demonstrate to others the rewards of discipline and making the right choices.
I pray God’s blessings and strength to those working tonight to rescue people from the squalor of Skid Row. I also call on everyone reading these words to be a light in your community. My hometown and your hometown need leaders, people with the moral courage to do the right thing and model our best for others. The Holy Scriptures say “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Develop a vision in your life. Live it out and show the way to others. The alternative is simply not acceptable.