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Love On San Pedro: Skid Row Community Members Working Toward Change

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Cornerstone Theater Company's "Love On San Pedro" is a collaboration with the community of Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles. Inspired by the stories of hundreds of Skid Row residents, playwright James McManus' new work sheds light on a neighborhood where homelessness and poverty are the norm, but a spirit of creativity, activism and determination thrives. Starring both professional actors and over 20 community members, the play is being presented November 7-24 at Los Angeles Mission, in the heart of Skid Row.

The Skid Row community is comprised of a variety of people who have found themselves going through difficult times. The community is also made up of those individuals who work towards making change in their neighborhood, improving their own lives, and the lives of those around them.

I had the privilege of interviewing four very different individuals who are working towards positive change. Some of them know first hand the difficulties faced on the street because they have suffered it themselves. All of them are part of the Skid Row community.

Ricardo Medina | Photo: James Cheeks III
Ricardo Medina | Photo: James Cheeks III

Ricardo Medina has just transitioned from a part-time employee into a full-time position as Assistant to L.A. Mission's Director of Career Services and Chaplian at the Los Angeles Mission, a 77-year-old Christian-based organization that provides emergency shelter, recovery services, and transition programs.

Ricardo graduated from the Urban Training Institute (UTI), an LA Mission program geared towards rehabilitation and increasing an individual's employability, thereby helping to combat homelessness in a permanent way. He is proud of the program and an advocate even for those who seem unlikely to succeed. Ricardo gave me a tour of the LA Mission, a 56,000-square-foot facility that includes a dining hall, a waiting area, a barbershop, and a basketball court. The L.A Mission has 446 beds, serves 575,000 meals per year, and boasts 1,743 UTI graduates.

"In October 2010 I graduated from the program and since that time I was hired on call for special events, what have you. I've been doing that since I graduated. I was also hired by the Skid Row Development Corporation. I worked for them for eight months but due to budget cuts our program was cut significantly. I was invited back when they regained funding, but by then I had an offer here, so I stayed. I am blessed with a full time job here at the LA Mission, in career services.

I work with Allen Ceravolo who is the Director of Career Services and he is also the chaplain for Work Start participants who have graduated and are transitioning into employment or affordable housing. I help on the administrative side, putting together reports and things like that. I work closely with our students to navigate the web, look for a job, search locations, giving them encouragement, helping them with resumes, helping them answer questions appropriately on job applications. So, my assistance here is to students and to support Mr. Ceravolo.

I had a pretty stable life but then I got into some problems that are too deep to really go into detail. I also went through some medical issues. I had a total knee replacement. About four years prior to coming here I was undergoing surgeries and recuperating from all that. It's pretty traumatic when you have them back-to-back, so I had to have them spaced out. I found myself unemployed and I needed to get focused personally. I wanted to reconcile with myself, with my family, my community, and with God. My family was supportive, but I needed to get out on my own.

I came to Los Angeles from Central California, though I was raised in Southern California. I came here to get redirected. I don't have any addictions but really needed to get refocused. I felt hopeless, helpless, worthless, due to my past. I got here to L.A., my family dropped me off, and they really didn't want to do that, but I had a suitcase and some money in my pocket and went around the various missions. I was having trouble getting a place to sleep when I came around the corner and saw the cross on top of the building. I felt emotionally and spiritually charged, feeling that this was where I was supposed to be. I was able to get a temporary bed immediately. I was lucky because it can be hard to find an available bed.

The Jump Start program [the first 30 days of the UTI] helps people decide if they want change in their lives, if they desire a new direction. And that's what I wanted: a new foundation in life. I had always been a believer, but faltered in my faith and in life and I wanted to be stable and gain balance.

The L.A. Mission provides an island of protection. A person is nurtured by their chaplain. We have a gated area, it's clean, there's food, there are clean clothes, fresh linen on the beds, there's counseling, there's mentoring. We work with the Joshua House Clinic so our participants can get their basic health care needs. Our friends and neighbors, as we call those homeless individuals in the area, are able to get a bed for two weeks at a time and then they take a week off before they can get a bed again so that other people can have a chance. The L.A. Mission also develops partners with corporations and organizations to employ our people. We prepare our students to be able to go into the workforce by offering workshops that teach employment preparedness.

The most urgent needs here in Skid Row are very basic. We need more mental health services, more public restrooms, more sources for clean drinking water. After the missions close, there are no restrooms around. Where do you use a restroom downtown? And the issue is that there are very few public restrooms and sometimes they are not functioning, or people are afraid to use them because there are people hanging around and they're afraid they might get hurt.

It's a funny story how I learned about Cornerstone. I attend New City Church Los Angeles and we have our Sunday services at LATC [Los Angeles Theatre Center]. And Cornerstone's table was there because they were preparing for a show and oen of the ushers behind the table gave me a flier and told me about the show, "Café Vida" [Cornerstone's collaboration with Homeboy Industries]. At the time I didn't have money and they told me that the tickets were Pay-What-You-Can. And I thought that was great. I didn't have anything to do, so I went to the box office, and they were already open, and I had five dollars, so I got myself a ticket. That was the first night.

I thought it was fantastic. It had a great story line. The whole feel of it, the reality of live theater, the emotion of it. You really got into "Café Vida" -- the fun stuff, the ugly stuff. I met Raquel Gutierrez [then Cornerstone's Manager of Community Partnerships] and we totally hit it off, just instantly. So I saw her once in a while and I came closing night. The crispness and timing of the cast by the end of the run -- it wasn't bad in the beginning -- but you saw an emotional, physical, timing change, the vocals. And that's life! You start something, you try something different and you get better. We have this thing called "santification" in Christianity, which means you get closer and closer to Christ and we never reach that on this earth, but we approach it until we go to heaven. I saw that the cast was growing and becoming stronger and that really struck me. I related it to myself and to our program -- how people come here, and they may have been on drugs for years and they are sick and tired and then they progressively get healthy. And "Café Vida" reminded me of that.

Then Cornerstone hosted "Love On San Pedro" story circles here at the L.A. Mission and Raquel arranged for James McManus ["Love On San Pedro" playwright] to visit and meet some participants. James is a great guy. You think, here's this playwright coming from New York, from the New Dramatists -- and I did some research on him--but the guy is just so down to earth. It was such a neat experience to meet him and get to know him. So we did these story circles and Raquel facilitated tickets and transportation for those involved in the story circles to go watch Cornerstone's play "Seed: A Weird Act of Faith." So our relationship was not only for "Love On San Pedro," but we also were part of the Cornerstone community beforehand. And when Raquel left I met Paula [Cornerstone's Director of Engagement] and a number of Cornerstone employees came to volunteer for a career fair we had. That was great, and our relationship grew.

So now the L.A. Mission is the venue for "Love On San Pedro." And it's a big project, but God will provide. And we'll be partners in getting out the message of this play, which in an awesome message: people are people. Too many people, when they hear "Skid Row" they think of dirty people on drugs, driving a shopping cart down the street. That's their idea of what this is, and their only idea of what this is. Skid Row is a place you stay away from. But there are people here, people who are going through struggles in their lives and are seeking help, or can't because their spirits are just devastated, or they are illiterate or undocumented and don't know how to get help. What this play is doing is saying, "hey look at us, we are real people, with real issues and we have real emotions."

James has taken real people, or a combination of real people, and given these characters a real sense of authenticity. And you see them change and grow in the play. So audiences will get a chance to see what Skid Row is all about, right here in Skid Row. And we pray that people will not stay away to avoid this reality. This is a great, safe venue.

Janine Betts | Photo: James Cheeks III
Janine Betts | Photo: James Cheeks III

Janine Betts is a member of the cast of Cornerstone Theater's Love On San Pedro. She is a very busy woman, intelligent, articulate, and driven. I met with her after a long day, and she gracefully spoke to me with candidness about her life's story and about her future goals. She's demanding of herself and of others and she is protective of her emotional space. She says, though, that she's learning to let people in and I was touched that she made the choice to share her story with me.

"I'm originally from the Valley. My dad was born and raised in Watts. My mom was born in Virginia. My parents married in Sacramento and then they moved to Virginia and we came back to California when I was a little girl. And then I grew up bi-costal because we still had a home in Virginia. So I would go back every summer and for holidays.

I am taking a full set of classes, 12 units, at Los Angeles City College. I work for the National Organization of Renal Disease doing grant research, which I just started in March. Before then, I worked in donor services for a non-profit in Hollywood.

I live here in the Skid Row area, at the Downtown Women's Center on Los Angeles Street and I am involved with LA CAN [Los Angeles Community Action Network]. I consider myself a Skid Row community member. I am very involved with the Downtown Women Action Coalition. I was the director of "The Vagina Monologues" for them last year. I tend to be part of the fundraiser each year. So, I embrace the community as my own. There are some amazing people here, and there are some people who need services they are not receiving. I feel like my responsibility is to finish school and be part of the solution of making sure we get people who need services help in the right manner.

LA CAN fights for the rights of downtown residents. They are a wonderful organization that if you find yourself in trouble, or have been violated in any way, they have attorneys that do pro bono work. They provide advocacy for downtown residents. A lot of people use them as their address so that they can vote, because if you don't have an address, you can't vote. I've been involved with LA CAN for a year as part of the membership.

It's part of my Christian responsibility to be involved because I have to be my brother's keeper. If I have the ability to help somebody else, then I do it. If I hold hostage the gifts and talents that I have, then where does that leave me? It leaves me empty. And I don't want to be an empty person.

My friend was planning on auditioning for "Love On San Pedro" and I was helping her read her lines. She told me where the audition was and I came. I think it's great. I play Officer Russell Muscle. It's a little challenging taking on the idea of being a guy. They changed it to a female, but it's really based on a male officer in the Downtown area.

Growing up in the Valley and Valencia is so different than being in Los Angeles. There's a big difference in how the police treat you. I was fortunate that I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, went to predominantly white schools, so my interaction with police was different. When I came to the neighborhood, or into a community that had more people of color, I found that there was a difference in the attitude of police officers. When I get in my car in the morning I see the officers waking people up on the street. I've seen some things that I really don't like.

I'm studying psychology right now. I'm taking a social psychology class. I have a research paper to write on disabled dating. I have a health class, and an African American studies class, which focuses on political science from the African American point of view. And I'm taking an English class and I'm reading hundreds of pages for each night. I have a lot of homework! And then I have a job. My schedule is really compact and crazy. I have to find a way to balance it. But the director [of "Love on San Pedro," Shishir Kurup] and the Cornerstone staff are helpful. They don't mind me stepping out when I'm not in a scene and do my homework.

I love the arts. I should have been acting a hundred years ago. I love it. I do spoken word on Monday nights at The Last Bookstore. I think that this play is in part a balm for wounds here in the Downtown area. It's nurturing in that it is feeding people's broken spirit, people who have been looked upon as less than nothing. I think it is feeding our spirits. The cast is healing in individual ways. Not just that we are coming together as a family, but each individual is getting something. Some of us, our self-esteem is building, some of us our social skills are building. And as we heal, we can help others heal.

I have lost a lot of things because of certain poor choices I've made in my life. It spiraled and caused me to lose my home and my cars. It was addiction. Addiction is a very serious problem in this community. Since I've made a decision that it is not part of my life any longer, I submitted myself to live differently, totally. My situation was so complicated because I lived a double life. It started when I was 18. I had two husbands; I have a fabulous daughter who is at NYU getting a Master's, applying for Harvard Law next year. My family didn't have a clue. It was a secret. I come from privilege - most have a doctorate degree. My mom's family had money. It was comfortable. There was nothing that I wanted that I didn't have. Never suffered any of that. But my choices...

I worked fire watch for a nuclear power plant, which gave me a decent life. My first husband was a financial aid director and my second husband was a truck driver. So, I was comfortable. But my addiction took hold when I was 42 and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And I had Chron's already and then the addiction just spiraled. From 42 to 45 was an intensely crazy part of my life. My daughter went to live with her dad, and everything went out the window. It was hard, but I think it was cowardice on my part more than anything. Because I think I was afraid to beat that thing and stand up to it, afraid to succeed. I think I was just chicken. But I'm not afraid anymore.

A lot of people who suffer addiction are bright, wonderful people, but for whatever reason--I think we are afraid to succeed, that we have so much to give but our spirit is devastated. I don't pat myself on the head for doing what I'm doing now. I should have done this a long time ago. It is my responsibility to live life every day, to pay my bills, to not get loaded, to not hurt anybody, to not steal from anybody.

You need help, you need a strong support system, you have to be transparent. I made some major mistakes, I went to prison, but I've paid for those mistakes and I've made a choice to no longer live in those mistakes. Now what happens? Will I be accepted back in society? Will you allow me to be Janine and not a drug addict, not a criminal? Will you allow me to do that today? Or do I have to continue to pay for something that I did before?

I would like to have a family therapist license. I'd like to begin a non-profit organization to assist children of color and in impoverished neighborhoods with direction. They need to find out what interests them. Do they want to be engineers? Do they want to be beauticians? Do they want to be plumbers, teachers? And involve the children and their parents to position these children for success in what they want to do. If you want to do this, then you need to go to college, or take these classes, or learn Chinese. To work out whatever issues a child may have had. They may have been abused, they may have been molested, they may be neglected, they may have a drug-addicted parent, or may suffer from a mental disorder.

I had to write a paper the other day about what legacy I want to leave behind. I want to leave a legacy of hope and faith. I want you to know that you can accomplish the goals you set yourself, but you have to work! It's not going to come to you when you are twinkling your nose."

Wendell Blassingame | Photo: James Cheeks III
Wendell Blassingame | Photo: James Cheeks III

Wendell Blassingame is a well known community leader in Skid Row, whose outdoor office is in San Julian Park. It's just a table and a few chairs, no walls, making sure he is accessible to everyone and anyone walking down the street who might need to learn where to go to find what he or she needs. The individuals on Skid Row mostly communicate by word of mouth, and his name is sung by nearly every community participant I've met for Love On San Pedro. He has more than 1,000 contacts in his cell phone, he says. He has won awards for his leadership.

He is the epitome of benevolence, welcoming me with open arms as I approach his table with a cup of coffee, which we know he loves. During the first ten minutes there, two more cups of coffee show up from visitors, and many people stop to wave at him and listen in on his interview.

"I'm originally from Tennessee. I came to California to play football in high school and from there I went to San Jose State on a football scholarship. It is a beautiful campus and a beautiful city. I graduated in law enforcement administration, minored in education.

I remember meeting my wife like it was yesterday. I was playing football. I tackled a guy and I went out of bounds. I saw Josie in the front row and I took my helmet off and I told her "Don't leave." And she was still in the stands when I came back out. Nine months after that we got married. We have five children. I taught kindergarten and first grade for 7 ½ years but when you have kids and a beautiful wife, you need a bigger salary. So I worked as an electrician until I had an accident on the job. It's a great change in emotions when you can't do the things you were doing because you had an accident. My income changed. It dropped so low, I was on state disability.

I came down to Los Angeles when my wife passed away in 1989. In 2000 my income changed because of the accident. I relocated downtown. I didn't use drugs or alcohol, I just had low self-esteem. But now I know I have a lot to offer and I'm very articulate and I know I can give these people something they never had before if I had the opportunity. So I sat down with a couple of individuals at the James Wood Community Center and wrote a proposal for movies on the nickel to show movies Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I've been doing that for eight years, though now it's only Saturdays and Sundays. About six years ago I ran for a seat in the Downtown Neighborhood Council when I found out that the individuals that were representing Skid Row were living in another area and never came down into Skid Row. So I was elected for that seat and I still provide for movies on the weekends. They gave me a chance to do what I do best and that is find out what the need of the community is and then address it.

I came out here to San Julian Park because if I'm in an office on Spring and 5th, I'm not meeting the needs up in the 10th floor. Very few individuals leave their office to come down to Skid Row and talk to people about their problems. To help the individuals in Skid Row you really need to come down here.

So I started partnerships with different missions and individuals to figure out how we could meet these needs. In the process, I received an award for citizen of the year. I received many accolades from the city for what I was doing and am doing in Skid Row. I know that what is needed is housing so I volunteer seven days a week, six hours a day sitting in this park [San Julian Park] giving people referrals and resources so that they can go find housing appropriate for their income.

Another thing I did was to get in touch with the health department. They are great people. I arranged for a mobile unit to come by and distribute calcium pills because, you know, lying on the ground for too long will drain the calcium for your body. And we distribute condoms because we can't stop the sex, but we can prevent disease.

The media thinks that Skid Row is a drop off point, that there are undesirables, criminals. 'If you want to do crime, come to Skid Row,' they think. But there are so many people here, not because of choice, but because they were just released from incarceration or hospitalization. If you're in the hospital for two months and you are all alone, who pays your rent? And the landlord packs your things and puts them on the street. When you come out, where do you go? So then you're here in Skid Row.

The city needs to recognize that these are competent people. Anyone can find himself in this situation. All it takes is four months of being unemployed and without a support system. Skid Row is holy ground. Most people don't watch television, they don't have cell phones, but they communicate through word of mouth. This gentleman right here walking by, he goes to look for work every day. Because you live in Skid Row does not mean that you are embedded in the myth that all you are is a drug addict. The problem is corporations can't continue to work downtown without hiring individuals from Skid Row. If you need painters or builders or you need any labor, you've got people here begging for work right here. What we need is permanent employment. If you have the ability to help, giving a donation is good, but it doesn't solve the problem. Help create jobs here.

Winning awards doesn't mean a hill of beans to me. You are as important to me as an individual sleeping on the street. Everyone needs to be loved and respected without being judged. I hope people will remember me as an individual who gives respects and a loving attitude. I try not to judge others. I don't care how they treat me. There is always one good thing about that, and I look forward to that. I focus on that. I had a woman spit on me and curse at me once because I would not open the side gate. I looked down at her shoes and complimented them. And she looks up and smiles and says, "Do you really like my shoes?" I walked away and washed my face and then I came back and invited her in the park. A lot of people have met me or are getting to know me and they know that whether I meet you today or have known you for years, you get my respect."

Nicole De La Loza Rivera | Photo: James Cheeks III
Nicole De La Loza Rivera | Photo: James Cheeks III

Nicole De La Loza Rivera is the Vocational Education and Enrichment Program Manager at the Downtown Women's Center. I first met her when she came to Cornerstone to offer a training session on working with the Skid Row community. She is a young professional who previously worked teaching English in Ecuador. We talked on the beautiful terrace of the organization's second building on San Pedro (the first is on Los Angeles Street). The organization does an extraordinary job of serving homeless women, providing permanent housing for 119 women, serving 90,000 nutritious meals last year, and making available basic healthcare and education needs at the drop-in Day Center.

"I coordinate wellness workshops, creative workshops, and then everything that is education and employment readiness at the Downtown Women's Center. I came to work here because I had been living in South America teaching English to male engineers and I wanted to be in a space that was mostly women and I wanted to be in the non-profit sector. For me, working at the Downtown Women's Center is an important part of my identity. To feel that I'm fulfilled, I want to know that I'm making an impact and even before I can give to other communities. I want to be able to do that in my own community. I really enjoy my work here. This job really exceeds my expectations of what a job could be.

For Skid Row, it's very important to have a place that is very safe and just for women. Historically, there have been more homeless men than women. So when we started 35 years ago, there weren't services for women, just for men. And now women are a third of the homeless population, so you really see a need for us to be here. The need is especially great with homelessness having increased by 16% in the last couple of years. I definitely have noticed that being around female leadership or women-only spaces, I've developed a different dynamic or confidence. Especially with real safety challenges for women who don't have a home, it's really important to have a place like the Downtown Women's Center.

Our approach is to address every part of the whole woman. You can't just get an apartment and then expect everything to work out fine. You can't just get a steady income. Especially because of the ways things have been since the 70s when we saw a lot more people with mental illness. It's really hard to expect someone to transition quickly. Some have been homeless for just a few months and others for over 10 years and we've been seeing them come to the day center for those 10 years. It takes a lot more than handing someone a resource because a lot of people are not entirely ready for a radical change in their lives, but that doesn't mean that they don't deserve a home. It just means that trusting relationships need to be built.

Women who are coming from domestic violence, or who grew up in homelessness, need a very safe space. It's really special to us that we can provide so many resources in one place. We don't have to hand you off to too many people, we can work together and know you, and know your name and your face.

Resources are scarce. We've actually increased our resources by 70%, but the need is so great that there is still a gap. I think other challenges are that without a home, it's hard to work with people in an extended period of time. The instability of the homeless makes consistent services a challenge. It takes a long time.

Cornerstone reached out to us when they presented "Lunch Lady Courage" [a collaboration with LAUSD schools about school food]. We spoke on a post-show panel and provided a training session for their staff on working with the Skid Row community. Empowerment is one of our biggest values here. And that sense of purpose that drives most of us really needed. That's an important thing when women come to class here. It may be an employment class, it may be a math class, it may be a support group, but in all these classes you really see individuals coming in search of the support of a community. When someone comes to math class, it's not just to learn division, it's for a bond. And that's something Cornerstone does: create community.

What really helps build confidence and self-esteem is trust and a sense of purpose. One of our biggest successes is our leadership program We have ladies in the day center who are leaders and essentially help to deliver the services throughout the day, they greet guests, they sign up for chores. For the residence we have a similar program. One of them is the Residents Events Committee and these women meet to plan events for the residents. With these programs, participants are taking ownership, creating their own community, learning new skills along the way, and building their confidence. It's not just the staff that provides services, but all of us working together. That sense of leadership is necessary in organizations at an executive level, but also at the participant level. These women do a phenomenal job making the Center what it is."

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Top Image: "Love on San Pedro" rehearsal. Photo by Kevin Michael Campbell.

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