1890 was a good year for California oil baron Lyman Stewart.
His company had merged with Sespe Oil and the Mission Transfer Company to form Union Oil, said Paul Rood, adjunct professor of political science and history at Biola University. At the time it was the largest oil company in California, responsible for one third of the state’s oil production.
As cofounder and later president of the newly formed company, Stewart was well on his way to becoming known as “The Dean of the Western Oilmen,” Rood said.
But Stewart began noticing a troubling trend.
Many of the men who were coming to California looking for work were winding up jobless and hungry on the streets of Los Angeles.
The area had been largely agricultural land until the 1870s when railroads started lining the Los Angeles River, according to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Migrant workers started to flow in from throughout the country looking for work, and the area began to industrialize as cheap hotels, bars and whorehouses began popping up to serve its newfound transient population.
By the late 1880s, the U.S. economy was in turmoil, Rood said. People were losing their jobs, Los Angeles had a growing homeless population and the term “homeless vagabond” was becoming part of the American lexicon.
“The hobo terminology first came in at that time,” Rood said.
A devout Evangelical Christian, Stewart founded the Pacific Gospel Union in 1891 and began sending “gospel wagons” offering food, encouragement and salvation to the poor and homeless around the city.
The Pacific Gospel Union would later become the Union Rescue Mission (URM), now one of the largest private shelters in the United States.
“They would get on the wagon, so to speak, and turn their life around,” said Reverend Andy J. Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission. “Some would slip and fall again, and they would fall off the wagon and return to struggling on the streets. But that’s how we got started was the wagon on the streets.”
The organization was based on Main Street, which “was the Skid Row of its time,” Rood said. “Just a few blocks away from the Skid Row of today.”
Stewart also set up a large tent at the corner of Los Angeles Street and First Avenue, which was known as “Hobo Corner,” Rood said. Every afternoon and evening there would be gospel preaching “to be a source of help, for those who were willing to accept help.”
Though Stewart later left the Pacific Gospel Union and founded the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now known as Biola University, his early efforts to help the city’s poor took root and grew rapidly.
Within two years, the organization was serving 500 people and offering nightly revival sessions, according to the Union Rescue Mission’s website. In 1907, they opened their first shelter at 145 North Main St., and by 1934, “Mission On Main Street” was offering 42 percent of all free meals provided by private charities in Los Angeles.
But despite those efforts, the problem slowly metastasized.
Today, Skid Row takes up 50 square blocks near Downtown Los Angeles and, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2016 homeless count, is home to 3,691 men, women and, despite the best efforts of advocates in the area, sometimes children. According to the count, 1,035 individuals on Skid Row live in transitional shelters, 879 in emergency shelters, 803 on the streets, 645 in tents, 272 in makeshift shelters, 42 in cars and 13 in vans.
Skid Row is a place where drug deals and violence are rampant and out in the open, and its residents often defecate and urinate in the streets.
“There is nothing like Skid Row anywhere else in the country,” Bales said. “It’s the biggest man-made disaster in the U.S.”
It’s in the heart of Skid Row, San Pedro Street, where Stewart’s work continues, Bales said. URM provides shelter services to up to 1,100 people along with three meals a day, mental health counseling, a legal clinic, learning center, medical clinic, dental care and a year-long addiction recovery program.
Unlike some shelters in the United States, URM is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Bales said.
“People don’t just come in at night and then leave in the morning,” Bales said. “They’re with us all day long.”
This year, for the first time in the organization’s 125-year history, the majority of those seeking services are women and children “by just a few,” Bales said.
Though there are children living at the URM, Bales said there are few on the streets of Skid Row.
“For a long time, me and the county made sure that no children were on the streets of Skid Row,” Bales said. “But they slip in now.”
Bales said one such exception was a mother with a 2-year-old who initially refused to come in to the shelter.
“It took us weeks to get her off the streets,” Bales said.
While hope is a hard thing to find on Skid Row, Bales said the organization has seen its share of success stories. About 18 percent of URM’s staff are either former guests at the shelter or went through URM’s programs, Bales said.
Among those success stories is a former guest named Alex who came to the URM about 11 years ago to sign up for the shelter’s one-year recovery program in order to escape a jail sentence, Bales said. After graduating from the program, Alex reunited with his family, got married and now serves as one of URM’s major donor representatives.
“We have many stories like Alex,” Bales said. “I get to see walking talking miracles.”
URM’s YouTube page features 79 videos of testimonials from people such as Alex as part of their series, “Stories from Skid Row.”
While the URM is one of the largest private shelters in the country, it isn’t the only faith-based mission on Skid Row.
The Midnight Mission has also been offering services to those living on Skid Row for more than 100 years, Joey Weinert, community events coordinator of the Midnight Mission said.
Midnight Mission offers three meals a day, Monday through Saturday, and breakfast and dinner on Sunday, Weinert said.
One of the goals of the organization is to create a sense of community that will enable the homeless to “look at the Midnight Mission as somewhere they can call home,” Weinert said.
Residents of Skid Row are allowed to list the Midnight Mission as their address so they can receive letters through the shelter’s mailing center, Weinert said.
“That’s very important for people that don’t have an address that are possibly trying to take advantage of any social services or maybe even try to get a job, or even just to let your family know where you are,” Weinert said.
The Midnight Mission also offers a courtyard and a day room “where people are allowed to come in and just kind of hang out throughout the day,” Weinert said.
The day room has several flat-screen TVs that were donated to the Midnight Mission, Weinert said. It gives the people a place to pass the time.
“They’ll sit there and watch TV and hang out, whether they’re waiting on housing or waiting on their next check, wherever that may be coming from,” Weinert said. “Some people are waiting on their next hustle, some people are just probably just sitting there waiting for… they don’t know what’s next.”
At night, the chairs in the day room are replaced with 32 cots, Weinert said. Those seeking a cot must sign up for one in the morning, and be in the day room by 8 p.m.
“We call that safe sleep,” Weinert said.
The shelter is limited to only 32 cots in the day room “because of the possible spreading of tuberculosis,” Weinert said. “The one requirement of safe sleep is they have to have their TB card from one of the county facilities in the area.”
About 150 people also sleep in the Midnight Mission’s courtyard every night in sleeping bags, on blankets, on cardboard or just on the ground, Weinert said. They must arrive before the security guard locks the gate at 9 p.m., but once they arrive, they have a safe place to sleep.
“Once they’re in, they’re in,” Weinert said.
The Midnight Mission also offers a recovery program for men battling addiction, Weinert said. The program is so intense that its newest participants are only allowed to leave the shelter to attend pre-scheduled meetings at night.
“The first couple of months you’re here, that’s the only way you’re leaving here is by going to a meeting,” Weinert said. “Once you’ve been here for 60 or 90 days, I believe, you’re able to start taking passes so you can go check in on your family, maybe handle some legal issues or whatever the case may be, and focus on your treatment plan.”
Everyone who enters the program gets a “work therapy” job designed to teach them to be accountable, Weinert said. There are a wide range of jobs available throughout the shelter, including kitchen work, security, building maintenance and administration work.
Participants also have access to the organization’s education department, which helps with G.E.D. training and computer literacy, Weinert said.
After a year, if graduates have not found a place to live, they are allowed to stay a little longer in two-man dorm-style apartments on the shelter’s third floor, Weinert said.
“We have 14 of those, and they cost $250 a month,” Weinert said. “Which is an awesome price for any guy that’s working towards maybe getting something better.”
About 26 percent of the men who complete the program have a job, have reconnected with their children and families and are back to being productive members of society a year after they graduate, Weinert said.
“If you look into any rehab or healthy living program or anything like that, [26 percent] is a substantial amount,” Weinert said.
Despite the valiant efforts of both missions, the sidewalks outside and along nearby streets are lined and dotted with tents and makeshift homes for people who were unable or unwilling to sleep inside.
One such resident is Tracy Mac, who said she has been living on Skid Row for about five years, but she mostly keeps to herself.
“I don’t talk to anybody,” Mac said. “I kind of just stay to myself; I don’t want to talk to nobody.”
Mac said that she was living on her spot on East Third Street because “over here I don’t smell so much raw sewage.”
One of the reasons why Skid Row smells of raw sewage, Mac said, is because at night there aren’t any bathrooms for people to use.
“During the daytime, there’s a public [restroom], and then at night time we pretty much do it out here,” Mac said. “That’s what goes on at Skid Row.”
Skid Row resident Anthony Fox said he wants “to get the hell out of here as soon as possible” and that the area often smells.
“It’s like a toilet bowl,” Fox said.
Despite the smell, homeless people from all over the country wind up living there, Fox said.
“There’s a lot of people that are homeless here that are not from California,” Fox said.
He’s said he’s met people from Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Texas, Las Vegas, “and they say people over there don’t tolerate none of this,” Fox said.
Fox said it has become much easier to get housing. Pretty soon, he said, his wish to leave Skid Row will come true.
“They’re going to house me in Hollywood, two blocks away from Runyon Canyon,” Fox said. “I’m going to be rubbing elbows with the movie stars.”
Fox’s friend, who identified himself as Johnny Rox, has been living on Skid Row for about six years and said it’s become his home.
“It’s my neighborhood,” Rox said. “I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else… I came from a nicer community, but when I go back to that community now, I don’t feel a part of that because this is who I am today.”
Along the way, Rox said he’s gotten to know nearly 200 people living on Skid Row.
“I like to call everybody my friends,” Rox said. “Just every street I know a lot of people.”
Rox said he has seen a significant impact on his community since the city attempted to declare a state state of emergency on homelessness last fall.
“Everybody’s signing up for housing now,” Rox said. “You used to walk the streets around here and it would be packed with people, and now there’s a whole lot less people on the streets.”
Rox also said the city is offering emergency shelter to the homeless as well.
“If you don’t want to be homeless you don’t have to be at all,” Rox said.
Though he does like Skid Row and he appreciates the relationships he’s developed there, Rox said he’s also planning on signing up for housing.
“This week I’m going to be signing up and going the way of many others,” Rox said.
While some of the residents have formed friendships and a sense of community with one another, Bales cautioned against romanticizing Skid Row.
It’s a very dangerous place, Bales warned. Predators and gang members gather there, and women are routinely molested, robbed and beaten.
“It’s hell on earth,” Bales said.
Drug dealers target the area and prey on the vast numbers of people suffering from addiction, Bales said.
“Gangs prey on the addictions, and they brutally collect on the money owed to them,” Bales said.
One night as he was leaving the shelter, Bales said he witnessed a man he described as being 6-foot-6 and built like an NFL noseguard beating a woman on the street. When he rolled down his window and told him to stop, the man looked up and said, “She owes us money.”
Bales tried to tell the man that “that’s no reason to beat on a woman,” but it was no use.
“Before I could get the words out, he was on my car punching, but I’ve got the window up so he was punching my window,” Bales said. “That’s a picture of what life is like on the streets of Skid Row.”
This past April, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 19 people and seized $2 million in cash, 13 kilograms of cocaine, 22 pounds of methamphetamine, 20 pounds in heroin and nine firearms in a massive drug bust targeting dealers on Skid Row, the LAPD said in a press release.
Among those arrested was Derrick Turner, an alleged 48-year-old drug kingpin who had 600,000 $1 bills, proceeds from selling cheap hits to homeless addicts, the LAPD said.
“Let me make this perfectly clear: Los Angeles will not tolerate anyone who will prey on some of the most vulnerable people in the city,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement.
While Bales witnesses the dangers of Skid Row and the toll it takes on those living there every day, he said it’s also why he gets up in the morning.
“I want to change that, and I want to see the transformed lives,” Bales said. “I hustle to work every morning because I get to see walking miracles, people who were once stuck, addicted on the streets, who’ve escaped that threat.”
While those “walking miracles” give Bales a reason to get up in the morning, they’re also a continuation of Stewart’s legacy on Skid Row.
Every fall Bales and Rood get together and honor that legacy by walking the eight blocks from the shelter’s first home on Main Street, now City Hall, to the Union Rescue Mission’s current home on Skid Row.
“We use the historic landmarks of this old, fascinating part of Los Angeles to tell the stories of how the problem of homelessness, joblessness, addictions and neglect came to rapidly urbanize Los Angeles and how the early compassionate business leaders and Christian lay workers established networks of support and life transformation for their fellow men and women in need,” Rood said.
“From the gospel wagons and tents to the earlier URM rescue missions on Main Street, we see how these seeds of compassion have grown into major institutions serving the souls on skid row today,” Rood said.
Adam Sennott is editor of Spare Change News.