Homeless seek a chance to get off the streets

Latino men want to better themselves, kick addictions and find a better future; Skid Row is a hell of death day and night.

At 37, Francisco Velazquez longs to find “a good job” to get out of homelessness, get off the streets of Skid Row and, for now, he’s determined to be a better person: he’s enrolled in welding classes.

Sitting on a bicycle along San Pedro Street and Fifth Street, Velazquez tells La Opinión that he has done everything in life.

“I’ve worked in construction; I’ve had cleaning jobs and delivering food,” he says. “But I want to get ahead and I need to work.”

Fortunately for him, he has received financial aid at a technical school, which, he says, will help him become financially stable.

“Here, [on Skid Row] a lot of people are dying,” he says. “The drugs are given to them on the sly and people are hit [affected] hard and they bend.”

Francisco also speaks of strained human relations between African-American and Latino homeless people in the Skid Row underworld.

“A few months ago there was a fight, and one person killed another,” he comments.

On Croker and Third streets, Alejandro Fernandez, a 53-year-old Mexican, has also been able to create options for personal development. He works loading and unloading truckloads of merchandise for business owners in the Skid Row geographic area.

“Here we are, waiting for them to call us from the warehouses,” says Alejandro, who immigrated to the United States 33 years ago. “When the phone rings, you have to move fast on your bike to grab the job.”

Fernandez maintains that he does not work “on the floor” because, on occasion, he earns more money doing “on the outside,” which is what he likes to do. This allows him to have his own room to live in.

Born in Mexico City, Fernandez maintains that, on Skid Row, “everyone is as they want to be and will work as hard as they can”.

“I’m used to working on my own and I’m not complaining,” he says. “You have to know that you have to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

The one who is not doing so well is Ricardo Toloso, a 42-year-old Latino, who confesses to being a drug addict, and shows signs of suffering from some kind of mental disorder.

“I learned that I alone cannot face life,” said the man, staggering, although he was sitting on the sidewalk, but visibly disturbed by the effects of drugs.

Ricardo recalls that his father – of the same name as him – and Alberta, his mother, passed away since he was a little boy. He was left alone in the world, had to go from foster home to foster home, until he reached adulthood and ended up homeless.

And what would you need to get off the streets, he is asked.

“Money, friends and a form of transportation,” he replies. “I can work as a gardener or paint murals.”

This man says he got out of rehab three years ago, and when he thought he was on his way out of the world of drugs he was using: fentanyl, crystal marijuana, he ran into a wall: his only sister and his niece closed the doors of his house. They did not want to help him.

The effects of the drug took their toll. He has lost several teeth and, to make matters worse, he says that in 2007 he was shot in the back and has a “really fucked up” foot, which prevents him from walking naturally.

Selling drugs in hotels

Suzette Shaw, who suffers from labile mood disorder, a condition that refers to unpredictable, uncontrollable and rapid changes in emotions, commonly caused by mental health conditions, has become an advocate for the homeless on Skid Row, particularly African-American women.

Suzette, a resident of a Skid Row hotel in federally subsidized housing complains that, “day and night, people come in from outside every day to sell drugs.”

Standing in front of the Alexandria Hotel, -on the corner of Spring and Fifth Streets-, the woman makes known that accidental deaths from fentanyl overdoses skyrocketed from 13 in 2017, to 148 in 2022, according to official data from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner.

In an 11-month span, nine people died from overdoses at the Alexandria Hotel in 2022.
In addition, in April of that year, a 72-year-old Hispanic man was found dead in a room at the hotel. He was apparently a victim of strangulation.

In August of this year, a man jumped to his death from the fourth floor of the 453-room hotel.
“The same person who comes in during the day is the same person who comes in at night to sell the drugs,” Suzette Shaw complains. “It takes accountability from the county, the city and the police; we need a model of more accountability from everyone to be implemented, to be responsive to the needs of the tenants.”

She, who has become a poet advocating for a paradigm shift toward dismantling systemic policies and practices that have perpetuated the trauma of the oppressed and the stigma of the homeless, recounts witnessing the deaths of three women on Skid Row: two African American and a Latina named Cristina.

“All three died from an overdose,” he said. “Someone gave them fentanyl.”

The same experience was experienced by Mirna “N” (not her real name), a Salvadoran woman.
“Every night they don’t let them sleep; people coming in and out of the hotel as if nothing, and the guard lets them in to sell the drugs,” Mirna said. “Many of us have already complained, but they don’t do anything to stop them from continuing to poison people, and the police know that this problem is not from now, but has been going on for years.”

Access and availability of drugs

Alberto Melena, who works for the San Fernando Valley Partnership, a nonprofit organization, argues that “you have to recognize the easy access and availability of substances that are killing people.”

The average number of deaths on Skid Row is 10 each month, although February (14), March (23), May (20) and November 2022 (15) were the most fatal of the 140 total deaths.
“We know that most of those deaths were accidental because people have to buy their medicines on the street, due to lack of health insurance or economic resources, and they buy what was sold to them,” says Alberto Melena. “Other causes could be self-medication and drug trafficking, but many died without knowing what they were taking.”

The activist told La Opinión that the more than 100% increase in deaths, apart from being “colossal”, urges to discover and catch drug dealers.

“We have to raise awareness of the danger, and if we don’t address the problem of access and availability the deaths are going to continue,” he said. “It requires everyone’s participation, and also laws for hotel owners to put a stop so that their premises are not being flooded with drugs.”

Melena concludes by saying that, if the average ten deaths of homeless people were caused by firearms, “we would all be concerned and alarmed, but because there is a stigma against those who live on the streets, many think they don’t exist, even though no human being should die. Skid Row is hell day and night. And that’s something that many don’t recognize.”

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