Under the fierce fluorescence of a winter morning's sun, a ragged knot of homeless people rest against a Skid Row wall. Around them are bundles and grocery carts, and, in their midst, a figure sits in a wheelchair.
From down the street a police car swings up, leveling a microphone blast at the motley bunch.
"You're gonna get in front of the mission or get off the streets!" a woman's voice shrills.
A group on the opposite curb merely shrug. They are homeless writers and this is part of their daily existence--the stuff they use to stir their muses.
From a wellspring of bitterness and love, they write of drugs and crime, of God and their mothers, of standing in a line waiting for food, living in cardboard, keeping on the move with no place to rest.
In recent months, Skid Row poets and writers have formed the Homeless Writers Coalition. Their goal is to rent a neighborhood storefront office where they can write and keep their manuscripts.
More transcendently, they want to bridge the gap between homeless people and the society to which some aspire to belong. Their message, told over and over in their work, is that they are no different from anybody else.
For those who would listen, they voice possible solutions to their plight. For one who wants to look behind their verses, they offer an informal odyssey through their lives on "The Row."
In a booth at nearby Gorky's Cafe, a slender man of 42 spreads the counter with papers. He reads from some of them in the mellifluous voice that recalls his Louisiana upbringing. Born Willy Lewis, he goes by the name Dino. He is a sometimes-homeless writer and driving force behind the Homeless Writers Coalition.
Once there was a good job, fine clothes and diamond rings
Houses in the hills, new cars and everything
. . . Now my good job is gone, my wife and kids I'll never find
And my life is spent looking for food, every day from line to line
My house is made of cardboard, now sitting on the curb
Where loneliness, destruction, and dope is the only word
. . . Now this story could go on, there is so much you need to know
But I'm not the one to tell you, how quickly the good things can go
In the quiet after the poem, Dino nods at a compliment and allows, "The only bad thing about it is you tell too much about yourself when you talk from the heart."
Nonetheless, poetry from the heart by the homeless is beginning to make its way from The Row into the mainstream in a rush of events.
Under the auspices of municipally and privately sponsored programs, homeless writers are reading for audiences ranging from the hungry in Skid Row soup lines to bookstore patrons in towns like Claremont and Santa Monica. The week of Feb. 11, homeless writers will read with established authors at Los Angeles-area bookshops to benefit the national homeless-advocacy group, Share Our Strength. Part of the revenues collected from those readings will go to the coalition.
Dino is mobilizing the grass-roots Los Angeles group Artists against Homelessness to sponsor another fund-raising event for his organization. He has also written a skit for a homeless event at the Afro-American Museum, and, along with another homeless writer who calls himself Southern Comfort, has his work printed in a booklet at USC.
Dino pulls all of this material out of a brown vinyl briefcase that he carries wherever he goes. His companion, Jackie, totes an address book filled with the names of the people and agencies they hope will work with the coalition.
"We don't want handouts," Dino says. "Good jobs and affordable housing are what we need.
"They say the only people on the streets are the ones who want to be there," he says, waving toward the wall of skyscrapers north of Broadway. "How can they say that when they live in their big $250,000 homes? They send you a food line and some used clothes."
Dino is picking politely at the lettuce leaves of a salad he has finally consented to eat.
"I only need two meals a day," he says, patting his flat belly. He and Jackie were up at 5:30 a.m. to line up for 8 a.m. breakfast at the Midnight Mission on Los Angeles Street.
It is after noon now, and, after lunch, Dino and Jackie have places to go and people to organize.
"It's hard to catch up with homeless people," Dino says with the kind of soft irony that defines the fragility of his position.
Two days later, Dino and Jackie are waiting in front of what is grandly called the San Julian Hotel, a flophouse of about 20 rooms, one of which they have lived in for several months.
The rent is $312, the equivalent of a month's general relief check. For this they are usually allowed no visitors, no cooking in the room, no telephone, no private bathroom. A sink gushes with a leak, a piece of sheet covers a small window that will not shut and a naked light bulb glimmers from the ceiling shadows. In preparation for a visitor, Jackie has dressed the bed in a bright flowered spread that speaks of a former suburban existence.