Barbara Frost is the kind of person who gets involved. Deeply involved. She sees a rumpled figure laid out on the sidewalk and it's not enough for her to drop a quarter in the outstretched hand.
Frost is inclined to stretch out on the sidewalk herself, in a gesture of solidarity. In fact, that's precisely what Frost, a graduate of Springfield College in Massachusetts and a former missionary in Central America, did for six months beginning in September, 1988.
She set up residency at Crocker and 5th streets in downtown Los Angeles, joining the lines for free meals, learning the ropes about surviving on the streets.
"It wasn't social work or a missionary kind of thing," said Frost, 43, a short, intense woman with red hair, struggling to explain her voluntary foray into homelessness. "It was friendship."
Now a consultant for a computer education company, Frost lives in a small apartment in Duarte. She's brimming with the lessons from her stay on Skid Row
and with determination to change things.
And she keeps in touch with her Skid Row friends, visiting them weekly. "She's a true evangelist," 5th Street regular Samuel Billups said Wednesday during a visit by Frost.
Frost approaches Christmas this year, she said, with renewed understanding of the symbolism underlying the holiday. Her Christmases on Skid Row--by 1989, she was off the street and living in a residential hotel--have become, for her, a parable about spirituality.
"Externally, there was nothing beautiful (on Skid Row)," she said. "But the beauty of the human spirit--that was overwhelming sometimes."
By Christmas, 1988, she was a five-month resident of the streets, sleeping within a few feet of the rattling cross-town traffic, trying to make sense out of the chaos around her.
She had arrived on Skid Row looking for a cheap room in which to do some writing. "I asked somebody, 'Where's the Y?' " she said, "and they sent me to the Weingart Center."
Frost, who was writing a play, took a room in the big city-administered hotel. Then she took a walk through the neighborhood. It was a shock.
"I knew what was happening in Central America," said Frost, who had recently returned from 17 years as a lay missionary in Guatemala and Nicaragua. "But I didn't know what was happening here. It really shook me to see people living in cardboard condominiums.
"There are children being raised in pornographic movie houses and sleeping in cars."
Rather than fleeing when her savings were exhausted, she joined the crowd on the sidewalk. She set up her own "mission," displaying art and poetry on bulletin boards, offering milk crates full of books for her homeless friends to read and winning a reputation as one of the area's more quixotic do-gooders.
"People would come to her with problems and she'd give them a great deal of assistance," said Solomon Baptiste, manager of the La Jolla Hotel on East 6th Street. "For some guys on the street, she tried to change their lives around. She's highly respected in this area."
Frost's own children, living with their father in Duarte, had agreed for the time being to give up their mother to Skid Row. "It was a gift from them," said Frost, who is divorced from her children's father. Son Timothy, 12, listened in Frost's unadorned apartment, shaking his head. "You're crazy, Mom," he said affectionately.
Frost's major project was a mural. She met homeless artist Henry Brown III, a South-Central Los Angeles native, in the neighborhood and persuaded him to paint the sides of a building on her Skid Row corner.
The idea was to bring a rare portion of beauty to Skid Row. "There's no reason to open your eyes in the morning down there," Frost said. "It's hard to describe the effect on the human spirit."
The 5th Street homeless regulars scraped the wall and applied a coat of white paint. Frost got some support from church people, and a local paint store opened a credit account for Brown's supplies. The artist's first panels--intriguing images of a lighthouse swathed in clouds, a planet with weeping eyes, a grazing Pegasus--were going up.
So it was that Christmas arrived. There was little on Skid Row to distinguish the season from any other. "No friends and relatives from faraway places . . . no gifts to buy," Frost wrote in an unpublished memoir. "I was not going to be singing 'The Messiah.' "
But the holiday should be celebrated, she insisted, even on Skid Row. "You can celebrate Christmas somehow under (any) circumstances. Jesus was born in a stable. Nobody wanted him. There was no Crystal Cathedral pageant with people in fine clothes waiting to get in."
She appealed to local church parishioners again, this time for cooking supplies and cookie sheets.
Using an oven fashioned out of an oil can, Frost baked dozens of Christmas cookies on the street. "Baking on a shopping cart in a five-gallon can isn't like turning on your oven to 350 degrees," she said.