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Community News: Central

DOWNTOWN : Students Get Lesson on Life in Skid Row

October 16, 1994|TOMMY LI

Michele Schmaderer grew up in a Nebraska town of 4,000 and had never seen anything like the countless number of homeless people and transients that inhabit Skid Row.

"Everyone that I've talked to has said, 'Be careful. It's a dangerous place,' " said the 28-year-old woman, who moved to Southern California six years ago and lives in Huntington Beach.

But her perception of the neighborhood radically changed Oct. 7 after going on a Skid Row tour as part of a UCLA program for students working on master's degrees in social work.

"I feel real comfortable here," said the first-year graduate student. "I guess one of the big things I've learned is that you don't have to be afraid of people. What they would appreciate is looking them in the eye and saying, 'hello.' "

Her experience was among many eye-opening encounters for the 35 classmates. Most, like Schmaderer, had shied away from Skid Row until the required tour.

Professor Mary Brent Wehrli, a former homeless rights activist, organized the program to break down barriers between students and homeless people. By Friday, 60 more social work students will have gone through the program.

"I always felt that the more people had a chance to meet, talk with and know a homeless person, their view of homelessness would change," Wehrli said. "It's very easy to put a wall up."

The process of tearing down those walls started Oct. 7 with presentations from homeless service providers and a representative from the Homeless Writers Coalition.

At the end of a panel discussion, Mike Neely, executive director of the Homeless Outreach Program, educated students about the realities of street life.

"Anybody that's scared, put that aside," said Neely, who was once homeless himself. "There's very little to be afraid of. Downtown Los Angeles is one of the safest districts in the entire city."

"There are very few incidents of violence against the people in the neighborhood. . . . It doesn't mean that your car is safe," he said, prompting some to chuckle along with him.

"They will break into your car," he said, becoming serious again. "(But) you're pretty much OK."

Neely ended by telling students that the homeless didn't need their sympathy or surprised looks--just an open mind to "absorb what's going on."

After a brief question-and-answer period, students got that chance.

They were divided into four groups that for two hours toured homeless service agencies, shelters, restored hotels and after-school programs for children and youth from homeless families. Former homeless people volunteered as guides.

One group heard firsthand from a homeless person even before reaching its first stop at the Union Rescue Mission on Main Street.

"Most of the people down here are doctors, lawyers," said the man, holding a Bible in his hand. "They have good jobs. They just lost their way.

"You want to be my social worker?" he asked.

"Give me two years," shot back an enthusiastic Nicholle Simmons, 26, of the mid-Wilshire area.

"Do it from your heart, and do it because you want to," the man said before walking away.

Simmons, who actually would prefer to do social work in the South-Central area where she grew up, and Schmaderer said the encounter as well as their guide's friendliness toward others on the street demonstrated a sense of openness, community and care among those living on Skid Row.

Julie Preute, 25, who grew up in Sherman Oaks and plans to work in the domestic violence field, acknowledged feeling "uncomfortable during parts of the tour."

"We gained a lot of interest from the street, from the people themselves," Preute said. "(But) we were never under any threat."

The tour also had an effect beyond breaking down barriers. It convinced some to donate money to or volunteer at homeless service agencies.

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