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Boy, 7, Meets a NIMBY World

Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

March 26, 2006|Steve Lopez

The kid's got a healthy appetite. In the span of just a few hours on Wednesday, he devoured helpings of lasagna, chicken, pizza and barbecued pork. When he had wolfed down the shredded pork, he took a straw and drank the pool of grease it had been sitting in.

Tyrese is 7, and his energy and spirit are as big as his appetite, which is all the more amazing when you consider that the Union Rescue Mission on skid row in downtown Los Angeles is his 10th place of residence in a short life.

"Tyrese, don't be trying to kiss the girls," Union president Andy Bales instructed the young dynamo, who was greeting a friend he liked almost as much as dinner. "Especially not with rice on your lips."

Tyrese and little brother Tyrell, 5, were chowing down in the Union cafeteria with their mother, Elizabeth Brown, and many of the nearly 100 children who live at the mission for a night, a month or a year.

Time and again, you hear the same story from mothers of the several hundred children living on skid row, mothers who carry physical and emotional scars. More often than not a deadbeat Dad moved on, if he was ever around at all, and Mom couldn't afford the most modest of shacks in the insane L.A. real estate market. And so the families took to the road, with stopovers at the homes of relatives, fleabag motels and, when the purse was empty, the human catch basin called skid row.

"I explained to them the money was gone and we had to go find another place to stay," said Brown, who gathered up the kids from their one-room airport motel six months ago and loaded them onto a bus with their bagged belongings. "The only place I knew to go was here. Tyrese said, 'Mommy, people are sleeping on the sidewalk.' "

Sleeping, hustling, using drugs, screaming, dying. It's no place for a child to be, and there's a code among skid row adults -- an unwritten contract to shield youngsters from the worst of the street activities. When a child is approaching, the first adult on the street to notice will often warn the others to clean things up, yelling, "Kid walking."

Tyrese, rather than wait for an adult to step up, has taken it upon himself to call out the warning.

"Kids walking!" he bellows, and the crack pipes that light skid row like Christmas lights are doused, if only for a moment.

"People are doing drugs and things they're not supposed to do," Tyrese explained. "I do it for my mother and my little brother."

His mother, meanwhile, is trying to get them out of here. She loves the hospitality, but she and her kids share a single barracks-like room with two other families, which is too close for everyone's comfort. At the Union, Brown said, she has come to grips with her failures and rationalizations and vowed to rediscover her pride.

"My first night here I cried," Brown said. "My mother said she wouldn't be my crutch any more. I have to become a better adult on my own. A better mother. I have two beautiful children and myself to live for."

And so she's taking in-house courses on parenting, financial management and basic life skills. Brown, 27, is smart and well-spoken and figures she can go back to work in a customer relations or sales job, like she used to have.

But where will she live? And what about thousands of others just like her?

I watched as Brown ran through a morning ritual at the Union, where she waits her turn for a computer and checks apartment listings.

"I go to low-income housing in California, but the only ones that look promising are in the Jungle," she said, referring to a section of the Crenshaw district. "There's too much crime and shooting to raise my kids there."

She made her way onto the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website and clicked on subsidized apartments in Southern California.

"Let's try Lakewood," she said, launching a search for two-bedroom apartments.

After a few seconds, the computer had her answer.

"No properties meet your criteria."

"You see? There's not much out there. I just have to keep my hopes up and do the things I have to do."

She tried Inglewood, and only one property popped up. The Manor Park Apartments on Market Street.

"I already applied there," Brown said. "They told me it was six months to a year waiting list."

Six months, one year, two years. She and other women I spoke to said that's always the case.

Next Brown tried non-assisted housing. She went to a site called Rentline.com and clicked on Glendale, where a two-bedroom was listed at $1,300. In Crenshaw, a one-bedroom was $785, a two-bedroom $995. In Inglewood, a one-bedroom would run her $750.

Her monthly government assistance check?

It's $342.

She's owed $225 a month in child support, Brown said, but she's not holding her breath for that. One father was in the slammer, last she heard, and the other hasn't been racking up any Dad of the Year awards.

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