Students capture human experience on L.A.’s Skid Row

The sprawling community of Skid Row is comprised of 50 blocks, an epicenter of homelessness. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), there are currently 57,794 homeless in Los Angeles County — 4,633 alone in Skid Row. The problem is at the center of a USC initiative to educate and find innovative ways to address homelessness.

Mary Murphy, senior lecturer of journalism, along with Sandy Tolan, professor of journalism, created a multimedia course, “Reporting on Homelessness,” to give students the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to report accurately and sensitively on the human experience of living on the streets.

“All the students have had completely different ideas about what they want to cover,” Murphy said. “One group is covering homeless artists. Another is focusing on how women are treated on Skid Row and a third is concerned with LGBT youth.”

Murphy and Tolan designed the class for students to investigate the complex issue of homelessness and to examine the city, state and federal policies and laws that directly affect housing, health, income and safety of L.A.’s homeless population. Throughout the semester the students generate a series of stories for publication across a range of media platforms. 

As part of the class, they also coordinated a forum discussion this month at the Midnight Mission, including activists, police, city council representatives and homeless living in the area.

As Murphy and the students drove toward the mission, she used the journey as a teaching moment, pointing to murals, bubble and block-style graffiti and artwork on once grey walls — sterile — but now, she noted, full of color and urban storytelling.

“Look around,” Murphy said, “This is one of the things happening in downtown and Skid Row. Midnight Mission used to be in this area but moved. Local businesses and residents are being pushed out of their own neighborhoods.”

She also directed students’ attention to the new commercial spaces opening in a once dilapidated area of downtown L.A. “Where is there room for the homeless?” Murphy asked her students — knowing there was no simple answer. 

Murphy and Tolan think it is imperative to vocalize the needs of homeless people, but even further, to dissect the root of the problem through a journalistic approach. 

The panel discussion, Tolan said, “is an opportunity for the students to engage directly with the Skid Row community and tie the discussion into their reporting and projects.”

In the mission’s main dining hall, activist Jody David Armour, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC Gould, spoke to a packed room. He emphasized the gravity of homelessness and approached it from a macro-level.

“If we are going to have a solution, it is going to have to be tailored to a problem and the right problem. If you have the problems diagnosed incorrectly, the solutions are going to be counter-productive and self-defeating,” he said. “That means sustainable health care, affordable housing and policy change.”

Deon Joseph, a senior lead officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, Central Division, who has been working for more than 18 years on Skid Row, compared the conditions on Skid Row to the ‘90s. “In ’97, it was like Dante’s Inferno. There was human trafficking, gang members brutalizing and victimizing homeless. Disease had spread and drug sales were rampant. There was lawlessness,” Joseph said. 

Murphy, who has been a volunteer for 37 years on Skid Row, has also seen the demographic drastically change over the years. Along with the population increase, from primarily men of color — to those with disabilities and mental illness — to women and children.

Now, conditions are worsening and crime is increasing — Joseph recounted about 20 violent crimes a week, including aggravated assaults. For Murphy, this underscores the need to report on homelessness from all angles. 

Razzan Nakhlawi, a senior majoring in journalism, found homelessness to be one of the most striking and visible things she noticed when she moved to L.A. from the United Kingdom. 

“It is important to talk about U.S.-centric, on-the-ground issues that are happening locally,” Nakhlawi said.

Her research revolves around the $1.2-billion-dollar bond funded for nonprofit developers to construct buildings for those in need.

Razzan Nakhlawi, a senior majoring in journalism, speaks about her class project at The Midnight Mission forum.

For Nakhlawi, focusing on Boyle Heights was important because it is a neighborhood that she has found to be historically deprived. When interviewing locals, they expressed to her that they didn’t want to see the city throw up slapdash developments that won’t enrich their area.

“I would like to continue my coverage on homelessness and developments. I want to make sure policy makers are being held accountable; it is really important now that I am aware of these issues,” Nakhlawi said.

Senior journalism major Ashley Vazquez is personally connected to homelessness. “I have family members that have been homeless — not in L.A. — but this has always been a topic of interest of mine,” she shared.

Vazquez interned last semester at the Inner City Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that helps homeless veterans and also advocates for low-income tenants through its homeless prevention project. It was there that Vazquez became acquainted with Skid Row residents. “I was really interested in taking this class because as I was working on Skid Row, I saw a lot of reporters who were not covering the issue very humanely,” Vazquez said.

Vazquez recalls seeing news teams going to Skid Row, brashly walking into people’s homes and putting cameras in their faces. “I didn’t want to do that and the only way not to do that is to get to know them.”

She is focusing her coverage on women on Skid Row, and talked about the staggering number of women who have either been sexually assaulted or harassed — with few services available to them.

“A lot of women are also afraid to say anything,” Vazquez continued, “Nobody wants to talk about what is happening to them.”

There were, however, several female homeless trauma survivors who spoke at the forum, including Suzette Shaw.

“Many women have been displaced to Skid Row and the numbers continue to grow,” Shaw said. “We are the No. 1 population — single, Black and elderly — so I feel there is a cultural competence that is not being addressed.”

“We do not feel safe,” she added, “We need to find a way to feel protected.”

For the students, capturing the lives of Skid Row means joining the conversation and helping find a solution. “People often think we are not a part of these big movements and shifts,” Nakhlawi said. “But I have grown to understand my own place at USC, and being here is actually affected the way the city runs.”