Surviving: Inside the lives of four people who call the streets of Los Angeles home
April 17, 2023. Los Angeles, CA. USA
Scraps of paper and sprinkles of dirt rest in the shadow of an EZ UP tent. In the windy South Central morning air, two LAPD officers circle the final belongings of a 60-year-old homeless man. He took his last breaths on the sidewalk mere feet from commuters waiting to board the bus on Metro’s Figueroa Line 81.
He died on January 31 with no ritual or ceremony. His body lay silent in the morning air, covered in a white sheet laid down by police, as a fellow Angeleno shouted verses from the Quran before boarding the bus.
Nearly three months later, the Los Angeles Coroner’s office has yet to find any family members.
This man, still unidentified, was one of the nearly 70,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles in 2023.
For people living on the streets, their final moments mirror the time they spent coping with the harsh realities of being homeless in Los Angeles. Weathering the harsh summer sun and the chilling winter rains. Surviving as the rest of the city drives by their mattresses, tent, or encampment. Surviving as the rest of the city drives by their home.
The chronically unhoused men and women profiled here represent a population the county defines as people unhoused for a year or more, or who experienced homelessness four times in the past three years. Their exact numbers are not known; the annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count does not keep a separate tally for the chronically unhoused.
Homelessness, a major issue in Los Angeles for years, emerged as a focal point in the 2022 mayoral race.
“If we want to successfully confront this homelessness crisis, we must take real action when it comes to chronic homelessness. The approach we are implementing does that,” Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement. “Mental health assistance and substance abuse treatment go hand-in-hand with our effort.”
When Bass took office last December, she issued an emergency declaration on homelessness, enabling her administration to speed up construction of housing for unhoused communities. She also promised to find shelter for 4,000 people within her first 100 days of office, a goal she met as of March 24.
Bass’s emergency declaration sought to help people suffering from mental health and drug-abuse-related issues, calling attention to the nearly half of all unsheltered individuals who suffer from severe mental illness or substance abuse.
Inside Safe -- one of the mayor’s directives on homelessness -- provides “outreach and sustained street engagement with people experiencing homelessness, especially people who are experiencing chronic homelessness,” her spokesperson, Zach Seidel said.
Service providers cannot force their help on unhoused individuals, and often face rejection when offering mental health, housing, and substance abuse-related resources.
“We have to work with people on their terms,” said Elizabeth Cope, a county supervisor for the Homeless Outreach Engagement Team in the San Gabriel Valley.
Cope has faced this predicament for the last 16 years as a licensed social worker who primarily helps adults suffering from severe mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Cope found that consistency and offering a variety of services are the best ways to eventually house people. Her team provides condoms, street medicine and female health exams to create a safer environment and build trust.
Lack of trust is a big reason why unhoused populations are weary of city services.
“A lot of people don't want to go to shelters because they have had a really bad experience or they have been assaulted or they have had their belongings stolen or some traumatic experience that prevents them from giving it another chance,” Cope said.
She sees diverse housing as the best way to solve homelessness in Los Angeles.
Diverse housing aims to accommodate unhoused people and their current mental and physical health needs. The model uses a broad approach, hoping to house everyone from women survivors of domestic violence who wish not to live around men to people who wish to bring their pets with them into their housing. She said a long waitlist for available housing poses a major hurdle, with up to six month delays.
Adverse Childhood Experiences include trauma such as violence, abuse, or neglect that threatens someone’s sense of safety, stability, and bonding. Such trauma can lead to substance use and mental health problems.
All of the people profiled here faced difficult upbringings. Alisa Orduna, a community development scholar who has focused on homeless policy for 25 years, said early childhood trauma profoundly affects people once they become adults.
“There’s a lot of research, depending on the type of trauma and the support that someone may have had and their own sense of agency and resiliency in getting through it that it can break your most trusted relationships,” Orduna said.
Howard Padwa, a researcher at UCLA, spoke of a further lack of diversity among service providers as an issue.
“The homeless population is disproportionately African American,” Padwa said. “If you look at the population of providers, it's disproportionately white. You also have the issue of the people who enter these professions tend to be more female, whereas the clientele tends to be more male.”
Padwa said unhoused people often find society to be isolating and unforgiving. So they create their own community, where they can self-medicate and stay mostly safe. For them, choosing to remain unhoused and on the streets provides the best shot at happiness.
But this decision to remain on the streets can lead to violence and further insecurity. A reality often described as a “war zone,” the people who remain unhoused are some of the most vulnerable residents in Los Angeles.
Almost 1 in 10 homeless people in California reported being sex- or labor-trafficked. In extreme cases, their everyday realities include violence.
The stories of people living on the streets are filled with incomplete narratives, faulty memories and details hard to corroborate.
Some basic questions remain mysteries brought on by the housing crisis itself. Documents such as government IDs and Social Security cards are often lost in random sweeps or drenched in the rain. The sweeps, conducted by CARE+, the city’s homeless encampment cleanup program, forces the unhoused to remove their tents and belongings while sanitation workers sweep the area.
The tales of these street inhabitants are snapshots of long and complicated lives. They are former business owners, loving parents of children, loving husbands to wives, and caring members of the community. They occasionally blend myth and reality as they share stories about their lives that, for some, involved crimes and accusations of violence. The stories here take you inside their lives, revealing the danger, heartbreak and uncertainty they face every day. They also offer a glimpse into the friendships and hope they've found on the streets, and reveal more about their lives than we may see driving by.
The barber of Skid Row
A black cape floats through the air as Hawk’s next customer takes a seat. In weathered hot pink letters -- “Brazilian Blowout” -- streaks across the front of the cape, as Hawk closes the clasps behind the customer’s neck. The barber wears gray sweatpants with “LA County Jail” emblazoned down the side of his left leg.
Hawk, whose real name is Derrick Thomas, has called Skid Row home for the last seven years. The 65-year-old Louisiana native has been cutting hair since his grandfather gave him his first straight razor when he was 11.
Over the course of eight months, Hawk opened up about his life, sharing details that couldn't always be verified.
With hardened leather hands and scarred arms, he gets ready to work. Wearing his county jail sweatpants, black socks and black slides with a pink Nike swoosh, he welcomes his customer, Will McCorvey. McCorvey is a homeless veteran and a
native of Watts, who lives down the block from Hawk. He’s lived on Skid Row for 18 years. He says he was an infantryman in the Army and served at the Panama Canal
from 1978 to 1981. Today he is getting his goatee cleaned up.
The two men met in the late 1990s as members of rival gangs. “I almost killed him twice. Lucky man,” Hawk said with a soft grin. “The last time he begged. We were younger, a lot younger. Been about 20 years.”
They have since mended their relationship. Today McCorvey also needed a shopping cart to help carry his belongings, something Hawk was able to quickly supply. After he finishes trimming his friend’s goatee, Hawk unearths the cart beneath three layers of tarp. “If you need it, I can help out,” Hawk explains. Soon, the sound of the clanking metals echoes down the block as the wheels rotate and McCorvey walks back to his tent.
Hawk has worked as a barber for nearly 50 years, getting licensed in Missouri and California. He opened two barbershops in Los Angeles: Black Hair and More with his mom and aunt in the San Fernando Valley in the 1990s, and another shop in Inglewood called A New You.
He spent time in prison for a series of bank robberies and got out in 2015, spending the first night shivering underneath a cardboard box. With few options, he found his way to Skid Row. Now the ever-optimistic barber chuckles as he surveys a life’s worth of clothes, keepsakes, and tools - or at least as much he could hold onto after years of sweeps from the Los Angeles Sanitation Department.
Hawk was once married, had kids, and a mother he loved very much. His mother died in the winter of 2021. He likes antiques, saying they remind him a little of himself. The only keepsake left from his mother is an ornate wooden mirror. He keeps it next to his bedside, and no matter how many times he has been forced to move, he makes sure to always bring it along.
Hawk has struggled with substance abuse his whole life. He spoke of first trying heroin
when he was 14, while coping with a stepfather he often clashed with. He continued to
use throughout his life, regardless of where he was at, from the military, to owning a business
to being in prison, he struggled with staying sober.
Two nights before McCorvey’s trim, Hawk was affixing a tarp to the fence behind his shelter. In the middle of the rain, he flipped backward out of a shopping cart, first hitting the grated metal and then smacking into the ground. He called it a “Greg Louganis moment,” a reference to the Olympian who hit his head on the dive springboard during the 1988 Olympics.
“I didn’t want to get soaking wet, so I had to do it with nobody’s help, and it was pitch dark,” Hawk said, still feeling dizzy and sore days after the fall.
Hawk recalled a moment seven years ago, sitting on the cold ground in a gray concrete prison cell. He remembers constantly speaking to God, asking to be released from prison. As he sat there, he told God that if he got out of prison, he would provide for the homeless. He would make haircuts affordable.
“I want to help people that need help desperately,” Hawk promised God, as he sat alone in his concrete cell. He repeated that promise to me the first time we met, calling it his purpose for being on Skid Row.
On that level, Hawk kept his promise. He remains steadfast in his mission to uplift those around him. Carrying decades of pain and the constant reminders of death - the loss of every family member he loved and the perpetual abuse of drugs - Hawk remains astutely aware of his reality.
“My house is a tent. My house is paper. I’m at risk all the time. I don’t fear nothing. If it's my time, I will die with dignity.”
Spirituality and healing tents on Venice Beach
Mewing seagulls accompany the grinding rollerblade wheels on the broader lands of Santa Monica and Venice. Here a community of people have made a home escaping the better-funded Santa Monica Police Department to the north and the Venice Shoreline Crips to the South.
Abuse, spirituality, and community are commonplace here. Some residents have been living in Venice for decades, while many more wander in and out - between shelters, couches, and tents.
Lindsey Davis, who prefers to go by what she describes as her shaman name, “Welcoming All” or “Wa,” has called this part of Venice Beach home for the last few years. With brown hair and brown eyes and a relatively small
stature, this 41-year-old ex-sugar baby is friends with every police officer, fireman,
sanitation worker, and tourist on the boardwalk.
Wa came to Venice in June 2020 and began setting up her Goddess Temple. It has since
become a mainstay in the community, as she looks to create a safe place for women who
have been emotionally and physically abused. Wa began the temple as part of her path
of emotional healing.
She spoke of being abused or taken advantage of by men since she was a young girl in
Connecticut. After her parents divorced when she was two, she lived in her mother’s
house with her grandfather, who she described as the “family pedophile.” No one was safe at her home, she remembers, both toddlers and teenagers were vulnerable.
“So it made sense to me that by the time I was 22, I had super-wealthy men in my back pocket giving me $8,000 to $12,000 a month, was the range of allowance I would get,” Wa said.
As she grew older she made arrangements with certain men to have children. She would either receive child support checks or in one case both child support and $200,000 when she agreed to be a surrogate mother.
But in 2019, everything changed.
She left her then 10-year-old boy to babysit her other two children as she went to go visit one of her sugar daddies.
“You don’t sleep with your sugar daddy right away, you want them to pay you. And since I wouldn’t sleep with him we had a tussle and he took the money back from me and I called the police. They arrested me and I told them my kids were alone and I needed to get back to my kids and they charged me with child endangerment. It sucked,” Wa remembers.
She hasn’t seen her kids since and currently does not have any contact with them. She has tried to make the Goddess Temple a space of healing for others like her that have been abused.
Athena Montreux is a trans woman from Kansas who came to Venice Beach in the middle of 2022. She was raped and nearly trafficked before managing to find Wa and the Goddess Temple under the shade of the boardwalk palm trees.
Athena had traveled across the United States attempting to find a community and a home. For the last few years that home was Las Vegas, but a falling out of her relationship forced her to find something new.
She spoke of the dangers of living in Venice, where sexual violence remains a constant threat.
“Well, yeah, it's me, Athena, again, a couple days ago I was raped. Some dude groped me,
and then tried to grab me, tried to pull my pants down, didn’t want it, I tried to pull them
back up, and he was just too forceful. So I gave in and let him do it because I was afraid
he was going to hurt me,” she said.
Athena spoke of this violence in November 2022. She sat on wood panelings that covered
the sand inside a white pop-up tent that made up the Goddess Temple. To the right
adjacent to the temple was a garden that Wa, Athena, and other community members
had built. They looked to begin growing their own food, and create a more sustainable
future for their community.
Wa remains hopeful through her spirituality. She described five pillars of her faith - god, spirit, intention, always move, and state of flow - as key aspects to her life of healing. According to her, these five pillars encapsulate certain aspects of her life, whether it is her interpersonal relationships or dealings with the police, and help guide her in her path of healing.
Most of the Goddess Temple has since been hauled away through the City’s Care+ programs. Wa currently only has a backpack and some clothes to her name and turns to Goodwill when she needs something new.
Athena and the garden have also since disappeared. Wa suspects the garden was bulldozed. She assumes Athena was arrested.
Growing old on Skid Row
Felix Gonzalez sits on the curb surrounded by all he has left to his name.
It’s not much: A half-inflated air mattress, assorted bikes, bike parts, two boxes, and clothes scattered across the sidewalk.
Clean-up crews took his tent, blankets, and ID cards. Nearby, a diesel engine roars as one of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Department’s backhoes moves down 6th Street.
Once the crews leave, he’ll move his things across the street and begin to rebuild. The empty sidewalk slowly begins filling up with his neighbors. Since 1992, the 65-year-old Cuban native has called this block of Skid Row home.
His neighborhood is bustling, with tents and canvases covering every inch of the 6th Street sidewalk. The entrance to Felix’s home is hidden behind two layers of blue tarp, where some salvation from the frigid rain and harsh summers has been carved out.
He left Havana, Cuba, in the late 1980s and landed in Atlanta, working odd jobs before coming west in 1992. He worked as a truck loader and carpenter but said he stayed on Skid Row due to immigration and identification issues.
His 32-year-old daughter and 37-year-old son still call Atlanta home. They know he lives on Skid Row, but after losing his daughter's phone number he has no way to get in contact with her.
“The biggest thing I need is my identification so I can see my kids,” Felix said.
His shelter, crammed in between two neighboring shelters and covered in a blue tarp, has a wooden pallet for a door. When it rains, the floor becomes a river as water runs through his home.
His bed is in the back of the shelter. It sports a blue blanket and several pillows and is flanked by a metal shelf to the right where Felix keeps his prized belongings on the long winter nights, a battery-powered lamp.
To the left of his bed are half a dozen bikes and even more bike parts. Felix works as a bike mechanic and receives most of his income from fixing and selling bikes. He has everything he needs from the allen wrenches to tubes and tires to air compressors for filling up flats.
“No one gonna give you $20, $30 for a bicycle. For a bicycle you gonna get five
or six dollars, that’s what I live with,” he said.
Felix lives on Skid Row with his brother, who is handicapped. He had a bad infection
about two years ago and they had to amputate his leg.
Felix also has pain all over and is unsure of the causes since he can’t afford a doctor.
His IDs and documentation of his immigration status are constant sources of stress.
He said he lost his California ID and tried to get a new one at the DMV, but it was
too expensive to have it replaced. “If I had a million dollars I’d be happy,” Felix said.
He points to his joints for arthritis, his swollen leg for an infection, and his back
for other ailments.
He used to have a prescription to help manage the pain but has largely turned to
marijuana. He will scour through local trash cans to find discarded bags of marijuana
from local marijuana dispensaries.
Once he finds one of the bags, typically 20-25 pounds in weight, he will bring it
back to his encampment and begin looking through the discarded buds and sticks
and pick out the pieces that are still smokable.
This process can take days, as he sits on the floor of his tent, smokes a cigarette,
and continues to sort out the buds.
When he is finished he says he shares the loot with his neighbors. Many living on Skid Row are just like him, in constant pain and without access to medical help. He described himself as a doctor giving out much-needed medication.
“Hell yeah,” Felix exclaimed when asked if he finished the bag of weed.
Felix remains on Skid Row with no sign of leaving. He said he will always be in his corner if someone needs to find him, and plans to continue to live by the motto he has tattooed on his left shoulder, “I live it by day.”
Cigarettes, vodka and Mark Twain.
Amid the engine exhaust, frigid nights, and soaking-wet sidewalks, Tim Graves reads Marly and Me.
Tim lives above the oldest freeway in America, where for the past five years 100,000 cars have passed underneath him each day.
His home consists of a plastic remake of the right side of Lightning McQueen’s classic Corvette body, a full mattress covered with colorful blankets and pillows, and a metal grated cart where other clothes, food, and plastic bags are stored.
“I’m sleeping rough,” Tim said.
All of Tim’s belongings rest in this 10-by-5-foot space. His library of books, his knives for protection, and
the colorful juggling balls that he uses to make money on the freeway off ramp.
Like the seasons, Tim’s thick white beard is slowly changing colors. His face, scared and wrinkled, tells a story at every peak and trough. His hair, while short and graying, curls with his cowlick and last night’s resting place on the pillow.
His earliest memories were just a stone's throw away, where West Vernon Elementary School still greets students to this day. He said his father attended the school and recalls a time in 1957 when no fences surrounded the schoolhouse.
Today, Tim calls this 50-square-feet of pavement home.
“Shortest version of why I’m here is poor choices,” Tim lamented. Those poor choices aren’t easy to pinpoint, and many details are scant.
He wasn’t always living on the streets, and from age 18 to 65, he led a life that looks very different from today.
He said he was employed as a carpenter, working with a church in San Pedro where he would meet his future wife. He had previously worked at the LA Mission, living there while fixing people’s computers. His move to Hope Chapel in San Pedro was inspired by a desire to get clean from drug abuse. He was struggling with substance abuse and was also enrolled in a 12-step program at the LA Mission.
In 2005 he got married, but was in and out of rehab for years, smoking marijuana and trying to stay clean. Over the years, the relationship went sour, and as his crack addiction consumed his life his marriage fell apart.
“When he was sober, he's super charming. And of course, everybody just thought he was the greatest thing ever. And so did I,” someone who was close to Tim at the time said in a 2023 interview. The source requested their name and relationship to Tim be withheld for their safety.
During this time he also became violent toward his wife, but no report was filed with law enforcement.
After a drug deal went awry in 2011, he was arrested and charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer and one count of vandalism. He went to jail. Two years later, his wife divorced him.
Today, the over-optimistic 70-year-old juggles at the 110 Freeway exit to make some
money, saying it also helps keep his mind sharp.
He keeps a knife in his back pocket for protection but laments that he often forgets about
it when he is in harm's way. He says he's been robbed many times and nearly stabbed
while living outside. Centimeter-long scars on his middle and pointer finger knuckles show
the reality of living on the streets.
“This is a war zone. You are aware of that. If a homeless person calls the police…ain’t
nobody gonna show up,” Tim said.
He scavenges for goods and food in and around the overpass he calls home. When his neighbors are arrested, move into shelters, or pass away, he looks into the goods they collected to help aid his survival.
He recalls how the LAPD arrested a woman who lived in a tent on the other side of the road. Tim described the clutter left behind, filling one lane of traffic and taking over the whole sidewalk.
He found jackets, shoes, food, plastic bags, and crates that he took back home. A liquor store is his source for all of life’s vices. A packet of cigarettes and a small bottle of vodka from the bottom of the shelf slip into his breast and back pocket. A black Cadillac Escalade sits in the parking lot, as loud Hip-Hop music emanates from the speakers. This is where the best weed is sold, according to Tim.
And at the end of the night, like any other night when it is hot or cold, wet or dry, Tim crawls beneath his blankets and grabs a book. With a small flashlight illuminating the dark text, he finishes his read while sipping on the sweet nectar from his back pocket.
In a testament to how different his life was once, Tim spoke about a connection he
once had with a USC Annenberg professor. Details remain unclear. An email to the
professor failed to produce more information; instead the professor alerted campus
authorities out of fear for safety.