warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Sonder: Voices Of Skid Row

Jason Cheng |
November 23, 2014 | 11:22 a.m. PST




n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness

Take a few steps down Skid Row at night and you immediately realize that you’re not at home anymore.

The stench of urine, human feces and garbage rushes over you like a wave reeking of frustration, fear and broken dreams. You can’t help but notice the incapacitated man lying on the road with a drug needle in hand. Neither can you avoid noticing people’s entire lives stuffed into a single shopping cart.

For many USC students, Skid Row is a faraway land that gobbles up free sandwiches as quickly as it begs for new ones. It is viewed as a collective mass of poverty, homelessness and deadly crime that garners more apprehension than empathy. In other words, it’s too big of a problem to handle.

As an international student, I never expected Los Angeles, the celebrity mecca and hub of all things sensational, to also house one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. Neither did I expect the district to be only minutes away from USC.

However, I, like many of my peers, remained apathetic to the destitution and heartbreak in Skid Row. I pretended not to see the homeless men and women walking around outside campus, and every night, I snuggled under my blanket, comforted to know that I was protected from the darkness beyond those iron gates.

Despite my indifference to Skid Row, life looked me in the eye and decided that I was to change. As a Christian, I had been involved in an on-campus fellowship and it was during spring break of my freshmen year when I felt something inside urging me to participate in the Los Angeles Urban Project. Whether it was the fact that I wasn’t going to Cabo for spring break or that I had read Spider Man’s famous quote one too many times, I decided to give Skid Row a shot.

READ MORE: No Room At The Table: America's Bans On Feeding The Homeless

On a bright Sunday morning following several days of social justice education, our group went down to Skid Row to volunteer at a homeless church service. Frankly, I was very nervous, as my experiences with church were limited to interactions with people of a similar social stratum. However, during set-up time, I mustered up the courage to strike up a conversation with a middle-aged homeless man sitting next to our table. To my surprise, he told me a fascinating story of his experiences traveling to Europe and Asia with an international basketball team. It was at that moment when I realized that there were people there who were more than just homeless and deserved to have their stories told. They deserved to be both seen and heard.

"Sonder: Voices of Skid Row" is my attempt to give a voice to the individuals of the largest homeless area in the nation. By documenting the lives of those who are marginalized and left behind by society, I hope this collection will inspire and empower others to overcome their obstacles and live a life of dignity and meaning.

I’m not going to lie. Skid Row is not a pretty place. It is dangerous, dirty and frankly, intimidating. Stories of sorrow, pain and loss are everywhere. But I hope you trust me when I tell you that flowers bloom in dark rooms, especially in Skid Row. Injustice and brutality take place every day and every night, but there are humans there with stories of triumph and accomplishment. This is truly a m.A.A.d city, but I hope that all of you can join us on this journey and be inspired to give the next person you see lying on the side of the road a second thought.

After all, they’re human too.

Read more "Sonder: Voices of Skid Row" or like it on Facebook.

Contact Columnist Jason Cheng here; or follow him on Twitter.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.