Written by Greg Barbrick
I guess that every major city in America has a “skid row,” but none can compare to the one in Los Angeles. The area covers 50 city blocks, and is home to over 10,000 homeless people. The newly released DVD Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home takes a look a L.A.’s skid row, and it is an eye-opening movie to say the least.
In Lost Angels, filmmaker Thomas Q. Napper and narrator Catherine Keener take us inside the lives of the people who live on the streets. Everyone has a story, and some of these stories are just heartbreaking. The first person we meet is Danny Harris. He is a tall, black man who looks like he is in great shape. As we discover at the tail-end of the movie, he is doing well today, but that was not the case for many years.
Harris won a silver medal in track at the 1984 Olympics for running the 400m hurdles. Then in 1988, he discovered crack. As he fell deeper and deeper into addiction, he lost everything and wound up on the street. He has since cleaned up, and through his eyes we come to meet many of the people he knew back in the day, most of whom are still out there.
The part of the film that really got my attention was the discussion of the mentally ill. Addiction is one thing, and the argument can be made that these people “chose” their circumstances. No such argument can be made about those who are mentally ill though. As the founder of the homeless advocacy group Lamp Community, Mollie Lowrey says, “In the 1980s, the decision was made not to hospitalize, but to criminalize the mentally ill.”
It is very clear that a great many of the people we meet in the movie are unbalanced. Some of them are fortunate enough to have “protectors,” but they are in the minority. Most are just fending for themselves. One incredible statistic mentioned is that the L.A. County Jail is now the de facto largest mental institution in the nation.
Police Chief William Bratton made his name in New York City by instituting the “broken windows” policy. The idea was that if petty crimes such as jaywalking and littering were heavily enforced, there would be a “trickle-down” effect on bigger crimes. It is an interesting idea, but in practice, what it does is criminalize marginal, homeless people. He brought this policy to Los Angeles when he became police chief there, and it would be comical, if not so misguided and painful for so many. When I saw a guy in the back of the cop car yelling out that he was arrested for sitting on a milk crate, I did not believe it. But the arresting officer confirmed that the man was being held for “possession of stolen property,” which was indeed the milk crate.
The lives of the people in Lost Angels are mostly very sad, but there are a few bright spots. The previously mentioned Danny Harris did clean up and is now an assistant coach at Iowa State University. Nobody else has reached such peaks, but for many of them, just getting sober has led to new and much better lives.
One of the big heroes in Lost Angels is the Lamp group, who advocate for and provide some housing for the homeless. Lost Angels is not what one would call a “feel-good” film, but some people’s lives have improved by the end of the 80-minute feature. I think it provides a very important glimpse into a world that many of us avoid. Frankly, the skid row area of my hometown is dangerous and is a place I rarely go to. Understanding the reasons behind the behaviors of the residents may not make the streets any safer, but it does shed some light on the situation.
Cinema Libre never shies away from controversial subjects, and the documentaries they release are particularly thought-provoking. Lost Angels is no exception and is a movie which will probably lead to more questions than it answers. It is about as brutal an examination of life on the streets as I have seen, yet highly compelling. Thanks to Napper and Keener for showing us scenes of a world most of us hope to never live in. If nothing else, Lost Angels may make you stop and think a bit, while hurriedly driving through your town’s skid row.