Homeless Men of Notorious Skid Row Get Makeovers for New Beginnings

Homelessness encompasses all aspects of culture and every walk of life. It affects everybody.

Cities in every part of the world, both in developed and developing countries, have always been centers for the poverty-stricken to congregate. In America, the severity of those down-and-out on their luck is most prevalent in Los Angeles, where the temperate climate makes it much easier to live outdoors. Other factors contributing to the homeless population include cuts in federal spending and a court-ordered effort by California to shrink its prison population.

Skid Row Living ConditionsImprovised communities of homeless citizens can be found from downtown to West Hollywood, from the streets of South Pasadena to Venice Beach.

Although the number of homeless people dropped off nationally in the past year, it increased immensely in Los Angeles. Los Angeles County’s homeless population rose 15 percent from 2011 to 2013, to 57,737, a total second only to New York City. By contrast, the number of homeless Americans declined six percent since 2010 to 610,042, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Despite great efforts, many people succumb to homelessness somewhere along the 54-block area of squalor and neglect west of the Los Angeles riverbed — stretching from 7th to 3rd streets, and in some places as far as the eye can see. The location? Skid Row, the so-called homeless capital of the US.

In the late 1800s, when the Union Rescue Mission first opened its doors, Skid Row was teeming with directionless rail riders, traveling workers, and those looking to escape from past lives. Los Angeles was also the last train stop in the country, where people would come and attempt to start over with nothing — frequently ending up with little to no resources to stay on their feet, making them vulnerable to the realities of poverty.

Today, thousands are left alone to fend for themselves on the streets, often feeling humiliated and helpless on account of uncontrollable circumstances. Some are there by choice, others involuntarily, a handful are rehabilitating, and others are just trying to remain in the right mind. They wander the streets at night, are found slumped over in wheelchairs, sleeping on sidewalks beneath tarps and inside cardboard shanties. These people are regularly tucked away in places that are easy to forget about — the alleyways, freeway overpasses and tents alongside the street.

Aside from just dealing with the constant pressures of simply finding a place to sleep at night or where their next meal will come from, temptation lurks on every corner. It’s a dangerous place, crawling with drug dealers and gangs that scour the boulevards looking for easy prey. You can regularly spot addicts doing drugs out in the open, even as police patrol the area.

Skid Row

But luckily, there are also helping hands dedicated to offering support for the hopeless and washed up.

The Midnight Mission, a 276-bed downtown safe haven, takes the city’s most vulnerable residents from homeless to hopeful by offering them a “path to self-sufficiency.” They supply the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and personal hygiene needs), offer emergency services, a 12-step recovery program, counseling, a 24/7 heated courtyard, education and work programs, as well as job training and placement. By removing the barriers that often prevent self-sufficiency in these individuals, the Midnight Mission provides a means for those who are experiencing homelessness to rejoin their communities.

For instance, someone who is homeless can obtain a physical address and functioning phone number that they are permitted to use on job applications.

On March 20, 2014, the Midnight Mission partnered with van der Hagen Enterprises and Tyler Barnett Public Relations to hold Skid Row’s “Grooming for Success,” which was an event aimed to give homeless men a clean start.

They selected 80 men, who are currently housed within its quarters, and gave each participant the opportunity to receive a free shave, haircut and take part in mock interviews with a real world business executive. Attendees also received a van der Hagen Luxury Shave Set and safety razor to help ensure they maintain a well-groomed appearance, so that they may make a strong first impression at their next job interview and maintain something they’ve worked so hard for.

When you’re out there just surviving, it’s hard to focus on anything else, let alone a clean shave and a haircut to upkeep a presentable appearance.

And let me tell you, it was an amazing moment to observe how a simple shave and haircut could transform the attitudes of these men. Their reactions to their new looks were incredibly priceless. They went from expressing not more than a mere grin, to appearing both confident and in high spirits.

For the first time in decades, the mission’s pastry chef, Tom Delaney, 53, saw his face. This Irish boy from Chicago has been living at the mission for 15 months and is waiting to hear back on a job opportunity for a position as a banquet chef for a private club.

Shawn McCauley, a gentleman I would have mistaken for a Marine had I passed him on the street, has been living behind the mission’s doors for a little over 90 days, and plans on getting enrolled in school to complete some general education courses.

Isn’t it fascinating how the things we typically take for granted could bring such joy to someone else? In the slideshow above, you can see the transformations for yourself.

While everyday continues to be a challenge, this experience was sort of like a graduation for those that are interested in a complete path to recovery, and a blessing, as these men are on the middle level to becoming self-sufficient.

“What I always tell people is that the Midnight Mission is the safety net,” says Mai Lee, Director of Public Affairs. “The reason why is because these individuals don’t have any other place to go, they can’t go home, and many of them have burned all their bridges. This is a place where those who have been lost come together. We are now the backbone for them. We have a 100 percent employment rate. I always say we’re the safety net because it truly paints a picture for the individuals to have a sense of community, if anything. No one can get back on their feet all alone.”

Homelessness is definitely not an issue that can remain out of sight and out of mind. While many Angelenos believe this is an overwhelming issue that can’t be helped, it’s not one that is going to just go away. People are stuck thinking what they do won’t contribute to the security and comfort of their fellow human beings, but the truth is that there are miracles taking place every single day.

Homelessness on Skid Row

“You just have to witness them, take notice of what’s really going on around you and be involved,” explains Lee. “I’ve seen people sleeping on the sidewalks, living in filth, down and out on their lives, and after they come into our programs, now they have families, they have a home, they work and they are healthy and happy. That’s what we provide for them. All we do is provide the structure and tools to do it themselves. And there’s a sense of accomplishment in that. We aren’t giving someone a hand out, but simply providing a route for someone to become a normal functioning individual. The best part of what we teach is paying it forward. These people will literally go out into the community and volunteer. We have a guy who is employed by Vons and he is their number one volunteer, and he lives in a shelter.”

The Midnight Mission has a long history of being of service to this community, a history that is tied to the growth of Los Angeles. Every time there has been a shift, they have shifted with the changing tides. What started out as a hot meal, haircut, shave and shower (which they still offer today), has in turn become a direct route to the reachable future.

Hopefully, once they are able to land steady jobs, these men (along with the women housed at Midnight Mission) will be capable of leaving their safety net.

If you were to take a moment to look within an underprivileged person’s soul, you would realize that they have a story to tell. And it’s not necessarily the one you’ve been conditioned your entire life to believe.

When we raise our level of compassion and awareness, anything is possible.

For more information, visit the Midnight Mission’s website here.