Walk through Los Angeles's Skid Row and you'll find tarps, trash, and hundreds of tents covering the sidewalks. The 54-block area of downtown, home to the nation's largest concentration of homeless people, is populated with thousands crammed into overcrowded shelters or sleeping in tents or makeshift shelters. It's an area most Angelenos avoid, with a reputation for crime, violence, and drug use. But this weekend, all of that changed as nearly 2,000 volunteers transformed one block of the rundown area into a carnival—the third annual Skid Row Carnival of Love.
The Skid Row Carnival of Love is the brainchild of actor Justin Baldoni, best known for his role on the CW's Jane the Virgin. Before his CW days, Baldoni would spend his birthday handing out meals on Skid Row. His newfound fame provided the opportunity to expand his passion project.
"What I wanted to do with [this platform] was create a way to give back and create a community that was galvanized to make positive change in the world," Baldoni told me. "Nobody just goes down [to Skid Row] and says, 'Hey we love you, let's just celebrate you.' Nobody goes down there and just has a party for them."
This year, an estimated 4,000 homeless people poured into the festival, where they were offered a gourmet meal, free clothes, and spa services, like foot baths and haircuts. There were also a dozen tables stacked with donated items and giant bags filled with everything from toothpaste to tampons to clothing to children's toys.
For four hours, children got their faces painted and jumped in a bounce house. Families played carnival games and watched performances from a local dance troupe. There was a DJ and 30 professional entertainers, whose sole job was to get people dancing.
Which begs the question: Is a blow-out carnival once a year the right way to deal with homelessness?
More than 43,000 homeless people live in LA County with 4,700 of them living downtown, the area that encompasses Skid Row, according to the Department of Urban Housing and Development's 2016 One Night Count of homelessness. LA also has the highest number of chronically homeless people in the country, with that figure increasing by 5 percent from 2015 to 2016, from 12,356 people to 12,970.
While the homeless community often receives attention around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Skid Row is largely underserved the rest of the year, and parties are certainly rare. Baldoni believes that events like the Skid Row Carnival of Love can start to fill that gap, if only to say to the homeless community, "We haven't forgotten about you."
"I believe we can, to a certain extent, drastically impact the homeless population on Skid Row simply by showing up and loving one another," Baldoni told me. "That sounds utopian, but if you mix that love with concrete, real services and opportunities, then you can actually solve a big problem."
This year, the carnival doubled in size and also expanded to include more practical services like medical testing, mental health screening, legal assistance, and résumé-building stations. But volunteers told me that, halfway through the carnival, only about a dozen people had participated in the résumé-building station. The tables filled with practical items like clothes and blankets were cleaned out, but the medical tents were practically empty.
That could be because higher-level needs—like holding down a job or confronting mental health problems—can be challenging without having a safe place to sleep at night. Many cities and states that have found the most success in reducing their homeless populations have implemented a "housing-first" model, which puts homeless people into permanent homes first and address the issues that led to their homelessness second.
Both Virginia and Connecticut implemented housing-first models and successfully ended homelessness among veterans in 2015 and 2016 respectively. More than a dozen cities, including New Orleans, Houston, and Las Vegas, have found similar success in reducing their homeless populations through the housing-first approach.
Los Angeles also supports the housing-first philosophy, but with the one of the largest populations of homeless people in country, getting people off the streets into permanent homes requires more resources. In November, Los Angeles residents voted in support of Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to build upward of 10,000 units for the city's homeless population.
Jonathan Dawkins, a 47-year-old Skid Row resident, believes finding permanent supportive housing is exactly what he needs to begin turning his life around. Dawkins had been living on the streets for one year following his release from prison and considered the Skid Row Carnival a great way to celebrate his last official day of being homeless. The next day, he moved into a single apartment through a supportive-housing organization, Brilliant Corners.
"I've never been in a place this small, but I'm not begrudging it," said Dawkins. He said having an apartment will enable him to go back to school and get involved with AIDS- and HIV-outreach programs in his community.
"I couldn't do all of that living in a shelter," Dawkins told me. "I'm going to be getting online and working."
In practical terms, the carnival had plenty to offer Dawkins: He was able to get a free California State ID and pick up some white button-down shirts for work. Clothing was the main draw of the carnival for Coco and her mother, Marcella, who have been living on Skid Row on and off for 30 years. (They declined to give their last names due to privacy concerns.) But Marcella told me she noticed people taking more than they needed from the donations table and then trying to sell things after they left the carnival.
"Two blocks from here, they was trying to sell us the blankets," Marcella told me. "If there's not control in the situation, it's a disaster, every time."
Even still, Marcella and Coco told me they appreciated what the carnival offered beyond tangible items. "Y'all changed the atmosphere. It's always negative and dysfunction," Marcella said.
"Right now," Coco added, "there's a lot of love and happiness."
That, Baldoni said, is exactly the point.
"If they can love, if they can feel hope again, then maybe they can get off the street on their own," he told me. "We don't know yet what is possible."
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