Street Conversations With the Broken-Down Brigade

He's in a wheelchair, ducking behind a trash can. I step forward to see if he's OK and inadvertently scare him.

Sorry, I say.

"I wet myself," the bearded man tells me. There's a puddle under him on the pavement.

Wheelchairs are everywhere on skid row streets. Shiny and new or old and battered. Motorized or manual. Sometimes, when darkness falls and downtown empties out, wheelchairs own the road.

What kind of country treats its disabled and mentally ill this way?

How can we look the other way when the sick and the lame, the disabled vets and mangled castoffs are sleeping in wheelchairs on trashed and stinking skid row streets?

A couple of years ago, when I noticed the legions for the first time, I was at 6th and Towne. A priest was about to hand out blessings and dollar bills to a flock of hundreds. It looked as though a hospital had shut down and dumped its patients on skid row. Wheelchairs, crutches, walkers.

"God's been good to me," a man named Felix Jones said as he got his money from the priest. Jones had lost two legs to gangrene and was going blind on skid row.

Why the high spirits? I asked.

"I feel good in my heart," he said.

Monday night, I decided to go find 10 people in wheelchairs, one after another, to see how they ended up here. The broken-down brigade.

No. 1: David Shannon, 68

He's on Winston near Los Angeles, hunched comfortably in his chair, a blanket over his head. You quickly learn to sleep like that, he says, when options are limited and rats command the pavement. Next to him, another disabled man is rolling dice with the rodents. He's out of his chair and on the sidewalk, out for the night.

"I got hit by a bus a while back," Shannon says, and it aggravated an injury he suffered in 1957 as a soldier. Life has been no bed of roses, and one bad break after another put him here. "But I guess the old man can take it."

No. 2: Lucille Reid, 56

She's in her chair in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission, hoping to get a bed inside because it's about to rain. A stroke put her in the chair in July. For a while, she and buddy Charles Muldrew, 59, a Vietnam vet, both lived in a single-room-occupancy hotel.

"It was roach-infested," Reid says, so they fled.

While I'm talking to her, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appears. He had called me earlier about a young heroin addict I wrote about in the first part of this series. She died with no veins left for the paramedics to tap. He was also shocked by our story about the Porta-Potties being used as a brothel, just a block away from an LAPD station. He said he wanted to hit the streets with us Monday night.

How could I object? The whole point is to get some attention for the abomination we call skid row. It's like the set of a Third World refugee camp, backlit by the L.A. skyline.


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