As the signposts we call civilization decrease in frequency, cars accelerate.
Speeds rise as storefronts and suits taper off — at the point where the asphalt begins to crack.
From her perch on 6th Street, one of the invisible watches the cars pass by homes that, like hers, were assembled from found objects. Shorty’s floor is nothing more than a slip of fabric over concrete; her roof, a patchwork of tarps, wooden boards and discarded umbrellas. There is no electricity here, no plumbing. She relieves herself in a pot, and throws her waste into the gutter.
After spending the last nine months in El Salvador, and the last several weeks traveling to impoverished areas to deliver aid in the coronavirus era, I was familiar with this kind of landscape.
Only I was no longer in a remote, hilltop village of the rural developing world. I was in Skid Row in the center of downtown Los Angeles — one of the richest cities in the richest country in the world. Three thousand miles from the mountains of El Salvador, people like Shorty persist through strikingly similar conditions — a phenomenon that has reached new depths amid a global pandemic.
“Look at this trash,” said Shorty, one of nearly 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in LA. “This is a lot of filth. People can’t wash their hands.
“This may not be the community that I desire, but it’s a community. We’re still people.”
A week and a half earlier, I had been in El Salvador, hiking into the highland villages surrounding a town called Santiago Nonualco with a local group of organizers.
The highway, en route to the rural department of La Paz, boasts signs reminding drivers to stay home to halt the spread of coronavirus.
But in the country’s agrarian hills, like most repressed corners of the world, the roads change — from paved interstates to rocky thruways to narrow dirt paths connecting homes constructed from bamboo, mud and metal slats. Tamarind trees burst through the thick, tropical jungle, their branches reaching up like flares.
On one Saturday afternoon, Guadelupe Vasquez, flanked by her son and grandson, flipped thick corn tortillas on the comal outside their tin-roofed adobe home.
Though the lack of TVs — through which to pipe the city’s pulse-racing reports — made the virus feel far away, its impact arrived faster to a community that was already living hand-to-mouth and enduring severe water shortages. At the time there were no known cases of COVID-19 in this area, but the government’s draconian response served to cut off access to vital activities such as working the fields, selling wares and traveling into town to buy food.
Like other funds earmarked for the very poor, the promised $300-per-family stipend wasn’t reaching these villages, the populations that needed the help the most. Mandates were made without people like the Vasquezes in mind because without the markers of “civilization” — bank accounts, addresses, salaried jobs, basic utilities — the state doesn’t even know they exist.
Right now, said Coruvera, Vasquez’s son, “we’re eating just one time a day.”
Days later, after leaving El Salvador via an evacuation flight, I was driving into Skid Row, where I have now been reporting for two months. As tents and boarded windows emerged, 6th St. changed — manicured planters replaced by overflowing garbage cans.
The virus can feel far away here, too — masks are rarely worn; social distancing is nonexistent. But in Skid Row, also, the impact arrived early. Many food sources, such as fast food restaurants and organized drives, evaporated. Relied-upon facilities reduced hours or closed altogether. As in El Salvador, where residents in communities long cut off from water sources turn to rivers and distant public taps, those in Skid Row are similarly deprived, sharing woefully few community wash stations, and often resorting to prying open a fire hydrant.
Those who find themselves “off the grid” — that is, devoid of the government services we all rely on — are virtually incapable of receiving the life-changing CARES Act check that is rightfully theirs. I worked with Shorty to fill out the applicable government forms yet, week after week, the mailbox she uses at a nearby organization remains empty.
This failure is nothing new: In the last four years, California has earmarked over $2.7 billion for the homeless community — about 11% of Minnesota’s entire budget for 2020 — yet the population continues to grow. Even if laws are made with people like Shorty in mind, they have failed to reach her, and current coronavirus-inspired efforts largely ignore the fact that the need in communities like these is everlasting.
“COVID?” an activist and Skid Row resident who calls himself CruShow scoffed. “We’ve had tuberculosis, we’ve had Staph, every disease you can think of.
“We’re in a pandemic here 24/7.”
When we consider the world’s most glaring poverty, we often think of a place like El Salvador; of bare feet and stripped-down structures and the smell of open sewers.
But this is not a distant problem in some far-off developing country. It’s a plague that germinates in our own backyards, in the center of our lauded cities; a pandemic that we somehow cruise through and forget.
In Skid Row, on an Saturday, King Pharoah, an R&B artist and Skid Row resident, was setting up a burner to cook for his neighbors. He’s one of the many who sees government funds regularly fail to find their way here, and has worked to organize grassroots solutions in their place.
He looked down San Pedro St., one of the roughly 50 square blocks that compose Skid Row, at the succession of tents erected between accumulating trash. Here, “civility” has largely given up; stopped caring, stopped seeing the faces that dwell in the places where the asphalt cracks.
“It’s apathy,” Pharoah said. “People pass by and stop seeing people as humans.”
As cars emerged on the horizon, they accelerated.
“And the community still lives like this.”
Amelia Rayno is a former Star Tribune journalist at work filming a docuseries project exploring food, culture and U.S. imperialism. Reach her at ameliarayno.com or on Instagram: @ameliarayno.