Last week, I joined California Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox on a walk with Los Angeles police through Skid Row—a 50-block mini dystopia in downtown LA with one of the highest concentrations of homelessness and crime in the United States.
The event took place because an ordinary volunteer had asked Cox to learn more about the on-the-ground realities of homelessness, and LAPD Officer Deon Joseph had agreed to take him around. Joseph told me that to his knowledge, no major political candidate has ever made such a visit to Skid Row before.
That grabbed my attention. Homelessness is a major social, political, economic, and humanitarian issue in California. The rate of homelessness has skyrocketed in the state, and in LA it increased 75 percent in six years. Neither of the leading candidates for governor had offered specific policy solutions, and now here was a wealthy Republican businessman volunteering to visit the most extreme conditions of poverty.
So on a Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at the LAPD Central Community Police Station, not really knowing what to expect. But as soon as I saw the row of media vans parked outside, I groaned: This wasn’t going to be about homelessness anymore.
I was right. As soon as Cox walked out of the police station with some police officers, reporters surrounded him with cameras and microphones, many throwing out questions that had nothing to do with Skid Row or homelessness. Click, click, went the cameras. I ducked my head a few times to avoid the massive video cameras swinging around, and we stepped on each other’s toes trying to get closer to Cox.
As soon as Cox walked out of the police station with some police officers, reporters surrounded him with cameras and microphones.
One reporter yell out something about the proposed construction of the high-speed rail system (now projected to cost up to $98 billion). Another asked what Cox thought about a recent poll showing him 13 points behind Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom, the current lieutenant governor of California and former San Francisco mayor. (Another recent poll shows Newsom with an 8-point lead.) The first reporter was still persisting about bullet trains (“But the train!” she yelled) when a yet another reporter drowned her out.
One young female reporter asked about Cox’s impressions of Skid Row. Cox mentioned the recent typhus and hepatitis A outbreaks in the area. “What are the people here to do to get some resources around here?” he exclaimed, throwing his hands up. “How do people live here? It’s just—it’s just …” At a loss for words, he looked aghast at the tents, litter, and human bodies all around us.
The train-obsessed reporter dogged on: “The bullet train was a voter-approved proposition. You seem to suggest that we take the money from the bullet train and put it here [to Skid Row], which I believe we didn’t agree with.”
Then one reporter cried out, with a tone of accusation, “Mr. Cox, you’ve been endorsed by Trump!” Cox’s campaign manager stepped in: “All right, let’s continue moving.”
I should have expected a media spectacle. A long-shot candidate, especially a Republican running in an extremely blue state, would be desperate for press coverage of an event like this. People stereotype conservatives as unsympathetic to minorities and the poor, so it looks good for him to be seen with the poorest, dirtiest, most neglected population in the state. But he was also taking a gamble: The media will report what they want to report, which may not be the narrative he desires.
Scurrying after Cox through Skid Row, I began to feel I was wasting my time. The media irked me, and I got even more annoyed thinking about how I was also part of that annoying media. On Skid Row, we had become the event, the grand media parade—and people stared at us as we passed by with our notebooks and equipment and questions. Periodically, someone screamed vulgarities at us.
Joseph, of course, had seen them all. As he walked with Cox, he pointed out spots of crime and violence: “This guy got stabbed in the neck four times there. ... There are many stories that I won’t be able to break from my mind when I retire.” Joseph talked about how Skid Row leaves its residents in a spiral of addiction, about rampant drug and human trafficking, about the viral diseases that break out due to lack of hygienic services. Cox listened, frowned, tutted, and murmured.
Then from the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a black shirt roll his bicycle over. As he watched the commotion, a look of exasperation flickered on his face. “What are you going to do different from your predecessors?” he called out, repeating his question more loudly until somebody heard him. A reporter finally called out to Cox, “Mr. Cox, this gentleman has a question!”
Cox turned around and walked back to the man, who identified himself as James Brown, age 48, a Skid Row resident for almost three years. Brown repeated his question, and Cox promised to reallocate misused funds from “special interest” projects to people who have substance and alcohol abuse and mental illness. He then talked about nonprofits he visited that are helping the homeless get education, jobs, and a real life.
“What about healing the wounds that they have?” Brown said. “Education alone just ain’t going to do it.”
Cox said, “You’re right—that’s why you have to get them off substances.”
“Well, it’s not just about substances,” Brown protested. “Some of them are abused and neglected and …”
“No question about it,” Cox replied. He said he too came from a troubled childhood. His father walked out on his family: “I struggled, but I had support and help. The people here need support and help. They don’t need money handed out to them. They don’t need just rhetoric, they need actual help.” His voice turned passionate: “We ought to get these people back into society. We’re having just so much ... waste of human potential sitting around here.”
The group then moved on, but I and a couple of other reporters stayed behind to ask Brown what he felt about Cox. Brown shrugged: “Politicians, how do they really feel? They say one thing, but what is their main objective? ... Don’t just walk through here and wave.”
I then asked Brown what he felt the current leaders weren’t doing.
He sighed: “They’re giving out money. Don’t hand them money and housing, hand them hope. If you’re just giving them free things, you’re stymieing them. … You’re taking their hope away. Give them something else, make them want to believe in themselves.”
“But what does hope look like?” I asked.
“Hope looks like you can achieve something, that you’re making grounds,” Brown said.