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As she tells it, Detroit was practically dead for two days, passed out on the sidewalk of Skid Row. She remembers ingesting some kind of drug—it could have been crack, powder cocaine, or meth. She wasn’t picky when it came to getting high.
She doesn’t remember much from the moment she curled up on the hard concrete with a blanket till the moment someone shook her shoulder and said, “Detroit, it’s been storming. Did you know?” That person tried to lift the blanket off her, and Detroit remembers snarling, “Leave me the [obscenity] alone!” Snatching the blanket back over her head, she heard a loud, wet, heavy whoooosh as the rain-soaked blanket fell and hit the ground with a thud.
That’s when she came to her senses. She remembers peering out with dazed eyes and thinking, What have I done? It hit her mentally that she was lying on the streets smelling like a wet, decomposing dog: “I realized then how out of it I was. I was dead. I was spiritually gone.”
She felt a wetness under her eye, and was surprised to realize she was crying. She almost never cried, at least not for herself. She never prayed for herself either, although she prayed constantly for others. She thought she wasn’t worth praying for, nor did she know what to say to God. But at that moment, for the first time in a long while, she prayed for herself: “God, I just ask for one thing: I need some peace. That’s all I want.” Then she picked herself up from the ground.
That was 12 years ago. Detroit is now 10 years sober, housed, and carefully groomed with bright-colored fingernails and flat-ironed hair. I met her three months ago while reporting on a story in South Los Angeles, where she lives in a small apartment on a Section 8 voucher. Since then, she and I have met every month for coffee and cake to talk about homelessness and racial issues. As a 56-year-old black woman living on and off Skid Row since 1981, Detroit has a wealth of wisdom and stories from decades of suffering, grief, and grit—but she doesn’t like that I call it “wisdom.”
“It’s not really wisdom, it’s just experience,” Detroit once told me when I called her wise. In fact, she thinks she earned that “experience” through much foolishness: “It’s like a child who touched the hot stove and learned she should never touch it again.”
Experience, foolishness, wisdom—whatever you call it, Detroit has a lot to say about homelessness. And each time, she expresses frustration and grief about what’s happening in homelessness. Or rather, what’s not happening. She still has friends who are homeless or are on the verge of becoming homeless again, and she doesn’t think many so-called “experts” in the field actually speak for people like her and them.
Among activists, nonprofits, and government officials, the dominant narrative about homelessness today is that it’s a housing crisis issue. There’s some truth to that: In LA, soaring rent prices are pushing people out of homes. One apartment complex I know of in west LA recently tripled its monthly rent, which means almost every tenant will be forced to move and test his luck in an already overpriced, overcrowded housing market: Who can afford to pay $3,000 a month for a 750-square-foot unit?
Detroit, for example, has just heard from her landlord that her rent will soon double, and she’s worried that after two years of housing, she’s going to be back out on the streets. The lack of affordable housing didn’t push her into homelessness, but it is making it very hard for formerly homeless people and low-income people to stay housed.
Homelessness is so hard to solve because it’s both an individual and systemic problem. But we can’t forget the individual. The homelessness I see in Los Angeles is incredibly varied—everyone has a different story of how they went from “housed” to “unhoused,” but none talk only about housing when they tell that story.
One thing Detroit repeatedly tells me: “People fall into homelessness when they lack something in one or two or all of these three things: spiritual, mental, or physical health. People say we’re homeless because we don’t have housing. That’s not true. Homelessness and housing are two separate issues.” That was true for every homeless individual I met on the streets: Typically, there’s a complex combination of trauma, mental illness, substance abuse, poverty, and lack of social support that both push and keep people in chronic homelessness.
“People fall into homelessness when they lack something in one or two or all of these three things: spiritual, mental, or physical health.” —Detroit
For Detroit, homelessness began with a mental and spiritual issue. Since age 15, she had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. At age 18, she voluntarily entered a mental hospital, but that hospital closed down after President Ronald Reagan cut funding to state mental health programs, and Detroit was out on the streets with nowhere to go.
It wasn’t that she had no one to turn to. Throughout her 38 years living on and off the streets, she at times would show up at the doorstep of a family member who reluctantly took her in until she wandered back to Skid Row: “It’s not true that most of us don’t have anywhere to go. It’s just that we don’t know where to go in our mind, where to go that’s safe—safe from ourselves.”
And so, operating out of a spiritual and mental dysfunction, she stayed stuck in physical impoverishment year after year, until 12 years ago when, finally feeling so deep in a pit that she couldn’t crawl out without supernatural help, she cried out to God. She had tried asking for help from psychiatric hospitals. She had tried every drug she could get on the streets. She had tried getting help from family members. “I had tried everything,” Detroit told me, “but I didn’t try God.”
So that day 12 years ago on the sidewalk of Skid Row, soaked and shivering from a storm, Detroit thought for the first time, “This is something for the spirit. My spirit is dead and my flesh is weak.”
Spiritual guidance and healing—that’s something no number of supportive housing units or emergency shelters or government programs can give. Though they might address many facets of homelessness, such as mental issues and housing and even community, they really don’t provide much care for the individual’s soul and spirit.
But think about someone like Detroit, lying half-dead under the storm in a neighborhood built entirely around services for the homeless. Give her a key to a house, and she might have a roof over her head, but in her own words, she would still function out of spiritual and mental deadness: “The spirit is like your heart, and if your heart’s not beating—baby, you dead!”