life on the streets in the city of angels

Beneath the glamour of Hollywood lies Skid Row, an area that contains more homeless people than any other in the US.

07 December 2015, 3:50pm

In the summer of 2007, photographer Désirée van Hoek decided to spend her holidays in Los Angeles. After a chance encounter with a homeless family living in an alleyway behind her apartment block, the photographer began to search out the city's homeless enclaves. Because whilst LA might call to mind the glitter and glamour of Hollywood, the city is also home to some of America's most deprived communities. This is most famously encapsulated in Skid Row, in Downtown LA, an area that contains up to 6,000 homeless people by some estimates, and where 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

These are people struggling with drug addiction or psychological problems, or just down on their luck and stuck on the streets in a cycle they can't out of, they all end up on Skid Row, an area that's become synonymous with poverty. But Désirée discovered that there's much more to Skid Row than you might otherwise imagine. She visited the neighbourhood six times, got close with the inhabitants and fell for a community that is misunderstood by many and ignored by most everyone else.

Each year she goes back to LA to photograph the changing faces and places of Skid Row, a collection of images that she recently brought together in her photobook. i-D spoke her about her intriguing story about the special, diverse and lively community of Skid Row.

Where did the idea come from?
I was in Los Angeles staying in an apartment in Hollywood. There was this small alley next to my apartment, and I discovered that there was a family living there: a man, a woman and I assume also children, because there were toys everywhere. When they were away, a fire broke out in the alley. I saw how hopeless they were as soon as they returned, they had lost everything they possessed. But what I found most shocking is that nobody seemed to care. It was as if they thought 'good riddance'. I found the whole thing incredibly cruel.

I discovered more and more similar places throughout LA. On Sunset Boulevard, I met a man who had built himself a little house out of stuff he had found. He furnished it to make it his own: he decorated it with a lamp and a skateboard.

Then one day somebody asked me if I had ever been to Skid Row. I didn't even know where it was. I was shocked by what I saw. It's crazy that this can happen in such the richest country in the world.

Would you say that Los Angeles is inaccurately associated with glamour and wealth?
Only a small part of Los Angeles is glamorous and wealthy. To me, it felt like I was visiting a developing country.

How did you get started photographing on Skid Row?
I didn't want to start photographing when I first visited, because I thought that was inappropriate towards the people. Firstly, I spent a lot of time in the area without my camera to get in touch with the people. I wanted to talk to them and build up trust. Sometimes it was hard, because people were often suspicious. But then I met a man who was a political activist. He had a tattoo in his neck with 'black power', he is also in the book. I spent a lot of time with him, and he told me everything about the area. I met a lot of people through him, and the inhabitants discovered that I could be trusted. At that moment, I was also making a report for Amnesty International. The people knew the organisation, which meant they trusted me more. They were often happy to share their story.

What were you doing for Amnesty International?
The people who live on Skid Row mounted a legal challenge against the city council of Los Angeles. The streets are often cleaned entirely, and people's properties are seen as garbage. Not everything that's on the streets is garbage, these are items that are of great value for the people who live there. The legal challenge was successful and I made a report on the whole process.

How do the people treat each other on Skid Row?
It's a real community. Many people end up on Skid Row because they went through a hard time. They also call it the "elephant graveyard," a place where all hope is lost. This goes for many people in the neighbourhood - people actually die on the streets - but there are also many social workers who help the people detox and get their life back on track. Those social workers stay in a little apartments in the area, and often don't want to leave anymore. I can relate to that. Although LA felt like a hard and impersonal city, Skid Row was warm and friendly, people care for each other there.

How did the people react if you asked if you could take their photo?
It varied from one person to another. A lot of people didn't want me to capture them, which I can understand. Other people loved to pose for me, but started making faces and acting funny. I was looking for people who stayed true to themselves. My aim is always to capture people as naturally as possible. If I photograph someone smiling, I want to capture a smile that is honest and real.

Is there a lot of crime on the streets?
Many addicts live on the streets, so there is a lot of drug dealing. That is why the police are always patrolling the area. At the same time, the police want to keep the people off the streets, so they lock people up for insignificant crimes like jaywalking. They can intervene in a very aggressive way, this is because of the location of the neighbourhood. Skid Row lies in downtown Los Angeles, which is actually a wonderful area with a rich history that is continuously being renovated and recovered. But if the area is dominated by homeless people, the houses won't be sold. Therefore the police try to keep as many people as possible off the streets to improve the image of the area.

But you can't keep people off the streets forever like this, right?
No, you just relocate the problem to other neighbourhoods. Homelessness has been a fact for years in Los Angeles. It is a difficult problem that cannot be solved easily. Sometimes, the situation seems to improve, sometimes it feels like it's getting worse again.

How do people create shelters there?
In a lot of ways and with any materials and items they can lay their hands on. Most people sleep on cardboard, so that they will be warm during the nights. You also see a lot of people who put up their own tents. The city council does not always allow this, one year it is legal to sleep in a tent, the next year it is prohibited again. There are always rules. For example, tents have to be broken down and packed up at 6AM, and are not allowed to be set up again before 9PM. They keep on changing the rules.

I love the picture of the woman with all the necklaces...
I don't know a lot about her, but she touched me with the way she came across; she was so proud. She passed by when I was talking to some inhabitants. I thought she looked lovely with her collection of clothing and jewellery, and I asked if I could take her picture. "Of course" she said, "Will my picture be in some kind of gallery?" That was the first and last time I saw her.

What's the beauty of Skid Row to you?
In the power of the people, but also in their humour. It is a warm, friendly community that tries to make the best out of it. I think that's wonderful.

Are you going back?
Absolutely. There are many people that I see every year I visit Skid Row, and they tell me, "We've got history now!"

Skid Row door Désirée van Hoek is nu hier verkrijgbaar.


Text Ruby Cruden
Photography Désirée van Hoek