LOS ANGELES – On the corner of 6th and Crocker in downtown Los Angeles, in a neighborhood the politicians call Central City East but the residents know as Skid Row, the backs of our throats were coated in disinfectant vapors. These came from the tanker trucks inching along the curb, and the hoses waved by men in hazmat suits whose task it was to wash away the needles, condoms, human waste and whatever else had fallen into the gutter over so many cold, desperate nights.
The denizens of those gutters stood nearby. They seemed unmoved by the city's effort to power-spray and freshen their stained and weary corner. They held sacks and backpacks and watched the plodding truck, its guardians and rubbery tentacles. They leaned against shopping carts whose contents – blankets, recyclable bottles and clothes, but hardly any food – were piled to overhead. The odor and taste of the decontaminant, and whatever it was that was building in the backs of throats, they couldn't bother with that.
By last count, more than 4,000 people lived on Skid Row's streets, hidden in its alleys, leaning against its tired buildings, in a 4-by-10 foot block plot. On a morning in mid-June, maybe a couple dozen were on the corner of 6th and Crocker, watching the truck and waiting on the vans that would roll down from a hilltop in nearby Echo Park, bringing hot food, fresh fruit and water.
This is the contradiction that is Skid Row. The streets were clean. The people wore last week's stench, last week's hunger.
It doesn't end there, either. In fact, if one were to gather all the inconsistencies of Skid Row and pile them in the gutter, the city would need a lot more trucks.
Josh Lindblom hoisted two boxes of oranges from a white van that had seen some hard miles. "Dream Center" was written across its side. After lugging a few more boxes through the poor and homeless gathered expectantly near two folding tables, Josh said to me, "You want to take a walk?"
Josh, 25, was there as a volunteer. So was his wife, Aurielle. Raised in West Lafayette, Ind., having met in high school, they'd moved to Pasadena, Calif., just a few months earlier, when Josh landed a job in the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen. He is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, throws a 94-mph fastball, hadn't shaved that morning, and wore a T-shirt that hyped the L.A. Kings' Stanley Cup championship. He has a luggish quality about him, friendly unless provoked. Aurielle is small and blonde with sparkling blue eyes and perfectly red toenails.
Josh headed up East 6th Street. I followed. The smell made me long for the bleach cloud billowing behind us.
"It's not God who has failed us, it's us who have failed all these people," Josh said. "They're just family members who've fallen on hard times."
He stopped in front of a middle-aged woman who appeared to have spent a sleepless night where she stood. Her expression demanded, "What?"
"Hi, I'm Josh," he said. "What's your name?"
"If you're hungry, we're serving hot breakfast down on the corner there," he said, pointing toward what was turning into a crowd.
"OK, well, there's eggs and fruit and water and stuff," he said. "God bless."
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We continued up the block. A man smiled, offered his name and hand, and thanked Josh for the news.
"The first time we came down here," Josh said, "I was pretty scared."
He'd lost track of Aurielle for a while that first morning, and a couple men had told him to get lost, and another had wanted money or otherwise requested he take that sorry-ass hi-I'm-Josh-act and get out of his damn face.
"One guy, he was in a wheelchair," Josh said. "He said he couldn't go for food because he'd lose his spot on the sidewalk. When I asked if I could pray for him, he said, 'Pray for my next breath. Pray that I see another sunrise.' Man, everybody has a story."
As we turned right on South San Pedro Street, the middle-aged woman who hadn't spoken watched us go, peeked again over her shoulder, and shuffled toward a warm breakfast.
Ahead, a young man held open a briefcase at about chest-high. Three other men looked over the contents. They haggled over the prices, came to an agreement, and made the exchange. The three men walked away with one lighter, one pipe and three hits of crack cocaine.
On South San Pedro, a black-and-white police car passed at barely more than an idle.
The Dream Center is a massive complex on a hill a few minutes from Dodger Stadium and a little farther from downtown. Once a hospital, the structure, its grounds, the people and the guiding principles tend to a list of formidable ailments: drugs, gangs, orphans, homeless, trafficked women, shattered families and lost souls.
They pass in groups, moving from breakfast to chores, from school to church service, from what they were to what they hope they can be. At the very least, to what others hope they can be.
Among them was Patrick, a light-skinned African-American with eyes the color of cobalt. Growing up, he said, he'd been shunned by whites for the color of his skin and distrusted by blacks for the color of his eyes. Left alone, he turned to drugs and violence, did time and lost a family that included four daughters. Here, he said, he'd found acceptance from those seeking a similar path. He'd found his peace in the Dream Center's nurturing and rigid program. For Father's Day, he would have 15 visitors, including his daughters, he said, "The lights of my life."
"I was a hard man," he said. "Now I'm clean. I'm happy. I didn't know I could be. I cry all the time now."
Founded 19 years ago by Tommy Barnett and his son, Matthew, the Dream Center – at its heart a Christian mission – rose from Matthew's idea to take in one homeless man in the spare room of his apartment. Today, 650 people live in a sprawling complex. By the end of the year, when renovations to the main building are complete, there will be room for 350 more.
Standing on the roof during the afternoon, Pastor Matthew could look through the haze to see downtown to his right and the light stanchions of Dodger Stadium to his left. Far below, a line of men, women, boys and girls soldiered through their day. Those that make it, they rehabilitate here for a year, sometimes longer. Many return as volunteers, staff members, even pastors.
"It's been finding a need and filling it," Pastor Matthew said. "Healing it. The need has kind of dictated the call."
Josh Lindblom had listened to Pastor Matthew on his car radio. He'd never heard of the Dream Center, never heard of Matthew Barnett, never heard of any of this.
"But he was screaming at me," Josh said.
When he got home, he researched the man and his mission, and discovered both were mere blocks from Dodger Stadium. He told Aurielle. Then they showed up and asked what they could do. Josh makes frequent trips to Skid Row. Aurielle helps with the families on-site, or travels into the community to provide bedding, food and services. Down on 6th and Crocker, while Josh walked the neighborhood, Aurielle served scrambled eggs to hundreds.
"He's living out his dream," Aurielle said, nodding to Josh, meaning the baseball. "We thought we should use it for good. You know, you can only live for yourself for so long.
"It's making him – both of us – realize there's so much more to life than his baseball career. I can just tell, even if he doesn't do as well as he'd like, he knows it's OK, that it's just a game."
Together they recently held the official launch of the Josh Lindblom Foundation, which already had done charitable work in West Lafayette. The night before, they'd hosted 500 people from Dream Center at Dodger Stadium for a game in which Josh pitched a scoreless inning.
So, as Josh walked the grounds at Dream Center, he'd hear it from the residents.
"Good game, Josh!"
"Nice one-two-three inning, Josh!"
"They shoulda kept you in, man! That was a W!"
Josh would wave and laugh. "Thanks," he'd say. "You have a good time? How you doing?"
They'd smile at the Dodger among them and tell him they were good, you know, hangin' in there. That life was good. Later, a hundred or more of the residents would sing Happy Birthday to Josh, who'd hold up his hand in thanks.
"I would call it an obsession of serving," Pastor Matthew said of Josh and Aurielle. "This is a journey here. When people come along on the journey, it's a spark. Josh is like a hero here. I've never quite seen anybody who's come into our world like him."
Michael, a powerfully built man who was coming up on a year at Dream Center, stopped and gave Josh a rough hug. He'd been dropped here in handcuffs going on a year ago, he said, "Right over there."
Dragged in against the will of his anger and the crack cocaine, Michael said he was about to re-up for another year, that one day they'd have to drag him out.
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"My thinking has changed," he said. "My heart's changed. It's integrity. That's a powerful word to use here, what you do when nobody's looking. It's true humility, bro."
Beside him, Josh smiled. Michael smiled back.
"We learn that love really exists," he said. "Most of us come from places that don't know love."
I asked him if he felt forgotten here, in this place up on a hill, where from any window he could see the rest of the world going on.
"I don't feel forgotten at all," he said. "I feel like my mother can sleep at night knowing where I'm at. That love that you have here? It's like an oasis."
Someday, Michael said, he'd leave Dream Center. Try life again, outside the oasis.
"I'm not saying I'm ready yet," he said. "But I'm on the right path."
We met Charles in front of a Laundromat on South San Pedro. He was 24, from St. Louis, and had driven with his uncle to Los Angeles. Now his uncle was gone and so was his money. He had a bed down the block at the Union Rescue Mission for a few more nights, but didn't know after that.
"Out here is not where it's at," Charles said. "Everybody's on drugs and I ain't into drugs."
He said it had been a few days anyway.
Besides, he said, he couldn't just go back to St. Louis, not like this. He carried his important belongings in a backpack, hunching his shoulders against its weight. His eyes were half-closed, his clothes beginning to show the wear of the streets.
"I wanna show my mom I can do it on my own," he said. "She doesn't have to keep picking me up."
Josh put a hand on Charles' shoulder.
"Ever heard of the Dream Center?" Josh asked.
On the way back to 6th and Crocker, we'd become three. We navigated the clusters of men and women who had nowhere to be, other than here, which was pretty close to nowhere.
"Hi, I'm Josh," Josh would say, and Charles and I would walk ahead. Charles had played basketball and football in high school, and was pulling for the Miami Heat.
"For LeBron," he said. "He deserves it."
We returned to the corner towing a few more appetites. A man stood in line strumming a guitar. Trey Hillman, the Dodgers' bench coach, leaned over the man's shoulder and bobbed his head. Another sat on the curb with his breakfast, his legs stretched out before him. He had no shoes. His socks were torn. His feet were purple and swollen. A Dream Center volunteer named Joe asked the man for his shoe size. Joe nodded, untied his sneakers and handed them to the man.
"The coolest thing for me is it's all unconditional," Hillman said. "Love people for what they are and not what you think they should be. They want to feel like somebody cares."
The people on the corner, they wouldn't know Josh Lindblom from the guy behind the liquor store counter. He's some white dude in a Kings T-shirt, pleasant enough, probably not a cop, certainly not from around here, and says "God bless" a lot, so just part of the daily contradiction here.
In that way, he's like the seemingly destitute old man who walked up to measure the commotion, turned down a banana because he hates potassium, then announced what a wonderful day it was.
"Wanna know why?" he asked.
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His hand disappeared into his coat pocket and came out with a fistful of hundred-dollar bills.
"Yes," he said, "a wonderful day."
"You probably should put that away," she said.
The world spins different on the corner. Faith exists where it probably shouldn't, except maybe that's all that grows there. Or all that's healthy. The food trucks from up the hill come three times a day to feed dozens, maybe hundreds, of the thousands.
And Josh comes with them when he can, choosing to believe that every handshake, every orange, every prayer is a start to something better. He can't help them all. He'll start with one, maybe see where that takes him.
See, it's not just them that he's healing.
"We wanted to make a change in people's lives," he said. "What they don't know is the change they're making in my heart. There's nowhere else I'd rather be."
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