The tent yielded him a small measure of shelter from the cold rain that night, and offered the same to over-sized rats that invaded it for refuge. What set this latest Skid Row resident apart from the more than 240,000 men, women and children who experience countywide homelessness each year is that he has a permanent place to call home, a luxurious one to be exact.
This man steers his cart of possessions down a street in the infamous Skid Row section of Los Angeles, Calif. Photos: Jomo Holder for J Love Images
But willingly, Pras Michele, one-third of the phenomenal Fugees hip hop group, deserted his riches to experience what the over 88,000 homeless people confront every night in their struggle to find shelter in Los Angeles County, with the vast majority living on the streets, in cars or abandoned buildings.
He found that, to the world, they remain invisible.
He embarked on a nine dollar, nine night mission to invoke more dialogue about the nation’s homeless crisis. His experiences as a homeless man living on 6th, San Julian and San Pedro streets, some of the nation’s most dangerous streets, were captured for his documentary, First Night.
At the peak of his undertakings, the dialogue he sought to stimulate came as the L.A. County Board of Supervisors authorized a $100 million plan to help its homeless population, of which Blacks comprise 39 percent of the population, while only comprising 9.8 percent of the total population in the County.
The “homeless prevention initiative” boasts funding for emergency, transitional and permanent housing and includes stabilization centers for those released from hospitals or jails.
On Apr. 1, during a break from filming, Mr. Michele spoke to Final Call Staff Writer Charlene Muhammad about the purpose of his mission on L.A.’s streets.
Final Call (FC): Why are you seeking to highlight homelessness in this way?
Pras Michele (PM): I’m trying to put a face to homelessness. The world that we come from, the “civil” world, has this misconception about homelessness where they think that most people who are homeless are junkies, alcoholics or under some substance. It’s a condition. So, when you see someone who is homeless, there’s something that brought that person to that point. Not every person has the same support system.
FC: What did you see?
PM: One common thing I see about people down here a lot is embarrassment. Our society makes it seem like if you are homeless, it’s embarrassing. Then that stimulates something else, for which some people go under the substance of drugs and alcohol. Some people go into hustling. I wanted to get both sides of the story.
Sometimes people want to be down here, and that may very well be the case. Some people come down here because they are embarrassed from our world, so they come and hide down here. They say they’ll get their life in order and make a transition back to that world. But unfortunately, most of them get stuck down here, because there are just not that many options. Then you have those who’ve just been led down here.
FC: Have you undergone any transformation during this process?
PM: Yes! I went, I’m going, and I will continue to go through a tremendous transformation. I’m starting to value certain things that I used to take for granted. Even though at the end of this whole journey I’m on, I know that I have a place to go back, but my instinct emotion, my human emotion, first and foremost kicks in.
For example, my hustle down here is panhandling. I go to the financial district and try to get some money. When certain people look at me in a certain way, like the black scum of the earth, even though I know, like “Listen, dude if only you knew the real,” but at that moment it hurts me. It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel like I’m a piece of s---. But that’s my subconscious taking it, like your emotions, you can’t deny it instantly.
Then, I catch myself, like, “Oh, you’re driving that Bentley, well, I got one.” But they don’t know. What’s funny is if they knew, they would have treated me differently.
As a whole, people don’t have any respect for homeless people, no respect for veterans. I fronted like I just came from the Iraqi war, so I made a sign: “Just got back from Iraq. Bush won’t help. Will you?” They looked at me like I was a disgrace, and I was like, Brother, I just fought a war for you. The reason you’re driving your car and your gas is at $3 is because I went and gave my life damn near for you. You get to see the true color of people. People in this society really do not care. All they care about is themselves and no one wants to make a change unless it hits home.
One thing I’m trying to show people is that life is nothing but a chain. So that means if it doesn’t affect you directly, it’s going to affect you indirectly. It’s just a matter of catching up to you.
FC: Take us to one of your nights on the streets.
A man passes by with his shopping cart as Pras Michele pretends to take a nap while undercover as a Skid Row homeless resident during the shooting of First Night, his documentary highlighting the homeless crisis in downtown Los Angeles, Calif.
PM: The first night was something I never experienced before. When you sleep on a sidewalk, whether in a tent or just underneath blankets, you are exposing yourself to all of the elements. I’m on a major street, so all the buses and cars are coming down the street. You have the junkies walking back and forth. You have the hookers going back and forth, people talking loud. But it’s the streets; you can’t tell somebody put their voice down; it’s a public sidewalk.
For the second night, it started to rain, which was probably my worst night ever. When I was in the tent, these rats were trying to come. What I didn’t understand is how our society could allow people to sleep on sidewalks—not tell them to get up and move, but not provide something for them.
Dogs have better rights than these humans right here on Skid Row. That doesn’t make any sense to me. That is the most inhumane thing ever. That experience was probably one of the worst in my life. I’ve seen it, but I never understood what it meant to sleep on a street or on a sidewalk.
What I can tell people to kind of have an idea of what it is, I wouldn’t go so far as to say come down to Skid Row and spend the night, but if there’s a part of your apartment or house that has a wooden or cement floor, take your most comfortable comforter and just sleep on that. Go in your basement or garage and see what it feels like. Imagine being at a place where people have set people and tents on fire. Kids have come down here and beat up the homeless. There were gunshots the other night between the cops and some drug dealer on the streets. You are exposed. I thought I knew, but I didn’t until I actually experienced it.
FC: What are your plans once you resurface? Can you address the disproportionate number of Black men who are homeless?
PM: When I come out with this piece, I think there will be certain people with certain power who will be able to try to make a difference. People don’t really see this as a real issue. They just look at it like they’re bums.
As far as the percentage of Black men, whenever you try to talk about the Black condition, it is so complex because it goes back much deeper. You can talk about slavery. You could talk about the Civil Rights Movement—and remember, it’s only been like 40 years since Blacks have had total “freedom” where Blacks could vote and have access to the same restaurants. It’s brand new to us. And Black people, I don’t care what anyone says, do not have the same support system like other groups and races.
Do I blame the next man? To a certain extent, yes. I think it’s a conspiracy against us. It may or may not be consciously; I don’t think people sit around and say, “We’re going to do this to this group of people.” But I think that they sit around and say, “Oh, they’re just a bunch of n----s.” It’s something subconscious.
But I also put a lot of the blame on us, Black people, especially Black men, and our community. In the ’60s when it was real tense, you had more Black people standing for something, for their rights, than they do in 2006, when we are somewhat totally free. Freedom of speech, you’re blinging, making money—and look at all of these Black people who are complacent. They start making money, start being famous and are scared to talk. I have a problem with a lot of Black, influential celebrities and politicians who are letting certain groups of people walk all over us. Black people are all about trends. If it’s sexy, then we’re going to follow it.
So I’m hoping that, by me exposing this, it can send a signal to a lot of my peers to do something good for the community. Giving back can become something that we’re accustomed to doing. Sometimes, it takes somebody to jumpstart it before everybody gets on board.
FC: Thank you.
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