John Hwang makes friends with some of society’s most invisible members: the people living on L.A.’s Skid Row. Many know his face and name, some have his number. He knows their stories and, with their permission, shares them with the world. “Everyone has a story,” he says. Here’s his.
by ELAINE CHA
This piece elaborates on an audio profile produced by this writer and broadcast on Southern California Public Radio/89.3 KPCC’s “Off-Ramp,” in March 2014. Listen to it here.
It’s a damp, late afternoon in January. John Hwang, still in scrubs from his occupational therapy shift in Monterey Park, California, is about to hit downtown Los Angeles. But he’s not headed to a hip rooftop bar on Broadway or a new gastropub in Little Tokyo. He’s going to Alameda and 4th Street—roughly the northeast corner of L.A.’s Skid Row, which some call “the homeless capital of the United States”—to start one of his many check-ins with old friends and, very likely, make new ones along the way.
This Friday evening, he spots a familiar figure on T Avenue. “Hey, Richard,” he says, crouching down to touch the shoulder of an African American man in his early 50s staring down into his lap. “How are you today?” Richard looks up from the kids’-sized yogurt he’s nursing and, recognizing Hwang, smiles. His arrestingly light eyes brighten as he returns a quiet salutation. Just a few sentences pass between them: “How have you been? Have you been all right through the rain the last couple nights? Do you have enough to read?” Richard responds by nodding his head, moving his shoulders. He’s a man of few words, Hwang explains, as the latter continues walking through Skid Row. “People who stay on this street mostly keep to themselves. … They don’t want any drama,” Hwang says. “Every street has its own personality.”
As he continues toward San Pedro Street, Hwang meets others he knows—and who know him well enough to call when lonely. One such man, a white Vietnam war vet called Bob whose PTSD makes living anywhere with a roof unbearable, is setting up for the night near the Downtown Women’s Center when Hwang stops to say hello. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you,” Hwang says, extending a hand to Bob’s arm. Bob’s been in the hospital recently, though “I’m OK, now,” he says. He’s tried calling Hwang a couple of times, but couldn’t reach him. “Oh, yeah, I got a new phone,” Hwang tells him as he pulls out his cell. He hands it to Bob to input his number. “I’ll call you, so you have my info.”
Hwang met Camha just outside Skid Row last October. “She was barely coherent. Often mumbling words silently under her lips, as if she was chanting a prayer. When there was food around her mouth, I got a napkin and gently wiped her mouth and face. Tears began to well up in her eyes. No words were needed then.”
Such sharing isn’t something he does with everyone, says Hwang later. But with some he’ s met downtown, he’s open to that contact. “I just have a feeling. I know it’ s OK.”
Based on what happens the rest of the visit, it seems that Skid Row feels Hwang is OK, too. Tonight’s walk is a short one compared to the many others he’s made over the last two years or so. In the span of just a couple hours, Hwang greets and points out a half-dozen Skid Row residents who have told him their stories; he even has his portrait crayoned on the sidewalk by someone he’s met for the first time, a new friend who shares a stick of chewing gum along with his back story. Hwang’ s gentle manner and capacity for fast connection—the bonds he forms are often quick and firm—draws people hungry for interaction. And it’s meaningful connection that keeps Hwang coming back. “Everyone is unique,” he says. “Everyone has a story.”
Hwang’s own story features elements at once familiar and unusual. Like many ethnic Koreans in the U.S., his start came outside the States. Born in the Canary Islands in 1974, Hwang lived in Panama and Mexico before his family immigrated to Southern California when he was 7. And, like a vast swath of Korean Americans, he spent a good part of his youth and young adulthood at Protestant churches that included urban ministry.
An outing with an Orange County-based church back in the 1990s—long before downtown became “DTLA”— occasioned Hwang’ s first direct contact with the homeless of Skid Row. Nearly all his fellow volunteers focused on distributing food. “I was more intrigued by the people,” says Hwang, who spent the afternoon talking with street residents instead of handing out sandwiches. “One man in particular, his intelligence just struck me. He was so different from the stereotypes about the homeless … that they’re all addicts, or mentally ill.”
John Hwang shares the pictures and stories of his friends on Skid Row, with their permission. He wrote this about Richard: “His eyes lit up when I handed him the National Geographic magazine. Richard loves to read. ‘It takes me to places I’ve never gone,’ he told me. … Richard was in a car accident that left him disabled. Confined to the streets. However, reading set his mind free.”
Many years elapsed between that visit and Hwang’s next one. In 2011, he was one among many looking into lofts in Little Tokyo, an area adjacent to a cluster of homeless service centers. Juxtaposing the lofts’ price tag with Skid Row next door jarred him. It also recalled his years’ -back conversation with a street resident. Soon enough, he ended up back downtown—not to live, but to learn.
“I’ve always been very intrigued by people living on the street,” says Hwang, “because if you live in L.A., you see them all the time.” He had no plans to document his visits when he started going to Skid Row about two years ago. Yet as he met more people, and heard more of their stories, he felt he needed to share them somehow.
So Hwang started taking photos.
With his subjects’ permission, Hwang posted their portraits to Facebook, pairing the images with simple descriptions or anecdotes. Melody’ s picture, for example, presents a young woman holding her head high, with this: “She hears voices. … She shared with me stories of her life, her family. … I asked, ‘Do you still hear voices now?’ and she responded with ‘I can hear yours …’” A color and black-and-white diptych of a gently smiling Benito, who “has the kind of voice that would make for a good storyteller or narrator for a movie,” shows images of a man who imparts “the wisdom that comes with age and living on the streets. He likes to spend his time reading. … When he feels down he just thinks about how there are many others who are less fortunate than him.”
And then there’s Tracey in a black cap and white undershirt, standing in a graffitti’d tunnel near the L.A. River. A former singer with a beautiful voice, seven years on the streets, and both AIDS and prostate cancer, Tracey “survives by finding food in the dumpsters of restaurants, markets and produce vendors, [and] makes an effort to care for other homeless people around him, including helping feed them.”
This is a shot of the blanket that Sam, a 21-year-old Korean American living on Skid Row, was carrying when Hwang took him to the home of a pastor who does homeless ministry. Hwang wrote of their first encounter: “So we sat there together at Subway. Quietly, he ate. As I watched him, I started to think back to when I was his age of 21 and what I was doing with my life. I couldn’t understand how he ended up on the street or begin to imagine the reality of his life. … Then he looked up at me with teary eyes and said, ‘thank you, hyung.’”
The combination of striking photos and narrative elicited immediate response. Likes, comments and shares reached scores of people he’s known over the years. They also made the news feeds of those he didn’t know at all—people who’ve reached out to offer Hwang help with funds, food, clothes, even a collection of National Geographic magazines. “It’s been amazing to see [how the posts] move people,” Hwang says.
For all the engagement he seeks with others, and for all the attention he’s gotten, Hwang remains independent. This is especially evident in his approach to Skid Row and its residents. His early exposure to downtown L.A.’s homeless may have come through a faith community, yet his work, so to speak, is not affiliated with any church entity or motivated by conventional religious mission. While Hwang speaks about “praying for direction” when he sets out on his visits and posts stories about the work of ministries serving the downtown homeless population, his sensibilities run more to the spiritual than the religious; he is compelled by what he can contribute to effecting kindness to others anyplace, not just in Skid Row.
There’s also no secular agenda driving Hwang. In the last two years, he has been solicited or advised by readers working in homeless outreach. He understands where such response comes from, especially given the degree and scale of issues he sees among those he engages on the street. But he is quick to assert that what he does “is not advocacy. I’m not trying to join a cause,’ he says, “or rescue anyone or solve anyone’s problems. [Homelessness] is complicated.”
Two cases in which Hwang’s lent more than a listening ear and a hot meal point up the complexity of what puts— and keeps—people on the street. The
first, involving a Vietnamese senior named Camha, shows what can happen when a person ends up far from home but cannot return on her own. When Hwang met her just outside Skid Row last October, she “didn’t have shoes [and] was wearing hospital-issued socks that were blackened from the dirtiness of the street. All she had was a small bag and a blanket she sat on. She was barely coherent … mumbling words silently under her lips, as if she was chanting a prayer.” As Camha had a California state senior citizen ID card, Hwang shared a photo of it on Facebook, asking, “Does anyone have any connection to the Vietnamese community up in the Bay Area?”
Friends, contacts and even strangers responded immediately to the post with offers of help and useful tips. Less than 24 hours later, Hwang spoke with someone who knew the lost woman, who’d “been reported missing for some time.” Just a couple of hours after that, Camha was on a Greyhound bus headed back to her home in San Francisco.
Walter is one of Hwang’s oldest friends on Skid Row. “He frequents all the local recycle centers, going 5-6 times a day,” wrote Hwang. “Sadly one recycling center he often goes to mistreats him. … He is talked down to and treated like he is dumb or crazy. When actually he is a bright, hard working and sensitive man. It hurts him deeply. I can see it in his eyes. Walter grew up in rural Texas, during the time of segregation. So it brings back some painful memories. But Walter refuses to feel sorry for himself. He refuses to feel bitter. He knows his worth as a human being.”
What happened with Sam, a 21-year-old Korean Hwang tried to help off the street, provides a counterpoint to the “success” of Camha’s story. Hwang’s first encounter with Sam started with a sandwich and some basic background (“He said his mother was killed when he was a young child, and he hadn’t spoken to his father for a long time.”) and ended with a “thank you, hyung.” The next time they ran into each other, Hwang took Sam to a Korean pastor who runs a homeless ministry. Although Sam had been on the street for just four months—a stint much shorter than the years Tracey, Benito and Bob have spent on Skid Row— Hwang says he had a hunch this dongsaeng would end up back where he first saw him.
“It seemed like he didn’t really want to be helped,” Hwang says in retrospect. He concedes he was initially disappointed to see Sam among the homeless on subsequent visits downtown. It was a reminder, nevertheless, of a reality Hwang understands more deeply as he spends more time in the rougher parts of Los Angeles: living on the street is a choice some make, even if a way off is within reach.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) the sheer magnitude of what it would take to eradicate homelessness, Hwang’s focus remains fixed on what he can do. Make eye contact and say hello, offer a meal and some company, share photos and stories that impact others where they are. And what he does isn’t so much about the homeless specifically as it is about “connecting with the humanity” in people. A midspring post about Cora, a woman Hwang met on an unusually quiet night downtown, captures this:
“The empty street felt lonely last night. There [were] no cars or traffic. Only a few people walking by … while I was waiting at an intersection … [t]his sweet lady started making random conversation with me so I asked her to dinner. We sat at a small family-owned pizza place on that empty street. Cora lives alone in a low-income housing unit downtown. She says she doesn’t really have any friends, and that she was coming home from a karaoke bar by herself. Singing and dancing makes her happy. She slowly ate her French fries she drowned in ketchup and her chicken wings, as if to savor the time we have together. We talked about all kinds of things; childhood stories, favorite foods, our travels, what makes us happy, to what’s important in life. I told her she is my new friend, and she smiled and gave me a warm hug. That street didn’t feel so empty to me anymore.”
A Facebook stranger who shared Hwang’ s post included a note saying, “This is what we should be doing … sharing our time and listening … We ALL just want to know we matter.” Another wrote, “So many lonely, invisible people out there, and he stops and reaches out to them.”
Hwang readily admits the personal gratification he derives from his “work” on Skid Row. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to connect so deeply with a stranger so quickly. It’s an incredible high.” He also says, introspectively, “Ultimately, this is something I do for myself.” The response his efforts have drawn makes it clear, nevertheless, that he’s making some kind of difference for others. If for no other reason than sharing stories that somehow move people, it’ s likely Hwang will continue making after-work trips to see friends downtown and, as he puts it, to “be the change [he] wants to see in the world.”
Top photo courtesy of John Cha.
This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).