Rich Man Sleeps On Street
- Homeless, but not nameless; Invisible man exposed
Apr 26, 2006
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
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
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 sidewalksnot 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 Movementand 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 moneyand 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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