To those who have suggested that hip-hop star Pras, a.k.a. Pras Michel of The Fugees, was looking for good publicity by going undercover to live on the street in Los Angeles' Skid Row…well, you try sleeping, eating and doing everything else for nine days on rat-infested sidewalks surrounded by the often dangerous down-and-out. There are lots of easier ways to get publicity for oneself (not that he particularly needs it) and probably easier ways to get publicity for the plight of the countless homeless within that five-block radius. (We mean "countless" literally—estimates range from about 7,500 to, as this documentary claims, 40,000.) As Torie Osborn, an L.A. mayoral advisor on homelessness, explains here, the city long ago marked Skid Row very precisely as a place where social services, medical care and other provisions could be concentrated and serve people efficiently and easily. That was the plan, anyway. Inner-city housing projects worked on paper, too.
Osborn is one of an array of talking heads in Skid Row, including officials from the area's homeless missions, Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, and an LAPD Skid Row specialist, senior lead officer Deon Joseph. All that, and the occasional statistics and other factoids that the trio of directors give us as screen text make this documentary a solid and informative piece and not a liberal-guilt stunt.
With a hidden camera and transmitter on his person and a film crew in a nearby parked van, Pras starts out on a Monday at four a.m., taking a bus to the central-east section that since the 1890s has been a dropping-off point for the alcoholic, the addicted, the addled and the out-of-luck. Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress got added to the mix in the ’60s and ’70s, and in 1975, Los Angeles, like elsewhere, closed down notoriously abusive mental hospitals. And like elsewhere, too, the outpatient clinics, hostels, in-home care and other support services for the mentally ill never materialized in any major way. Even today, the LAPD says, neighboring communities drive their homeless here in police cars and leave them.
Pras, like many of the Skid Row denizens, spends nights in a tent, panhandles, goes to soup kitchens, and engages in a range of conversations. One street guy, Philly, is remarkably articulate and astute about life there. Another guy, a former drug dealer named Rudy who has an apartment, is let in on the filming and shows Pras and a camerawoman the ropes. "I've been in four movies [and] in and out of prison," he tells them. It's the sad absurdity of the fantasy business colliding with a worst-possible-case reality. There's Gilbert, shooting up on-camera; Sonia, a Spanish woman who's ventured here looking for her junkie son; and a thirty-something, weathered debutante of a woman in an incongruous red gown, defiantly saying she likes getting high and she's OK with it. Discussions about causes and choices weave through many of the conversations and interviews.
There's a lot of muffled and indistinct audio, and the camerawork, even footage shot from the van, can be shaky and jagged and a bit dizzying. But this is the real thing, as we can discern from Pras becoming a little unglued in spots. You would, too. He's done something significant and substantial in terms of awareness of people who, for all their addictions and self-abuse, are still human beings. But despite the earthbound angels we see working with them every day, the tragic takeaway from this can be a hopeless doubt that it will ever change.