The Rev. Andy Bales heads out the glass doors of the Union Rescue Mission in a suit and tie. He rolls his wheelchair toward the sun-baked concrete of Skid Row, then stops and wrinkles his nose.
“That putrid smell you’re smelling right now — that’s somebody smoking Spice,” he says.
On this block of San Pedro Street in downtown Los Angeles, just south of 5th Street, more people are openly smoking synthetic marijuana — known on the street as Spice — than are smoking conventional cigarettes.
Bales, who’s had a front row seat to this urban tableau as the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission for a dozen years, has been urging authorities to crack down on dealers who target the homeless.
“Spice has been an epidemic for about three years,” Bales says about the drug’s use on Skid Row.
Thursday, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested five people in the area suspected of distributing and selling the narcotic, which is concocted by spraying plant material with chemicals to produce a cannabis-like high.
According to Deon Joseph, the LAPD’s Senior Lead Officer for the Skid Row area, 72 people have been sickened by Spice in the last two weeks. At least one recent death on Skid Row is being investigated as a possible Spice overdose, officials have said.
Joseph believes recent toxic batches of Spice may have included bug spray, air freshener or detergent — ostensibly to increase the drug’s potency. The resulting side effects range from catatonic behavior and blackouts, to agitation and violent meltdowns.
The mass overdoses have taxed city resources, prompting Los Angeles City Council members to urge action.
But it remains to be seen if the stepped-up police effort will do much to quell the appetite for drugs on Skid Row, where life goes on as normal.
People shuffle along the sidewalk in 90-degree heat that makes the stench of urine unbearable. A number of folks hang out near a dozen or so tents that line both sides of the street. Shielded only by a screened window, a woman enters a tent, peels off her top, then stands naked from the waist up in front of a seated man. A toddler in a princess dress plays nearby.
“People sell themselves in exchange for drugs,” Bales says softly. “Some steal. If you’re addicted, it’s whatever it takes.”
Skid Row is a veritable candy store of heroin, crack, methamphetamine, marijuana and Spice — all available from drug tents indistinguishable from tents used for shelter, except for one that has “$moke$” brazenly inscribed on its side with a Magic Marker.
On the sidewalk, a man rushes by, toting a grimy cooler filled with melting ice. “Ice-cold Gatorades, one dollar!” he shouts.
For the same price as a bottle of blue Gatorade, one can also purchase a Spice joint for a different type of relief — this one with a high that lasts about six hours.
Some, like Richard McReynolds, are wary of the drug.
“I used to smoke it a long time ago,” the 20-something confides. “Had a bad reaction to it — maybe not a bad reaction, but I didn’t want to talk. I felt weird, so that’s one of the reasons why I stopped.”
Others — like a pair of cherubic-looking young women who would only identify themselves as Kia and Tanaya — say Spice isn’t a problem if you build up a tolerance for it and know how to smoke it properly.
“You’ve got to drink your water while you’re doing Spice,” states Tanaya. “A lot of people get dehydrated, and that’s why a lot of people are passing out.”
“I’m smoking it now,” says Kia, handing over a half-inch joint for inspection. Her fingertips are blistered and burnt from smoldering stubs. Even without inhaling, the contact high scorches the throats of passers-by and makes the lips tingle.
“I don’t smoke weed no more,” Kia says. “I’ve been smoking this for like a month. It’s the same, but stronger. It’s cheap. It’s a dollar. It’s a good high.”
The two women claim you can identify tainted Spice by the smell, and insist that “regular Spice won’t harm you unless you spray it with a roach spray, Raid or Febreze.”
Kia and Tanaya chat easily in front of a tent belonging to Horace Phillips, 51. His 24-year-old son LaVion launches into an impromptu freestyle rap, surveying his audience through puffy eyelids, until his dad presses something into his palm. LaVion scoots off into the crowd.
The father-son dynamic is not unusual on the streets, neither is mother-daughter.
“How do I feel about having my son here?” Phillips asks, sitting in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt in front of his tent. “I feel really bad because I’m not having the opportunity as a father to give my son what he needs, even though he’s an adult. I would like to be a better man. I would like to do a lot of things different … I’ve made bad choices.”
As Phillips speaks, a young woman sidles up and slips him a dollar bill. He reaches into one of three cigarette packs he’s holding and extracts a joint. “Thank you, baby,” he purrs.
“It’s a meager life, but you manage,” says Phillips. “Word of God says whatever state you’re in — whether you have a lot or whether you have a little — to be content. So I’m learning to be content these days.”
He shrugs off increased law enforcement in the wake of the recent Spice illnesses.
“I think it’s a stalemate,” he says about the back-and-forth between police officers and Skid Row residents. “You run ’em off this way, they go that way. You run ’em off that way, they go back this way. That’s how it goes.”
A year from now, Phillips hopes to be off the streets and working. “Driving big rigs,” he says with a laugh.
Overhearing his last comment, the Rev. Bales nods and steers his wheelchair back toward the Union Rescue Mission. Tonight, he’ll house 968 men, women and children — or guests, as he calls them — in this five floor, 225,000 square foot facility.
Bales, who is white, feels a kinship to his guests — many of whom are African American, although there are some Latinos and a small, but growing population of Asians.
“My dad experienced homelessness as a child,” says the 57-year-old Iowa native. “Last night, 119 children stayed here at Union Rescue Mission. We have another 120 out at our Hope Gardens Family Center (in Sylmar). So every child I see walk into our mission, I see my dad in them, and I see that they could succeed in life, just as my dad did.”
Bales’ signature navy suit and tie may seem more appropriate in a boardroom or bank a few blocks away, but he believes the extra effort in wardrobe is a sign of respect.
“I want to affirm everyone’s dignity, and treat them as I would a businessperson at a conference,” he says.
But there are hazards to spending so much time in this blighted community. A black Velcro brace covers his right foot.
“I got three flesh-eating diseases from the sidewalks because people use them as restrooms,” he explains. Bales says E. coli and streptococcal infections crept into his foot through a blister.
“In a couple of weeks, I’m going to have my foot and my ankle removed from the midshin down because the bones are all destroyed,” he says matter of factly.
Yet Bales doesn’t hesitate when asked if his 16 years as an advocate on the bleakest section in downtown Los Angeles have been worth the toll.
“I often say I’d give the other foot if we could actually accomplish getting every person off Skid Row,” he says. “I’d really give anything if we were to someday not have one precious human being on the streets.”