Story By: Kari Golden
San Julien Street. Busted walls and littered concrete. Cracked windows and ignored street signs. Clusters of men and women lean against doorframes and empty spaces as others sporadically cross the street with blind eyes to oncoming traffic. Black hoodies and blazer jackets cover layers of clothing; layers of thickened scars. There is no sense of time or being, yet they all belong, encased among each other. This is the epicenter of Skid Row.
Faded pink and green rise steadily toward the rooftop, with small windows like tiny freckles facing this way and that. Abstract in design, the Union Rescue Mission has two entrances: One for women, and one for men. The lobby is home to dozens of filled chairs and hushed voices. The onlookers stare ahead to a small TV, as an ad for long lasting mascara blasts from the screen.
A little boy with wild brown hair and soft eyes runs across the hallway. “Dwight!” his father yells. The boy pauses and lowers his head.
Enter Jeremiah Johnson.
He is a handsome man, although not of staggering height, he is fairly tall. His brown skin, smooth and delicate, bares a few scars. These scars aren’t as deep as his chocolate eyes that seldom greet yours. It’s as if for a brief connection there is a union, then they snap back into their own extraordinary vision.
He wears a light purple button up shirt along with black slacks and glistening dress shoes.
Around his neck is a badge with a picture and his name.
As church relations representative of the Union Rescue Mission, Jeremiah Johnson has bared a similar scar to those of the homeless on Skid Row and downtown, home to one of the densest populations in the United States.
About 46% of the homeless population is centrally located within the Metropolitan areas in Los Angeles county and areas like Skid Row, says Sarah Mawhorter.
A 2011 Master of Planning Candidate, and grad student of USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, Mawhorter has studied how the Los Angeles Public Health system divides planning areas as well as the amount of nonprofit housing for the homeless in relation to Skid Row.
Although there are a lot of resources and money concentrated toward the Skid Row area, “the amount of organizations available are disproportionate to the most dense areas of the homeless population,” Sarah says.
There have been many attempts to try and diminish the homeless population residing within the streets of Downtown Los Angeles. Within the Last few years there has been a plethora of sprouting organizations and laws, such as the Safer City Initiative, which focuses on the upkeep of the city streets.
“Most people support nonprofit for the homeless in their community,” says Sarah, “In the last 10 years business and districts are realizing it’s good for them to try to [solve] homelessness in their areas.”
San Julien Street alone is the birthplace of many organizations specifically designed to aid the homeless such as Los Angeles Mission, Midnight Mission, Weingart Center Association and the Union Rescue Mission.
The Union Rescue Mission is one of the most successful missions in the area, it’s spiritual and has a very holistic approach,” says Jeremiah.
The mission’s barren walls and high ceilings echo with hope and resilience toward reparation of Skid Row’s homeless community.
As Jeremiah sits cross-legged in the mission’s chapel staring intently into the blue hue of its walls, flashes of days living reckless and homeless on the streets of Los Angeles flash before his eyes.
It began with the death of his mother, not his birth mother he says. His birth mother was an addict and alcoholic. Jeremiah was sent to live with his grandparents at an early age in the suburbs of Compton in a grand five-bedroom house along with their other children, his aunts and uncles. Being the youngest of several children, he was plastered with attention. “I was spoiled,” he says.
Christmas dinners and family get togethers were normal in the Johnson house. His fondest memory is of his sisters dressing his brother Bobbie in a red polka dot dress and white pumps. Bobbie ran around the house yipping and hollering, tossing around a belt.
“We were dying laughing,” he says throwing his head back, grinning from ear to ear. His sisters then opened the sliding glass door and pushed Bobbie outside. At that moment their mother pulled up in the driveway, saw Bobbie standing there and said holding her chest, “Lord Jesus, my boy’s a punk.”
Jeremiah’s eyes twinkle and crease in the corners as he recalls his happy childhood.
After the death of his father, his mother was diagnosed with cancer when Jeremiah was 16. The devastation of losing his mother was so great it was like “[God] had taken my silver spoon away,” he says. Jeremiah pauses for a brief moment as if to seize a distant memory buried beneath mounds of dust. For a long time he did not share this loss with anyone. “I was bitter,” he says.
From the time he was 16, that bitterness and rebellious attitude led Jeremiah into a downward spiral.
Jeremiah turned to stealing. Cars were his vice. “Not only was I into a neighbor’s car, I was into taking them,” he says. He once tried to steal a lady’s purse, but “That didn’t turn out too great, she hit me in the head with it.”
Jeremiah had also been in and out of jail more than he could remember. The first time, in 1980, he took the blame for someone else’s burglary. Sitting back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling of the mission’s chapel, he sighs and says, “[Prison] was an intense experience.”
Because the court system is overwhelmed with many cases, most parole agents just throw you in jail without even glancing at your case, he says.
From that moment on, Jeremiah’s rebellious attitude developed into an addiction for danger and fast things. “[Since the first time I was in prison] I had been going in and out of jail consistently,” he says.
Besides countless acts of recklessness, he encountered knives, gunfire, and simple mistakes that led him to prolonged stays in the hospital. On one occasion he had stolen a vehicle and the owner ran him down, firing nonstop rounds at the car and Jeremiah. “ One bullet only grazed my coat,” he says, pointing to his left shoulder. Jeremiah had also been stabbed in the side as a result of a drunken brawl with a friend. “We had bought a few beers and were messing around on the piano when it just got crazy,” he says. Jeremiah spent four months recovering from the wound.
At the age of 18, he had his first child. Taking care of his girlfriend and his newborn son was his main concern. He did what he could to take care of them by doing odd jobs here and there as well as ran a towing company for a brief while. Though he ran a company, no one would hire him because of his ragged looks and criminal background.
Jeremiah began turning to alcohol and drugs. His drug of choice was crack cocaine.
Jeremiah buried himself within the dark and dank corners of a crack house in San Bernardino. There would be days he would not eat, and lurk within the shadows waiting for his next fix.
“[Crack] took me away from my children. I would do anything to get a hit,” he says. Jeremiah runs his finger down a protruding scar along his temple. “I was dealing… smoking and out of control. I was dirty. I was so ashamed I didn’t want anyone to see me.” Because Jeremiah was so wrapped in dealing and consuming he became the “holiday and weekend dad” to his children.
Meanwhile, outside of the mission, a man in a blue faded ripped jersey leans over to pick up a plastic bottle nestled by the curbside. Jeremiah, like many residents of Skid Row, had to build make shift shelters and do the best with what they had. He would sleep on the sidewalk, resting his fragile body against the coolness of the concrete, staring at the stars knowing and hoping that things would get better.
“I ended up very bitter. I was determined not to be a bum even though I was all that in someone else’s eyes,” says Jeremiah.
Jeremiah’s mother had passed many years ago, yet there were a handful of other women who played a large role in his life. After seeing that Jeremiah was not like the others, Violet Brown took him in when he was about 35 years old. Violet was the mom of the neighborhood, and a “lady that wouldn’t mess around.”
Although Jeremiah would still hang on the street corners with his friends and sling dope, he began to slowly heal himself. He realized the first thing he had to change was his image and the way people perceived him. There was not a day that would go by when Jeremiah didn’t have his hair slicked back with clean clothes and a freshly shaven face.
Though the encounters with shady characters became few and rare, Jeremiah would pick at old scars, and constantly find himself in situations like his troubled past. Violet grew weary and decided she had enough.
On a sticky summer day with a chilled beer in hand, he walked outside onto the front porch and saw Violet nesting in a chair beneath the shade. She reached a hand out to him, “Come here. I love you like my son, but you are killing me… can’t help you no mo’.” A shot of pain jolted through Jeremiah’s body. His eyes glistened as water formed at the base of his lids. “It was like losing my mother all over again,” Jeremiah says as he grasps at his chest, “ I was broken at that point.”
After the encounter with Violet, Jeremiah for the first time acknowledged that he was out of control, and needed to seek further help. He packed his bags and set out on a new journey. A journey to stitch old wounds and start anew.
There were countless missions and shelters Jeremiah had stayed in all over Los Angeles County. He never took their programs seriously and would either be kicked out or leave. A friend brought him to the Union Rescue Mission where he was thoroughly impressed by the dedication of their staff, particularly a worker by the name of Gilbert. After Jeremiah was enrolled into the mission, like many others, he tried leaving through the back door, but “ I just couldn’t move my legs,” he says.
In the beginning Jeremiah was buying time. Days went by like months, and months like years until one day he walked by the chapel and saw the minister singing and praying. Jeremiah was paralyzed, and could not shake himself free the chapel’s embrace. The ringing of music penetrated his ears, and words of the Lord pierced his soul. That night, Jeremiah got on his knees and bowed his head against his clasped fingers. “I asked god to help me,” he says trembling as a tear slid over a scar under his eye, “If you’re real, show me, let me know.“
Jeremiah glances around the ashy blue walls of the chapel, and gives a subtle nod. He unfolds his legs and leans forward. “ Everything changed from that day. The Lord changed me. I couldn’t have changed my life without God,” he says.
After hearing the strength and healing power behind the minister‘s voice through song, Jeremiah unlocked his inner passion for creating his own music. At first it started with a few others picking up instruments and collaborating. Then Jeremiah began writing his own lyrics and eventually recorded his first CD titled “Journeys of Mercy.”
“ I thought I was Michael Jackson,” he says and lets out a sharp laugh, loudly slapping his hands together. Jeremiah became leader of the Music of Ministry within the mission.
“[Jeremiah] is a great singer, I feel so much joy when he performs,” says Alexandra.
Alexandra Monsibaez is Gifts-in-Kind Representative for the Union Rescue mission. Six years ago, she roamed the streets of Los Angeles in search of meaning and hope to enter life. Through the Ready to Work program, which aims to help people with criminal history and disfigured pasts get jobs, she found her calling working for the Union Rescue Mission. “I felt like I found my home,” she says.
After three years of sobriety, Jeremiah searched for his kids. There was an innate fear that they would reject him, yet he tossed those fears aside and found both his daughter and son whom welcomed him with open arms. “At that moment I knew [God] was real. He gave me what I wanted the most. My children back,” he says. Five years after their reunion, his son of about 30 and daughter 27, keep in contact on a regular basis.
Jeremiah became the church relations representative within 2 years of completing the mission’s program. It has been about six years now in this position, and loves every day of it.
“I’ve seen people’s lives transform. It gives me purpose. After all that I have been through it’s worth it,” he says.
Part of the job consists of a lot of traveling for fundraising and outreach on behalf of the mission. Meeting with community pastors for lunch to discuss future prospects with the mission is something of the ordinary for Jeremiah.
“I am a high roller now. If I have to go to Chicago tomorrow morning, it’s no problem, I just gotta pack my bag and I’m out,” says Jeremiah.
As much traveling and meetings Jeremiah has to attend, it cannot compensate the passion he feels for the homeless, and people with deep struggles. “I work because it brings hope to the guy that sits on the sidewalks. I need to lead by example,” he says.
To Alexandra, Jeremiah does more than just bring hope to the community. “I love working with Jeremiah, he is my inspiration. He is very passionate about [his work],” she says.
As Jeremiah rises from his seat, he tucks his phone in his pocket and smoothes his trouser line. Rays of sunlight filter through the air of the chapel and glisten on his curly hair. Walking through the hallways to the open lobby, he is greeted with friendly smiles and warm handshakes.
Once outside in the open air, a robust man in a blue faded ripped jersey walks up with a charming smile. Jeremiah greets him by name as if they were childhood friends.