Suitcase Joe’s Mission To Save Skid Row

Photographer And Activist Suitcase Joe Has Set Up A Foundation To Help And Support The Homeless Community On Skid Row

Skid row is a 54-block area in downtown LA and the epicentre of LA’s homelessness crisis, with over 12,000 homeless people passing through each year and thousand’s living in the vast network of tent encampments that line the sidewalks.  LA has concentrated its public services in this city-within-a-city, where it was evident they were needed the most, but this targeted approach has had the effect of permanently disconnecting these people from society. In the most part, attempts to relocate these services, even within just a few blocks, is met with a heavy ‘Not in My Back Yard’ mentality from other members of the community. The reality is that this has created a policy of containment and created an iron-grip of homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

We caught up with Suitcase Joe, who after years of chronicling the Skid Row community, created the Foundation to address the demand of people who had been following his interactions with the residents of Skid Row and wanted to help. The Suitcase Joe Foundation was created in response to the rise of trust issues between service providers and those in need of help or volunteering to offer support. People who are experiencing homelessness are feeling increasingly abandoned, rejected by both the system and society and those who want to help, who pay their taxes to contribute to social services see no results. In LA, there is pervasive and systemic lack of trust towards the homeless services and those society has entrusted with their taxes, donations, votes and hopes. The progress people were promised has failed to materialise. Instead, the Foundation has a deep-rooted presence in Skid Row, from years of documenting its residents and their stories. Their services aim to address the authentic needs of this community through their access to the very heart and soul of the people who live and serve there.

Please can you tell us a bit about your first hand experience on skid row and how the idea to begin the foundation came about?

I’ve been photographing and documenting Los Angeles’ Skid Row for half a decade now and in that time I’ve learned a lot about Skid Row. Unexpectedly, I ended up learning a lot about myself. In the beginning I was terrified to walk deep into the neighborhood with nothing but a camera. There are all kinds of people who live or pass through the community and as for it being a good or bad place—it cannot be weighed in any one particular way. There are many criminals and drug addicts who live alongside one another on every street in Skid Row and many of them have mental health issues. That is easy to see on the surface. After spending more and more time down there and getting to know many street residents on a personal level, I began to better understand what led them to a life on the streets. The majority of people who commit crimes do it out of circumstance and because they were never shown a better way. They were never given the proper tools or opportunities to know that they could have a better life. Many of those who formed bad drug habits did so from self-medicating to deal with PTSD, mental health issues, or trying desperately to block out horrible things that have happened to them in their lives. They are human beings who have fallen into a hard life because of less fortunate circumstances. It seems that would be an obvious thing for more fortunate people to understand but, sadly, it is not. As I got to know Skid Row’s street residents and share their stories, people outside of Skid Row began to feel connected to them. We all have a learned mental barrier that people living on the street are different from those of us living in a home—but we are not different. Regardless of our circumstances we all want the same basic things: To have community, family, friendships, and to be loved. As more and more people outside of Skid Row began to take notice of my work, I became overwhelmed with them reaching out to me and wanting to know what they could do to help. I finally connected with the right group of people who had the same morals and ethics as I do and through their help the Suitcase Joe Foundation was born.  

Can you let us know about the initial plans for the foundation over the first year or so of operating?

We have two different fronts the foundation is aiming its sights at. The Suitcase Joe Foundation Street Team is our immediate call to action. We supply food, water, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, personal hygiene, and anything else, street residents need immediately to survive. The higher aim is to provide full wrap around services to fully support those that are ready to get off the streets. This includes medical, mental health resources, getting into housing, learning a trade, and learning how to become self sustainable. Our bigger initiative over the first year is to work with several women and help them to fully get off the streets. We have decided to focus on mostly women in the beginning because we have learned that they are the most vulnerable on the streets and they don’t have as many resources that are available to men. 

What are the long-term plans / goals for the foundation? 

Suitcase Joe Foundation is a movement advocating to eliminate homelessness so that everyone, everywhere has the opportunity and dignity of living out their lives in a sustainable home. This basic human right should be the standard for all people—and not just a privilege for some. Skid Row encampments are emerging all over the world and we can no longer push this fight down the road along with long-term mental health reforms. We believe that our generation can be the first in contemporary history to make a real change and end homelessness. Suitcase Joe Foundation is a call to action for everyone. Our long-term goal is to build a global movement by harnessing the power of people and the collective will of private/public partnership to scale sustainable housing and provide long-term mental health for those who need it. 

Is there a way for people to volunteer and help out with the foundation if they feel they want to in some way? 

The Foundation was born from the sheer numbers of people reaching out and wanting to help but not knowing how. One of our core tenets is that no one feels left out, including people who want to help but may feel disconnected or disenfranchised by more establishment charities. Our aim is to be the new standard for an inclusive, grassroots movement advocating to end homelessness. Whether you’re an individual, a group of friends, an organisation or a brand, you are welcomed inside the Foundation to help in the way that feels most purposeful to you. We encourage anyone who wants to help to create their own call-to-action fundraisers to donate to the Foundation. One of the first volunteers of Suitcase Joe Foundation used social media to raise $1900 from her followers which helped the Foundation buy food, water and COVID-19 protective equipment for hundreds of people in Skid Row. We’re building volunteer-based Suitcase Joe Street Teams, our frontline, day-to-day relief and support teams now servicing Skid Row. We will be rolling out more street teams and connecting people in their own communities soon with training and resources so they feel fully empowered to help those in need. Anyone who wants to volunteer to help can email us at volunteer@suitcasejoefoundation.org. For those who want to help us fight homelessness in different platforms, they can do so by donating on our website http://www.suitcasejoefoundation. All donations are tax deductible and 100% goes directly to help the people in Skid Row and bring awareness to end homelessness everywhere.