I had the privilege of hanging out with Mark Laita of Soft White Underbelly in Skid Row in downtown LA.
Those unfamiliar with the area should know it’s one of the toughest and most oppressed places in the US. Drug addiction, homelessness, gang activity, and prostitution are huge issues… and this is Mark’s wheelhouse.
Soft White Underbelly gives us insight into the human condition that few people dare to explore. Through his lens, Mark Laita curates intimate portraits and interviews of people who are marginalized by society. So Skid Row is a place he’s familiar with.
Let’s get Mark’s thoughts about why people are trapped in this downward cycle.
Soft White Underbelly, Peeling Back the Layers
Mark and I walked around Skid Row with C-Note, who is very familiar with the area and the problems facing those living here.
Working with disenfranchised people isn’t always a walk in the park. Mark has had a gun drawn on him, has been robbed, and conned. But he continues on his path despite the risks.
But it’s complicated. Few understand the depth of the roots in Skid Row.
Underpinning homelessness anywhere, you often find addiction issues. When you peel that away, you find mental health issues; when you peel that away, you’ve got childhood trauma.
A Controversial Point of View
Many don’t want to leave Skid Row because they’re addicted to street life. The idea of a 9 to 5 living just isn’t appealing or even possible for some.
Mark, of all people, gets it because he’s also addicted to the excitement of street life. Suburban white picket fences aren’t for everyone.
So what inspires people on Skid Row to make a change? It’s a choice, but unfortunately, addictions and histories of abuse often prevent people from seeking another path.
To understand what’s really happening, we must get to the heart of the matter, and that takes time and a whole lot of money.
Treatment for drug addiction and psychological issues is costly, which makes everything all the more complicated – and there are no guarantees even if all these resources were made available.
At least in a wealthy city like LA, some missions provide necessities like clothing and meals, as well as mental health services. These resources are important.
Other areas in our country do not offer the same amenities to the homeless and drug-addicted. Then, of course, there’s the weather. Evening temperatures in LA can drop to 42 degrees, but this is much warmer than Chicago, which can drop to 10 degrees.
This attracts people from all over the country, many of whom have been kicked out of their cities by police departments and given one-way tickets to Los Angeles.
Mark used to believe the government was the answer, but now he thinks one of the solutions is people with a platform. He’s been able to help the 4,000 individuals he’s interviewed but what about the other 40,000?
He’s hoping that awareness sheds light on the complexity of the issues on Skid Row. It’s not just an easy fix where you give these people homes. There’s so much more to sort out. Sadly most of us want quick and easy solutions.
The scary part is the assistance mentioned above doesn’t seem to help, especially with the rise of fentanyl-related fatalities.
Soft White Underbelly – Making a Difference
Through Soft White Underbelly, Mark has learned so much from the people he interviews, and he hopes his viewers are learning too. He admits that his opinions and ideas have changed greatly over time.
Mark spent a lot of money trying to help broken people, but he thinks other solutions are more impactful. He believes good education and job opportunities in poor communities help families stay together and keep them from resorting to criminal activity to support their families.
Interestingly, it may be a generational thing. Mark said, “here on skid row, I would say, 90 to 95 of these people came from homes where dad was in prison, and mom was on drugs.”
Life Can Be Cruel
The reality is our planet can be ruthless. Predators prey on their victims without regret or guilt. The lion kills the antelope, and that’s just the circle of life. Humans aren’t that different, no matter how civilized we claim to be.
Mark feels this may be uncomfortable for us to admit – but that’s the truth. Some families thrive, while others struggle and suffer. He also believes we can’t hand out participation awards to make people feel better about where they are because it leads to delusion.
But that’s not the end of the story. Although Skid Row is a tough place, connections are made.
Mark Laita: Challenging Assumptions
Mark Laita wants us to look at the humanity of the individuals we see on the street. These people have life experiences that led them to where they are today. It’s up to every one of us to examine our biases and challenge ourselves in the way we perceive and deal with marginalized people.
Soft White Underbelly provokes exploration of the human condition and asks us to confront our belief systems.
The only way to create lasting change is to raise awareness and switch up our approach. Bandaids don’t work.
Mark exposes raw humanity and gives viewers a deeper understanding of the challenges these people face. He puts a face on homelessness in Skid Row and elsewhere.
Despite all this, Mark maintains a positive outlook on life. It’s important to recognize our challenges and accept the world as it is while still finding joy and fulfillment in our personal journeys.