LA-area Muslims head to Skid Row to help the homeless during the last week of Ramadan

A group of men and women wait in the shade before the start of the annual Humanitarian Day on August 12, 2012.
A group of men and women wait in the shade before the start of the annual Humanitarian Day on August 12, 2012.
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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For a dozen years, Los Angeles-area Muslims have come to the Skid Row intersection of Towne and Fourth streets on hot August days.

They were there again Sunday for “Humanitarian Day.” It falls on the last week of the traditional Ramadan holiday of giving and fasting.

The first Humanitarian Day came after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Muslims around the U.S. felt widely misunderstood, so a few locals decided to head to L.A.'s Skid Row — their cars full of clothing, food and water to give out to homeless people here.

Now there are hundreds of volunteers here from throughout the Southland: immigrant, native-born and black Muslims, and non-Muslims, too.

Enako Major said this is her first year coming to this event; she’s doing so in honor of her son, who liked volunteering before he passed away last year.

“I’m a Christian," said Major. "My husband is a Muslim. But when it comes to doing something good, let’s not nitpick over what religion, what color, whatever. The objective is the same, and that is to serve and to help and to give people dignity.”

The volunteers line up at the end of one block; homeless men and women do the same at the next intersection.

Juan Agustin Garcia is patiently waiting on his wheelchair; he’s one of the first in line. Garcia, his wife and son came to the U.S. from Guatemala five years ago. They live on the streets of Skid Row — but this is the first time he’s heard about this event.

“There’s another family in our block who told us this was happening, that they’d be giving away free [things]," said Garcia. "So we came to see what they’re giving out, but also to have a little fun, because when you’re living on the streets, we need some of that, too.”

There are no music or performances here, but for many of Skid Row’s homeless people, the event does mean a break from routine on the streets. It also gives them a chance to pick up hygiene items, kids clothing, food, toys — and get checked for HIV or high blood pressure.

By 11 a.m., it's time for a brief prayer, to remind many of the fasting Muslims here of the reasons why they should volunteer during their holy month.

The event's MC, Omar Regan, has been doing this for four years. He’s a “Halal comedian” — a man who tells family-friendly jokes for and about Muslims; jokes that are meant to challenge most people’s stereotypes about the faith.

Regan didn't come to this event to tell jokes, but he did come hoping that the number of homeless people who need help has gone down from last year.

“Our numbers have dropped, as far as feeding the homeless people," said Regan. "But they’re still here. There’s still a thousand of them. But I think it’s doable — I don’t even think it’s something so farfetched. I think we need organizers that can take care of a whole block, and between us, the government, Salvation Army, Church of Latter-day Saints and others.”

Those kinds of interfaith, civil and government partnerships are already working.

Regan said 2,000 homeless Angelenos walked through this intersection seeking help four years ago, but now, that number is down to about 1,200.

By 3 in the afternoon, the volunteers finished handing out everything from books to condoms. When the sun goes down, the sidewalks on this block become home to dozens of homeless people once again.