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Occupational therapist John Hwang hangs with the homeless (photos)

by Elaine Cha | Off-Ramp

Hwang writes: M was a well-to-do independent contractor. An accident left M permanently disabled. The medical bills left him bankrupt. His home was gone, and so was his wife. Unable to find work, living on the streets, he became so depressed that he contemplated suicide. One day, he saw some people abusing a cat in an alley way. The cat ran to him shaking in fear and from then on they became inseparable. Now he had a reason to keep living. According to M, "this cat kept me from going insane. I didn't rescue him, he rescued me..." John Hwang

John Hwang knows languages heard all over Southern California: English, Farsi, Korean, Spanish. But it’s how he interacts with Skid Row residents that shows he understands real communication. KPCC’s Elaine Cha spoke with Hwang for this audio profile.

By day, La Puente resident John Hwang works in Monterey Park as an occupational therapist. By night – and sometimes quite late into the night – he’s walking L.A.’s Skid Row, checking in with old friends and making new ones along the way.

“I’ve always been very intrigued by people living on the street,” says Hwang, “because if you live in L.A., you see them all the time.” He had no plans to document his visits when he started going out to Skid Row about a year and a half ago. Yet as he met more people, and heard more of their stories, he felt he needed to share them somehow.

So Hwang began taking photos.

With his subjects’ permission, Hwang posted their portraits to Facebook, paired with simple descriptions or anecdotes, like this one:

"Suffers from bouts of severe depression, paranoia, and psychosis. The last few years he has either been in a mental institution or in jail until Skid Row became his home. He is still imprisoned. Tormented inside the invisible walls of his mind. Unable to sleep. He wanders the streets like a zombie. I took him to get dinner tonight. I sat with him for hours. He was mostly quiet. And then he gave me a faint smile and said 'Thanks for staying next to me...'" 

Friends responded immediately with likes, comments, and shares that reached scores of people he didn’t know at all — people who’ve reached out to offer Hwang help with funds, food, clothes. Even a collection of "National Geographic" magazines.

(Photo: John Hwang)

Hwang writes about his encounter with the man above:

"'Cavi cavi...' people would whisper as I walked by. Cavi means crack cocaine in Skid Row. People often think I am there to buy drugs. It was early evening and I was walking down a street known as "Crack Alley." There were some walking around like zombies, while others sat on the sidewalk in a daze. One man invited me into his tent. He offered to sell me drugs, but I politely declined and told him that I don't do drugs. 'Good! You shouldn't do drugs, it will mess up your life,' he said."

When asked what keeps him coming back to Skid Row, Hwang says, “It’s an amazing thing to be able to connect so deeply with a stranger so quickly. It’s an incredible high.”

(The music that accompanies Elaine's piece is by G. Graham Allan. It's called The Lost One, and is from his Tidal compilation CD.)

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