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‘Mic Dispatch’ episode 5: Skid Row; Sasha Velour (full transcript)
Correspondent Yoonj Kim rides with Officer Deon Joseph along Skid Row in Los Angeles County. Tarek Turkey/Mic

On this edition of Mic Dispatch, correspondent Yoonj Kim heads to Skid Row in Los Angeles County. Then, correspondent Evan Ross Katz profiles RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine winner Sasha Velour.

Officer Deon Joseph, Los Angeles Police Department: You have all these different gangs — hated rivals, who just kind of like, they just agree, “No wars, there’s plenty of money to go around.”

[Joseph: Hey!]

[Person on Skid Row who’s just injected drugs: Sorry.]

Joseph: “Plenty of addicts to go around, let’s just keep the police off our back and continue.”

Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: LA County’s homeless population has surged 75% in recent years to more than 55,000 people. Many of these people are gonna end up in Skid Row, which is a massive encampment in LA. With all these people coming in, competition to find living space on the sidewalks has become increasingly fierce. Gangs have infiltrated the neighborhood, charging rent for tent space. And women are especially vulnerable when they can’t pay up. Reporter Yoonj Kim takes us on a tour of this blighted community to understand the dangers and challenges that people face and why homelessness is on the rise in LA.

Yoonj Kim, correspondent: I’m in LA’s Skid Row, the largest concentration of homeless people in America, where gangs have reportedly started charging people rent to stay on the sidewalks. Let’s go check it out.

Joseph: Everybody in this picture is not a gang member.

Kim: OK.

Joseph: But about one, two, three, four of them are. Gangsters started becoming more emboldened. It’s almost as if they started to get a sense that there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

Kim: Are most of those people still out there as far as you know?

Joseph: Yes. There are hundreds and hundreds of Bloods and Crips. You have all these different gangs, hated rivals, who just kind of like, they just agree, “No wars, there’s plenty of money to go around, plenty of addicts to go around, let’s just keep the police off our back and continue.”

Kim: Wow, so they made Skid Row a truce area.

Joseph: Yes.

Kim: So they can sell drugs collectively.

Joseph: Yes.

Kim: How long has this been going on?

Joseph: It’s become more intensified over the last 15 years.

[Kim: Oh look, there’s a needle.]

[Joseph: Yep. Yep. Yeah, he’s doing it right in front of — ]

[Joseph: Hey!]

[Person on Skid Row who’s just injected drugs: Sorry. I’m done.]

Kim: You can really see the level of lawlessness here. It’s insane that we are in America.

Joseph: Yes. This is a street where a lot of human trafficking happens right here.

Kim: This street?

Joseph: Yes, this street.

[Joseph: Well listen, I’ma give you this, sweetie. I’m gonna let you go, OK?]

[Homeless person: Thank you.]

[Joseph: Thanks for your time, OK.]

[Joseph: Hey, how you doing?]

[Joseph: Hey, sweetheart.]

Kim: Is this the park where you said some of the OG members hang out?

Joseph: Yes. They basically control the drug trade from the park. They make deals. They divvy up territory.

Joseph: This is YOP at Fifth. That means they run the nickel, Fifth Street. And it stands for Young Organized Players. And how they prove themselves is to brutalize the homeless, rob them and steal from them. And then the tents, of course, gives them cover. And we know that there’s probably several high-powered weapons and guns in some of these tents and the people know it too. So, they’re afraid to say anything now, because there’s guns being pulled out of the tents. This right here is the Cuban corner. This is where the Cuban drug dealers stay and they sell drugs. They won’t cross over here, because this is where the DTG is, the black gang members have it.

Kim: The Downtown Gangsters?

Joseph: The Downtown Gangsters. Yeah.

Kim: And that’s a combination of several gangs, you said?

Joseph: Of several gangs. Crips and Bloods. Different Crips and Bloods sects, who agree to work together in harmony.

Kim, to Willie Saed, Skid Row resident: Is there a lot of criminal activity out here?

Saed: Oh man, come on now. You don’t know that and see that, you blind.

Kim: Yeah.

Saed: I’m serious. I’m talking about the serious. Not the —

Kim: Like gangs?

Saed: Yes. Crips, Bloods, everything’s here. Everything’s here.

Kim: What do they do to you guys? Do they ask you for money?

Saed: You name it. Whatever they want.

Kim: They ask you for rent?

Saed: Anything they want. If they say they own this part of this block, they own this section of this block, you got to pay for it if you want to be there.

Kim: And how much money are we talking? Like, what’s the exchange?

Saed: You said it. Papers. Run something for ‘em. Or hold something for ‘em. We have been threatened.

Kim: By who?

Saed: The Crip gang.

Kim: We’re going to take a quick look at Willie and Pamela’s place.

Kim: Hi. Can we come in?

Pamela Freeman, Skid Row resident: Come on in.

Kim: How long have you been out here?

Freeman: I’ve been here since January.

Kim: Since January.

Freeman: I’m moved out here because my client moved back down here with her family. I had my house, and so the first week that we were here, she passed away. So there went my job. So I lived on the money that I saved up. After that ran out, William bought the tent.

Kim: You guys moved out here.

Crushow Herring, Skid Row resident: I came out here as a dope dealer over 15 years ago.

[Herring, to unknown passerby: You got to watch how you talking when they’re with me bro, ’cause you ain’t been out here long enough. I don’t care who you hang with over there. Because you ain’t from here. **** you. **** you. **** you. You a new mother****er out here talking. I don’t give a **** who you know or who you hang with, I’ll beat your *** in front of them.]

Kim: We’re walking down Skid Row right now. Cops have been saying that there’s actually gangs out here on Skid Row hiding in the tents, charging people for rent.

Herring: There are gangs down here. Since you don’t have a family member or someone you can trust, you find who you can trust and when you figure you can trust them with your money, since you go to sleep and all this, get high or comatose and don’t know what happened, you find someone you trusted and you give them your card.

Kim: So they’re like your human bank.

Herring: They’re your bank.

Kim: Your human security vault or whatever.

Herring: Bingo.

Kim: I mean, as someone who like — I grew up in LA and it’s crazy for me to see Skid Row now, how bad it’s become. And lately the homelessness crisis in LA County has been getting worse, with the number of people being homeless for the first time actually on the rise. Like, the human cost of gentrification.

Jackie Vorhauer, communications director, Skid Row Housing Trust: With the new homeless count numbers that just came out, it’s really scary and disturbing to see that — I believe it’s about 9,000-plus people have experienced homelessness for the first time.

Kim: Wow.

Vorhauer: And a lot of that is because of increasing rent, false evictions — where they shouldn’t have been evicted and they’re out. People have job loss, and they can’t find anything else that’s affordable.

Kim: And what does the Skid Row Housing Trust do?

Vorhauer: Skid Row Housing Trust is a nonprofit that develops and builds permanent supportive housing — affordable permanent supportive housing — and we also provide the on-site services as well as some of the property management. We move people in, even while they’re trying to overcome certain barriers. Maybe it’s substance abuse, maybe it’s mental health issues, maybe it’s physical health issues.

Kim: What would you say is the biggest hurdle now to ending homelessness?

Vorhauer: We have to catch people before they fall into homelessness. If affordable housing does not exist right now, we need to build it. We cannot build fast enough.

Kim: When it comes down to it, the gangs’ existence on Skid Row is not just a criminal issue, but a byproduct of the wider homelessness crisis. And the best way forward is to get people off the street, before the situation gets worse.

Del Toro: And now for something completely different … Sasha Velour, the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine, once said that she uses drag to turn sadness into power. Today we profile Velour to see how she’s harnessing her power and her creative genius to expand and elevate the definition of drag at her monthly show Nightgowns in New York.

Sasha Velour, drag queen (she/her): You can’t celebrate drag if you don’t have all of drag represented. Even a lot of drag race shows, live shows that you go to see, it’s still a lot of, like, skinny white fashion queens front and center. That’s not really the world of drag that I grew up in. Even though in many ways I’ve benefited. The people who perform at Nightgowns are brilliant, and a lot of times they haven’t had the opportunity or the space to really fully realize their drag performances.

Evan Ross Katz, correspondent: We are in the car right now on our way to Brooklyn. We are going to pick up Ms. Sasha Velour. Sasha is the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine, and we’re going to head to National Sawdust, a performance venue in Brooklyn where Sasha will be performing her monthly show Nightgowns tonight.

Katz: Hi!

Velour: How are you?

Katz: I’m good, how are you?

Velour: Fantastic.

Velour (voiceover): Nightgowns now attracts, and because of the venue that we’re at, we can accommodate people who are underage. And that’s really informed kind of the political mission of the show, about introducing people to this community that’s focused on diversity and acceptance.

Velour: Yes! It’s so good. You look fierce!

Velour (voiceover): I still think people are just getting to know about drag, getting to know about its history. And so every show that I do is still an introduction to drag for the audience.

Katz: How do you define this vast art form?

Velour: Drag is performing in highly gendered appearance. Tights are still super wet, so I’m gonna hang them ‘cause that is also the reality. We don’t have a washing machine, so I still hand-wash all of my tucking panties and dance tights.

Katz: How purposeful are you in wanting to create a cast that is not wholly cis white gay men?

Velour: Both very purposeful and not purposeful at all.

Velour (voiceover): The easy thing is it’s not hard at all to cast the best drag show in the world and not be focused on cis white drag queens.

Velour: Do you want the pink to come out as soon as you step out, maybe?

Daphne Always, drag queen: Yeah, that’d be nice.

Velour: Let’s do that, OK.

Katz: So Daphne, I want to talk for a minute about you. You are based in Brooklyn. Prior to being known as “Daphne Always,” you were known as “Daphne Sometimes.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Always: I changed my name legally to Daphne and I started transitioning, and then like, it was about a year or so of still just like, going by “Daphne Sometimes,” because that was just the name. And I just felt like “Always” was like, you know, more accurate, more mature. Just a word. And it feels like a promise. I’m Daphne. [mouths “Always”]

Vander Von Odd: For my number, I’m wearing a dollhouse, and I had to build it and then deconstruct it into five separate pieces so that I could travel with it in my suitcase. So I’m rebuilding it now for the show.

Katz: As one does.

Always: That’s drag.

Katz: Yeah.

Von Odd: Sasha has always curated a space where a variety of personalities and upbringings and aesthetics and, you know, everything comes together as one. And I think that also makes it very inviting for anyone coming, is that eventually, maybe not this show but the next show or the show after, eventually you will see someone on stage that you can personally identify with.

Velour: I saw Elle McQueen first at a showcase called Lady Queen. She did an entire showcase of AFAB drag queens.

Katz: And for people that don’t know what an AFAB queen is, what is that?

Velour: It’s someone who’s assigned female at birth, who do femme drag or drag queen.

Katz: Have you dealt with a lot of misogyny in the drag world?

Elle McQueen: Yes and no. When I first started in Boston, and I would tell people I was a drag queen, the first initial thought is, “Oh, you’re a king?” And I’m like, “No, I’m a female.” And they’re like, “But you can’t do that.” You can say I can’t do it, but am I listening? No. Like, come on.

Katz: I am joined by Genevive, who is just 14 years old. Genevive, you are a huge Sasha Velour fan. Are you excited for tonight?

Genevive Rust, audience member: I’m literally physically shaking. Like, I can’t stop. I’m so excited.

Julian Ezenwa: She has really inspired me, both as a queer boy but as an up-and-coming fashion icon drag queen.

Rust: This is actually my first time at a drag show ever, so.

Katz: Oh my god! And you’re here with your mom.

Rust: Yes, I am.

Katz: How did this come about? How did you end up coming here tonight?

Rust: Basically, I was kind of lacking on like, my schoolwork, so my mom told me to like, step it up. She would come and take me to the show if I handed in like every single assignment this past semester, and I did it! So I’m here!

[Show host: The legendary, the incomparable, the brilliant, the gorgeous, the compassionate, the just and the big-hearted: Sasha Velour!]

Velour: It’s important to me to create a world where if anyone came in and they didn’t agree, they would be in the minority and they would say, “Maybe I’m missing something, because it’s clear that everyone in this space agrees that this belongs and is worthy and has value. And I think sometimes, that’s the kind of dynamic that changes people’s minds.

Del Toro: And that’s it for tonight’s show. Thank you so much for watching. You can go to our show page and leave us comments — let us know what you think about our stories. See you next time!

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