For actor and Grammy-winning Fugees member Pras, what began as an “interesting” idea suggested by producer friend Rob Winslow during a game of Scrabble became nine days as a homeless person in downtown L.A. He began with $9 in his pocket, a hidden camera and the identity of a down-on-his-luck actor from New York. Pras’ experience will be part of a documentary, “First Night.” “Originally, we said a month,” says Pras. “Then we realized to get what I needed, it doesn’t take a month if you do 24 hours a day, nine days straight.” Here’s his story.
Did you just show up one day?
I’ve been living in L.A., going back and forth (to New York) since ’98, but honestly, prior to skid row, I’d never been downtown. I live in Beverly Hills and there’s a bus that takes you straight to Sixth Street, right where the mission is — the Midnight Mission. I left around three in the morning. First thing, I try to figure out food. I’m tired, I’m hungry.
Where do you get food?
I made the first mission (meal), but I didn’t like the food. I’m still brand new, still caught up in my little modern world. So — you don’t like the food, then you gotta go buy food.
Did you panhandle?
Yeah, of course. I panhandled every day I was there. The Financial District, by Figueroa and Sixth Street, was my main spot because cars are coming off the highway and there’s a red light. Some did what most people would do — act like I didn’t exist.
How did that feel?
I’m thinking this was (going to be) easy. I’m proud; I know how to hustle. It’s not like that. Your immediate humanistic emotion comes out and it’s like a stab in the heart.
How much would you make in a day?
The first day, I got lucky. I made $32 in about four hours. The next day, I made $7 in five hours. It was raining, so people were reluctant to turn down their windows.
Did you buy food with it?
Well, I needed a place to sleep, so I needed a tent. On skid row, they sell tents. They even rent out tents, $10-$15 an hour.
Who on skid row can manage to handle tent rentals?
It’s done. Some people have an air mattress in there, they got their little TV, radio, they’re taking illegal cable from the building.
Did you rent a tent or did you buy one?
I bought a tent for $25. My first night, I’m sleeping and rats are trying to get in the tent. Everybody else was like, “These rats are trying to survive, just like we are.”
How much sleep do you get on the street?
You don’t get any sleep. Your senses are on high alert because you’re exposed. What your body does is just rest enough so that it can fuel up itself. But it will never fully rest, unless you are taking drugs.
What percentages of people on the street are on drugs or drunk?
It depends on what section you are sleeping at. My section is considered the “clean” section, which means we are homeless due to circumstance.
So if someone was a drug addict, they wouldn’t be in your neck of the woods?
No, they’re gonna be on St. Julian, which is the drug section. St. Julian’s more of the weed spot. If you want crack, you gotta go to Wall Street, across the street from the police station. If you want dope, then you gotta go on Winston.
Did anybody get the notion that you had a hidden camera?
No, but there were times when people thought they recognized me.
What’d you do? Say, “I know, I get that a lot?”
Yeah. This one dude swore on his life, “Damn, you look like Pras.” I said, “Man, I wish I was Pras. I wouldn’t be in this bitch right now.” On the tenth day, when I came back, the community found out. They were kind of happy because I befriended a lot of them. But you can’t come down there and invade them. You know, like, what’s that guy’s name — Geraldo — he came down there while we were shooting and he got bottled, his car got bottled.
Having gone through this, what is the best thing people can do for the homeless?
The worst thing you can do is not acknowledge them. If somebody says, “Excuse me, do you have any change?” — whether you give it to them or not, just acknowledge. Say, “I’m sorry. I don’t have it.” They are human beings. Some of us are fortunate to have a mother and a father and uncles and aunts who, no matter what, they’ll take us in. If you want to volunteer, go through the mission. Do you know how many lives you touch just being there, listening to their story? If you want to do something, give to the mission. People need clothes, they need toiletries. Down at skid row, everything’s for sale, even toilet tissue.
To donate or volunteer, visit midnightmission.org.
“First Night” was directed by Marshall Tyler, Niva Dorell and Ross Clarke. Producers are Pras Michel, Rob Wisdom and Teryn Fogel; executive producers are Darryl Taja and Scott Noe.