Just east of downtown Los Angeles lies an invisible world that most of us would never dare to enter. Beneath the graffiti scrawled bridges near the LA River lives an entire community of lost souls. Hundreds of homeless people have set up camps in hard-to-reach locations.
You're unlikely to find them without a great deal of effort. You may have to drive through a dark tunnel that dead-ends into the river. You may need a rope ladder to climb up to a crevice beneath a bridge, or you might have to crawl through a drainage pipe. Most people would never go to the trouble.
But John Shinavier is not most people. Trained as a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, Shinavier is a special breed. He runs a nonprofit called Under the Bridges and On the Streets, feeding homeless people where they live.
He spent his youth in the free-spirited 1960s hitchhiking around the country and traveling the world with a spiritual leader.
He fondly remembers those days.
"There were a lot of times I didn't have a place to sleep. I'd find a safe place out in nature somewhere," he said.
While the teenage Shinavier slept outdoors for adventure, he sees himself in those who are not doing it by choice.
"My spiritual teacher Ma Jaya taught us there are no throw-away people,” Shinavier said. “Even if you have nothing to give somebody give them a blessing. Say ‘Hi,’ connect."
Shinavier discovered the homeless encampments along the LA River 22 years ago and has been coming back every month with food and clothing.
I tag along with Shinavier on a recent mission. I bring with me one of NBCLA's finest photographers, Tommy Bravo. We climb into Shinavier's PT Cruiser, along with his wife, Lisa. She's also a therapist and took the day off work to help distribute food. They've loaded the car with sack lunches made in their backyard by a team of volunteers.
We drive along the LA River listening to the near-constant sound of trains screeching along the maze of tracks that line the industrial wasteland near East LA.
We turn into a dark tunnel. It's lined with graffiti and littered with pill bottles and discarded clothing.
Shinavier says he stumbled upon the homeless encampments by chance.
"I just took the car and came down here and the people with me thought I was crazy at the time," he said.
The tunnel ends at the water's edge. Steep cement embankments rise up from the river to meet the crumbling bridges.
Shinavier gets out and yells his customary greeting.
The call echoes through the muddy tunnels.
Within seconds the desolate scene comes alive. Dirty, disheveled men begin to crawl out from the concrete in all directions.
A man named Gerald appears from a drainage hole, another man creeps out from the tunnel, and we hear a voice call out from above. I look up to see a skinny man in blackened socks and flip flops precariously perched on a sewage pipe about 30 feet in the air.
"Hello?" he calls out while negotiating a tricky walk along the rusty pipe.
Shinavier recognizes the man and yells for him to lower his basket on a rope so he can fill it with food.
The man on the pipe ignores him. He's coming down. He seems eager for company. He maneuvers his way down the embankment and greets us with a wide smile.
He identifies himself as Tracey Joriday, a former musician who lost his way.
"I was a person who helped the homeless and I became homeless," he tells us.
Joriday says he and two other men live in the crawl space where the bridge meets the road just above the tunnel. He ventures out occasionally to get food and services from the LA Mission. He looks forward to Shinavier's visits.
"John has been coming down here for many years to help us,” Joriday said. “He gives us his clothes. That's a good thing. When you can give the clothes off your own back that means you're serious about what you're doing."
Shinavier hands out ham and cheese sandwiches while Joriday describes the encampment. He's unfazed by our camera. He's articulate, soften spoken and thoughtful.
"I got a mattress up in there with seven cats,” Joriday said. “We have a lot of people with a lot of issues on this river. You have a lot of mental health issues, a lot of people are sick."
Joriday says Shinavier is one of his only friends.
"John has a charismatic personality,” Joriday said. “He has a blissful heart. That's the beginning of it. He's not looking at us like we're some kind of bacteria or something. We're people too. We have feelings."
Shinavier gives him a lunch, a hat and a blanket. Joriday insists on giving us something in return. He wants to sing for us.
He launches into a haunting ballad about Jesus coming one day to take him away. He has a beautiful voice, and I can't help but wonder what led him to such a lonely life beneath this bridge.
Just then Gerald catches my eye. He crouches and crawls headfirst into a hole in the side of the bridge. He disappears into the wall. To my surprise, Bravo takes his camera and crawls in after him.
Inside the wall Gerald has created a small bedroom. A thin mattress lies on the ground. Plastic tarps cover holes and cracks in the ceiling.
"Pretty neat, huh?" He says while munching on the sandwich Shinavier gave him. The photographer agrees and lays on his stomach in the tiny space to capture this never-before-seen view.
As Bravo crawls out of the wall Shinavier laughs and applauds his doggedness.
"Even I haven't crawled inside there!"
As we turn to leave Joriday insists on a hug and Shinavier obliges. The two men embrace and slap each other on the back.
"Thank you so much," Joriday says.
"You're welcome, buddy. I'll see you Saturday," Shinavier responds.
We're off to the next stop. Shinavier tells us why he continues his relentless efforts to serve this population of rarely seen Angelinos.
"A lot of people still think homeless people are scary, they're going to kill you,” Shinavier said. “I've been doing this 30 odd years and I've never once been threatened by any homeless person. I've been hugged and I've been kissed."
Shinavier says he was once surrounded by dozens of gang members when he accidentally stumbled upon a gang meeting near the bridges.
"They surrounded the car,” he said. “I had other volunteers with me. I got out of the car and they surrounded me and started to put their hands on me. Someone way in the back yelled 'Hey, that's Cookie man! Don't touch him!'"
The man had once received a handout from Shinavier and wanted to repay the debt.
"The gang members started slapping me on the back and telling me I was cool, safe passage,” Shinavier said. “You never know who you are touching and how it's going to come back to you in a good way."
We make several more stops and at each location Shinavier is treated like a long-lost friend. One man named Jonathan greets us from behind a gate in a bridge crawl space high above the railroad tracks. He's confused by this mid-week visit.
"What day is it? Is it Saturday?" he yells down to Shinavier.
"No, it's Wednesday,” he replies. “We're making a special trip this week. Lower your bag and I'll fill it with food for you," Shinavier hollers back.
Jonathan lowers a bag on a rope and gets a sack full of food and supplies.
As we turn to leave Shinavier notices a young man lying barefoot on a nearby stairwell. He's wearing a blue tracksuit and a buzz cut. One foot is propped up on the railing and covered by a tarp. The young man seems a bit dazed. He laughs nervously and tells Shinavier his foot is infected. Shinavier surmises the man has scabies, a contagious skin infestation caused by microscopic mites. The man tells us he usually cleans his infected foot with a razor. Shinavier gives him a pack of sanitary wipes and instructs him to clean his foot and wrap it in the towel. He also gives him a sack lunch.
The young man is surprised and unsure of how to respond to this random act of kindness.
"Do I eat this? It's good for me to eat and drink, right?" he says with a confused look on his face.
"Yes, it's a good sandwich, ham and cheese. No peanut butter and jelly," Shinavier responds.
The young man bows his head in thanks as Shinavier hands him clean white socks.
"Bless you," he says as we walk away.
Shinavier says his training as a therapist helps him communicate with this hidden community.
"I know how to talk to them, how to listen. This is what it's all about,” he said. “I look into their eyes. That same look in their eyes is in all of our eyes. Some are clouded with alcohol, but they're still there. When you get out here and see it, smell it, touch it, and see the pain you have to do something."
Shinavier relies on donations and volunteers to keep his nonprofit alive. He dreams one day of having a mobile soup kitchen. He'd like to deliver free hot meals to those on the street. He scoffs at critics who accuse him of enabling the homeless. He says his mission is just to feed them - and he leaves it to other nonprofits to get them off the street. He once went bankrupt trying to fund the program.
"We're always scraping by. So what? It's only money," he said.
Shinavier says serving the less fortunate helps him as much as the people he feeds.
“You get this awareness of what's going on around you when you step outside your comfort zone. It frees you up,” he said. “You don't walk around with your petty fears and depression. Not everyone is cut out to feed the homeless, but if you look around somebody needs your help."
Mother Teresa famously said, "If we have no peace - it is because we've forgotten that we belong to each other."
If you would like to help Shinavier and his nonprofit Under the Bridges and On the Streets, visit his website by clicking here.