In the centre of one of the world’s most high-profile cities lies a concentration of desperate poverty unlike any other in the developed world. Los Angeles’s Skid Row, a common name for a once-common form of down-and-out quarter in American cities, persists as the last neighbourhood of its kind.
Skid Row’s very existence illustrates a major planning mistake the southern Californian metropolis made in the past. The struggles over what to do with it now reveal the extent of the challenge facing LA in its current transformation into a denser, more traditionally urban city. It’s no exaggeration to call Skid Row one of the main battlegrounds for the future of Los Angeles.
The neighbourhood went from metaphorical to literal battleground last Sunday when, on a rare rainy day in this city, an altercation with Los Angeles Police Department officers resulted in the death of a 45-year-old resident. Known locally by the name “Africa” or “Cameroon”, he was shot by several officers after allegedly grabbing one of their guns; beyond that, facts about the precise sequence of events have been slow to emerge.
Homeless man shot dead by LAPD had a secret past, like everyone on Skid Row
We know the victim lived in a tent; he’d pitched it near the corner of San Pedro and 6th street. Every Angeleno has seen these tents – always between the hours of 9pm and 6am, when police look the other way about camping on the streets. One wrong turn out of a trendy night spot or the Disney concert hall and you can find yourself in another world, where encampments of the drug-addicted and mentally ill spill out on to the sidewalk for block after block after block.
“The contrast is shockingly stark,” says Brigham Yen, a downtown Los Angeles real-estate expert and chronicler of the area’s revitalisation on his site DTLA Rising. “On one block you can see the new downtown: all these new restaurants and bars and shops. Then you go into Skid Row and it’s the bottom of anything you can think of. The smells — that’s the part that will get you.”
Shanks Rajendran’s documentary Los Scandalous offers an up-close-and-personal look at the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and hustlers of every type who work Skid Row by night. “Driving through for the first time, I was in complete awe,” says the Australian filmmaker, whose shock at seeing such a place in “America, the greatest country in the world” led him to start recording all he saw and heard there.
Rajendran filmed what he calls “the game” of Skid Row, played not just by “the drug dealers and people looking to exploit things” but by the public safety officers “who go around looking for dirty homeless people who have crept out and tell them to go back”, in an effort to maintain the rest of downtown’s new “clean, touristy image”.
In Rajendran’s time in the neighbourhood he saw no direct eruptions of violence. Rather, “they all work together to avoid the police” – having long since fallen into the ritual of scattering when patrols passed by and then returning to their usual spots. “It’s sad, because Skid Row residents have accepted their position in society. Everybody in Los Angeles has accepted it, I’d say.”
Skid Row is widely regarded as the greatest obstacle to the rebuilding of a first-class downtown in Los Angeles. As of 2014, the downtown area had a residential population of 52,400 and rising, up from just 27,849 in 2000. Skid Row accounts for 17,740 of that total, while estimates put the number of homeless there between 3,000 and 6,000 – an incredible 10% of the current population.
Yet downtown Los Angeles has, on the whole, made the most impressive recovery of any American central city in the 21st century. Hollowed out with most of the others by the mass exodus to the suburbs that followed the second world war, its prospects for a turnaround looked the bleakest for decades thereafter. Even Reyner Banham, the architectural historian known for his contrarian enthusiasm for LA, titled one chapter of his much-cited Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies “A Note on Downtown” because “that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves”.
His book came out in the early 1970s, the era in which a coalition including LA’s then-mayor Tom Bradley and the Community Redevelopment Agency made the fateful decision to concentrate county resources for the homeless downtown, in the area that would become Skid Row. More than 70 non-profit and government organisations participated in this grand project of centralisation in this famously decentralised “city without a centre”, filling that absent centre with shelters, medical facilities, soup kitchens, rescue missions and a host of other services for the truly impoverished.
At the time, Skid Row made sense. It corralled all that would attract “undesirables” into a part of the city without much of a population beyond daytime office workers, pensioners, and the homeless and semi-homeless hotel-dwellers already there. It lay far from coastal enclaves like Santa Monica or suburban hinterlands like the San Fernando Valley, which were home to more politically important constituencies.
“At that time, downtown was a ghost-town,” says Yen, “a big rug to sweep the county’s homeless problem under.” But now that downtown has become one of the most desirable areas in the region, deserving of a whole book rather than a mere note, all that looks terribly shortsighted.
Despite having so far lost about 10 square blocks to encroaching new development, Skid Row shows remarkably little in the way of visible gentrification (apart from isolated projects such as a mild renovation of the King Eddy, supposedly one of Charles Bukowski’s preferred watering holes). But with its predictably lower rental prices, it offers opportunities to young, non-homeless “urban pioneers” such as Jinsoo An, who moved into a San Pedro Street building formerly used by a film production company. In his Skid Row space, An has set up both his home and an operation called Kokiri Lab, a hi-tech “hackerspace” dedicated to the development of wearable technology.
From what he describes as his “paradise in the ghetto”, An witnesses firsthand the city’s Sisyphean effort to keep keep Skid Row at least somewhat tidy. “Once a week, a whole army of cleaners come and bulldoze all the trash from the streets and ask the homeless people to pack up their stuff and leave. I’d heard how much it costs to have people living in the street and couldn’t understand why those costs exist. Now I see it in action.”
But An says it doesn’t take long for his street to regain its layer of “garbage, piss, shit — everything combined together ... I never used to look forward to the rain, but now I enjoy walking back to my place most after a storm. It lets me breathe.”
Just as a few bold individuals such as An have come to live in or near Skid Row, a few bold businesses have set up shop as well. “Skid Row has actually prevented downtown from becoming too mainstream too quickly,” says Yen. “If there wasn’t a Skid Row, you would already see all the big chain stores. Those are going to come anyway, over time, but I feel like it gives independent businesses that aren’t afraid a chance to take root first.”
Of course that small positive of Skid Row, Yen argues, doesn’t outweigh its considerable negatives. “I don’t think it should exist, period – not only for developmental reasons, but for moral reasons. It’s not healthy. If the goal is to get people out of poverty, it doesn’t make sense to have an area conducive to poverty. These people can never escape, because all they see around them is poverty.”
Describing the neighbourhood as a zone of “failed humanity”, Yen lays the blame squarely at the feet of Los Angeles County, as “all of Skid Row’s services are provided by county tax dollars, and the county government failed miserably in how they dealt with the homeless issue to begin with”. He sees a decentralisation of Skid Row, and thus a more even distribution of services for the homeless across the county’s 4,751 square miles, as the only way of alleviating both the problems within it and the intensifying friction with the surrounding city.
Keeping Skid Row for the homeless does have its advocates – albeit sometimes advocates who live far from Skid Row. They easily forget, Yen says, “that the people they’re ‘supporting’ are living in squalor, dying from diseases, living in the most filthy conditions you could imagine in the United States. They aren’t using their brains; they’re using their hearts. They frame it as the big, bad developers coming into downtown and the evil people who want to live there pushing these victims away. But if the ‘rich hipsters’ hadn’t come in and put the issue back on the political radar, the homeless would continue to live in perpetuity as forgotten people.”
Homelessness is often described as a problem we must solve—and Los Angeles city and county now have expensive plans to do so. Homelessness is also an industry.
And as George Mason professor Craig Willse shows in his book, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States, that industry is designed to manage costs rather than challenge the mechanisms that create and maintain homelessness.
As someone who has spent eight years working in nonprofit homeless services and studying homelessness, Willse’s book struck a nerve. It also confirmed the hypocrisy of my situation—of my desire to help those most vulnerable due to their extreme poverty, and my knowledge that I’m part of an industry dependent on the existence of extreme poverty.
Homeless services don’t end homelessness; they manage it. While the industry is dominated by nonprofits, there is money to be made, and we have accepted the reality that homeless services are professionalized, and offer career opportunities and—sadly—a certain security.
Homelessness is not routine—it’s a deeply personal experience of suffering, and its causes are largely systemic. Many of the folks that I’ve met through my work became homeless because of the way their life and choices were constrained by forces outside their control.
Larry (I’m required to use a pseudonym as a condition of my work and research with homeless people) grew up in a poor neighborhood in South Los Angeles. His father left before he was 9, and his mother struggled to provide for him and his siblings. He learned to cook and hustled for the family, but, bitter with what he saw as few options, he got into gang life, and started robbing and dealing. He was in and out of prison for nearly three decades. Out of prison, he wound up on the streets or in homeless shelters. He told me he about his aspirations to go to college and get a good job. Larry hoped to overcome the bad decisions he had made, he said, but the economy didn’t have a place for people with his record and background, and the legal system termed him a failure and pulled him back in after every slip or relapse.
In my work, I have observed common themes in narratives such as Larry’s—families without resources, life-long struggles with poverty, neighborhoods with limited economic opportunities and experiences of deep trauma. Of course, many people I serve also have high psychiatric needs and chronic health conditions, but I don’t buy into the notion—common in popular, policy, and academic interpretations of homelessness—that these conditions are the primary cause of homelessness.
Through false interpretations, I fear we have constructed an imaginary chronically homeless person—mentally ill, with substance abuse and other issues. That hides the life experiences and structures behind their troubles—everything from lesser education for those who are poor and have special needs, to an economy that limits social mobility, to a criminal justice system that swallows up poor people, to health care systems that underserve the poor and mentally ill, to housing markets that don’t provide enough safe and affordable options. Framing homelessness as a pathology reinforces the legitimacy of the industry and places the blame for housing deprivation on the individual.
Herein lies the dilemma—I am one of many who work to support individuals to better meet those needs, but in the context of an industry that presents no challenge to the realities that largely create and exacerbate those needs.
Through false interpretations, I fear we have constructed an imaginary chronically homeless person—mentally ill, with substance abuse and other issues. That hides the life experiences and structures behind their troubles.
In my research as a graduate student in applied anthropology at California State University, Long Beach, I explored some of the limitations of supportive housing as a response to homelessness. I completed the research at Lamp Community, a nonprofit homeless services organization in the city of Los Angeles. I did life history interviews with people in the housing program, interviewed staff and administrators, all the while documenting my observations. I found that life-long courses of trauma and poverty caused housing insecurity that led people to become homeless. I also found that housing insecurity remains even once a person makes it from the streets to supportive housing. Of course, the committed work of staff in providing services and intervention can sometimes help them keep their housing, even in tenuous situations. But all such efforts are temporary, since supportive housing, like the rest of the homeless industry, fails to confront the inequality, poverty, health care, and other systems through which homelessness exists.
In exploring and describing these limitations, I hoped that my research would be read as a challenge to the assumption that these programs exist solely to do good. Rather, these programs are not simply a humanitarian response to deprived populations. They are also economic endeavors, as Willse suggests, that are part of a system of homeless management. My hope was that such an analysis would inspire a rethinking of how we confront homelessness. But I also questioned whether my research would simply amount to a step forward in my professional and academic career, to be buried on a bookshelf.
When the city of Los Angeles declared a state of emergency in October 2015 and committed $100 million to address homelessness, I couldn’t help but see it through this more skeptical lens. Of course there will be folks who benefit from the infusion of millions of dollars into the homeless services industry. But if we accept Willse’s thesis, then expanding the industry doesn’t bring us any closer to ending homelessness. So the state of emergency and funds appear less humanitarian and more aimed at masking the visible reminders of our disparate economic and social systems.
As downtown Los Angeles gentrifies and a palpable tension between the newer tenants and those living on the streets grows, the pressure to better manage the homeless population mounts. What has been an ongoing issue for decades is suddenly framed as an emergency due to the proximity of visible poverty to idyllic housing development.
Many advocates have argued that housing should be considered a human right, but in our society it is first and foremost a commodity—a commodity increasingly unaffordable for most. Still many advocates adopt the argument that housing the homeless is cheaper than leaving them on the street, as a way of getting new policies and more funding. This demonstrates how effectively economics dominates the discourse of homelessness. Take the logic to the extreme, and you understand the horror of such thinking: If homelessness and costs shift so that abandoning homeless to the streets is cheaper, should we stop trying to find them housing?
There will be people who get housing and maybe enough of the much needed support to retain it as result of Los Angeles’ decision to take some action, but most individuals will continue to live in vulnerable places and without stable housing. Warehousing visible poverty in the limited pool of subsidized housing may create the appearance of a reduction in homelessness, but that’s just an appearance.
Of course I want to make a difference. That’s what drew me to the field of homeless services in the first place. But the poverty and trauma I’ve seen have convinced me that we are failing. The nonprofit industry and all our emergencies will not end homeless.
What will? Real advocacy that isn’t compromised by the funding of an industry. Advocacy that produces deep changes in how our economic system creates and responds to poverty, how we create housing, how people get the health care they need.
While I can focus on the day-to-day work—the great team I collaborate with, the amazing people I’ve met during my time in the field, and the ways we exercise compassion and, in a small way, attempt to lessen the harshness of our broader system of violence—I’d rather simultaneously confront the hypocrite that I’ve become. I can’t help but encourage others caught in the web—advocates, case managers, clinicians, administrators, academics, politicians—to do the same.