Strife in the City of Angels, A Photo Essay
“It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s about what you want and who has it.” Such are the words of James, the first person I meet on Skid Row in Los Angeles. I tell him I am here to take documentary photos, and he tells me he is here to recover. Skid Row is a world of its own. People litter the sidewalks, their bodies stretched out across the concrete as they lie in makeshift shelters of clothes, cardboard boxes, and shopping carts. With thousands of homeless inhabitants condensed into just four square miles, Port A Potties are sites for prostitution, drugs are used in the open, and crime is everywhere.
Divorced from his wife and separated from his nine children, James says he used to be a teacher but has now been living on the streets for three years while battling mental illness. Every morning he leaves Skid Row, begging for money and searching for discarded food in trash bins, scavenging just enough for the next meal. While he is gone, dealers scout out the street corners, watching for potential addicts and the police. Children run by as brawls break out. Gang members rob crippled war veterans. At night James heads toward the Mission, Skid Row’s largest shelter, hoping to get a bed in a room shared with over 50 other people. “You don’t know the hell I have to go through in order to reach the Mission,” James says.
But that scene is just the surface. Amidst the constant struggle, many homeless people choose to stay on Skid Row—the area north of Seventh Street, east of Main Street, south of Third Street, and west of Alameda Street— because it is a refuge where residents are offered comfort and support. Even as politicians and community activists debate Skid Row and its future, they remain, continuing to fight, to survive, to live. For James and thousands of others like him, Skid Row is home.
Originally a hub of agricultural activity, Skid Row began to industrialize in the late 19th century after railroads were constructed through the area into the rest of Los Angeles. During the subsequent decades, migrants from across the world came to Skid Row to find temporary work. The area was home to seasonal laborers, the majority of whom were single and male, and lived in the various hotels. As a result, bars and whorehouses began to proliferate, and by the 1930s, the area already housed thousands of people who lived on the fringes of society.
Today, Central City East (Skid Row) contains a population of about 12,000 people, according to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Approximately half of that number still lives in single room occupancy hotels, rooms only big enough for sleeping, with a shared bathroom and no kitchen—much like a college dorm. With no other place to stay, the rest live out on the streets. Homeless people are so common in the area that hospitals use to dump homeless patients on Skid Row.
When I asked, many people from other parts of downtown Los Angeles claim to have very little knowledge of Skid Row, but that is to be expected. With the majority of the business and bank buildings located farther north in the financial district of Los Angeles, outsiders have no reason to venture into the area.
As one moves south toward Skid Row, the difference in the nature of commerce is palpable. Clean streets give way to cracked sidewalks, and banks and commercial storefronts transition into small immigrant-owned shops, which then give way to redeveloped homeless housing.
With so many street dwellers located in such a small area, gangs from East Los Angeles are able to actively conduct business—taking advantage of the addiction and mental illness that run rampant on the streets. Heather MacDonald, a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, says that one of Los Angeles’s biggest gangs distributes heroin on the western side of Skid Row; dealers sell narcotics in warehouses and dilapidated homes, and even from out of wheelchairs.
“People who are able to work work, and people who are living on the streets taking drugs do not interact with the rest of the population much because they are living in a self-enclosed bubble,” MacDonald tells The Politic. “Skid Row is not a poverty problem. The encampments on the street are not a poverty problem. It is a drug, alcohol abuse, and mental illness problem.”
During much of the 20th Century, the police department conducted sweeps and crackdowns on Skid Row. More recently, in September 2006, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) launched the Safer City Initiative, a program to implement Broken Windows policing. Broken Windows is a theory promoting the strict enforcement of low-level misdemeanor laws, holding that if minor violations—such as throwing a rock through a window—are allowed to persist, they will eventually lead to more serious crimes.
MacDonald asserts that when the Safer City Initiative was implemented, Skid Row became a safer and more orderly place for residents. Locals did not have to worry about being accosted by drug dealers and prostitutes, the elderly could go out without fear of being threatened, and there was a decrease in drug overdoses, she claims. She adds that immigrant entrepreneurs and small manufacturers no longer have to worry about cleaning up piles of feces and smashed vials of crack that were once left in front of their stores.
“We had a tremendous reduction in crime,” says Andrew Smith, Commander of the Los Angeles Police Department. “There used to be 40 or 50 homicides a year, and one of the [more recent] years we were there we saw just 12 homicides. We also decreased the amount of people living on the streets from about 1600 at one point to just a few hundred.”
Under the Safer City Initiative, Police Chief William Bratton assigned more police officers to the area. With more officers in Skid Row, more “quality of life” crimes could be addressed: people drinking and behaving drunkenly in public, among other minor crimes. Smith explains that with more officers paying attention to these infractions, the number of homicides, drug sales, and assaults would drop. Since 2006, these results have indeed materialized.
Smith says the Department’s goal was never to arrest the homeless population, but rather the criminal element that was hiding within the community. He noted that homelessness is not something the police are supposed to handle—while officers may address crime and criminal behavior, they do not want to arrest homeless people.
Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), a poverty rights organization, asserts that the Skid Row community is bristling under overly aggressive officers. “The cops are still beating and shooting people,” says General Dogon, community organizer for LA CAN. “They just shot and killed an unarmed man on [Sunday,] June 1 at Fifth and San Pedro.”
The deceased man, nicknamed Mucky Man, reportedly liked to sleep on a store roof at the corner of one intersection. According to Dogon, officers depicted the incident as if it were a suicide attempt and became frustrated when the man would not come down. Instead of bringing in a specialized psychiatric unit, the police chose to call in Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), Dogon says. This frightened the man, prompting him to climb from the roof onto a billboard 50 feet in the air. While the original intent was to shoot the man so that he would fall on a large, blow- up mattress below the building, Dogon says the police ended up shooting him in the head, after which he fell, missed the mattress, and broke his neck. Dogon, himself a native of Skid Row, remains convinced that homelessness in the area is being criminalized.
Although Los Angeles has been called the homeless capital of the nation, efforts to offer affordable housing have been made in recent years to help the people of Skid Row. Just recently, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation donated $12 million in support of housing development for the city’s homeless population. Sources interviewed say stable housing is the primary restriction in helping the homeless population off the streets.
“It’s virtually impossible for someone to deal with their health care needs, mental health needs, or anything else while they’re also trying to figure out where they’re going to sleep the next night,” says Gary Blasi, professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Providing legal services to people while they’re homeless is extremely difficult. Therefore what medical, legal, or mental health people should primarily do is to try to help people get housed.”
Yet in order to receive housing, applicants must first pass various drug and mental health tests before being considered eligible. Without a permanent address, it becomes difficult to meet these demands, as candidates are unable to maintain a stable line of communication. Many of the homeless people are lost somewhere along the process and ultimately end up right where they started. In other words: the homeless industrial complex.
Most experts interviewed say that the best strategy for helping the homeless is to guarantee them housing regardless of other concerns, and prior to drug and mental health tests. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not enough housing can be built to accommodate the homeless. Even then, other potential shortfalls in the social safety net must also be addressed. For instance, Social Security disability benefits, a major source of income on Skid Row, are around $800 per month, which is not commensurate with the cost of living in even some of the lowest income neighborhoods in L.A.
The solution may not be as simple as it seems, the experts add. While for most of its history, Skid Row has housed single males, the recession of the early 1990s brought women and children in need of shelter to the area. Laura Barraclough, a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University, says that the fastest growing demographic of homeless people is actually families with young children, specifically women with young children. In this situation, single occupancy rooms may not be enough.
“We could think of variations on single occupancy rooms like community-oriented structures, but those would all require a lot of subsidies from the government, and at this point, a lot of city governments are strapped financially,” Barraclough says. “They don’t have the money, but even more so, they don’t have the political will to put their money into subsidizing poor people more than they’re already doing.” Carla Guerrero, Advocacy and Media Coordinator of the L.A. Downtown Women’s Center, says that one of the biggest obstacles to getting people off the streets is simply the lack of housing. The Downtown Women’s Center’s most frequently asked question is how long their waiting list is for permanent supportive housing.
“Our case managers do their best to work with the resources they have in order to help women into more stable housing,” Guerrero says. “The fact of the matter, though, is that there is just not enough affordable housing or permanent housing options in L.A. The lack of housing is the biggest barrier.” Rents in L.A. have always been high. Gale Holland, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who covers homelessness and poverty, says that housing has always been the largest problem at the heart of homelessness, adding that the rents within the limits of L.A. have increased dramatically. In 2013, L.A. had the largest increase in rent, $1,435, in all of Southern California. The University of Southern California’s “Casden Real Estate Economist Forecast” report predicts that rent in L.A. will go up another 3.8 percent from the spring of 2013 to the spring of 2015.
“We have next to zero resources,” Dogon says. “We need more resources to be put on our side. All we have right now are temporary solutions that drain resources and money while recycling the process.”
Yet while the experts continue to push for accessible housing, many people have different plans for the future of Skid Row. When the Skid Row Housing Trust first built the New Genesis Apartments, in 2012, thee group was under pressure from developers to place a restaurant with a liquor license on the ground floor, even though many residents were recovering from drugs and alcohol. More than 50 members of the Skid Row community testified against the permit for a liquor license in hearings for the case. In the end, the license was denied. “The developers claim they are the community, but they do that [while] trying to ignore the fact [that] there is a real community which has interests of [its] own, different from those of the developers,” says John Malpede, vice president and director of the L.A. Poverty Department.
Many L.A. residents living outside of Skid Row have also been advocating for more middle- and upper-level income housing. While the rest of the city continues to industrialize and grow, an increasing number of people are looking to construct new buildings on Skid Row to attract more new businesses, such as lofts, bars, and restaurants. As a result, a new concern is the displacement of Skid Row’s inhabitants. On one side of the street on one edge of Skid Row are newly painted intersections, art galleries, and restaurants; the other side has abandoned buildings and run-down shops. Holland says that Skid Row has slowly been receding and gentrifying, with parts of the area being transformed into salons and cafes. The block between Fourth Street and Fifth Street is now a cupcake shop, a high-end salon, and an internationally heralded ethnic restaurant.
Los Angeles today contains some of the richest and poorest people in the nation. Yet while the two populations live just miles apart, they also inhabit entirely different worlds.
The public’s portrait of the homeless tends to rely on stereotypes about individuals who have severe, invisible mental health and other problems, Blasi says. Individuals afflicted by these issues are certainly the most visible, but they are also only a minority. Although much of homelessness is criminalized, and the perception is that the homeless routinely abuse drugs and alcohol, not all of the lives on Skid Row revolve around substance abuse. Many on Skid Row are there because of purely economic circumstances, and many more are trying to get back on their feet. With so many specialized social services located on Skid Row, the structure of the area is unlike that of other homeless communities around the nation. “They concentrated resources for the homeless and low-income in that area and created a unique place with a lot of support for homeless people,” Malpede says of past mayoral administrations. “There is a permanent population living in downtown who reknit the social fabric of the neighborhood by engaging and doing various things for the community. It’s the biggest recovery community anywhere.”
In light of the gentrification of L.A., many of Skid Row’s inhabitants want to preserve the area’s unique culture. Holland says that when she first went to Skid Row, she did not realize that many of its residents consider it a vibrant low-income community. But there has been significant grass roots development of Skid Row in the past decade, including the growth of art festivals and a theater scene.
“There is a substantial productive community in Skid Row,” Malpede says. “Recently we hosted an art show featuring works from members of the community, people who actively contribute and pursue a career as an artist. It tells a different story than what most people think.”
One resident of Skid Row began a 3-on-3 basketball league, Malpede continues, adding that others sweep the streets and provide trashcans for the area when the city will not. “Right now, there’s a homeless person sleeping in the park who has the keys to the park and opens it while another guy in the neighborhood keeps it clean,” Malpede notes. “Between the two of them, they make the park available to the neighborhood.”
Guerrero says that some of the bigger misconceptions paint Skid Row as nothing more than a horrible place, rife with open drug use and other criminal activity. She emphasizes that a number of people who have moved to the area out of necessity have also formed friendships and discovered a vibrant, supportive community. These organic connections are significantly more effective than any other top-down solutions. Today, the community’s homeless residents take care of each other. Skid Row itself has rewoven the social safety net.
Before we part ways, James, the first man I meet here, shares that he teaches other homeless people and hopes to one day be employed as a teacher again. “There are thousands of us out here. You should take pictures,” he tells me. Countless stories are waiting to be told.