It was last July, somewhere around Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway, when I first noticed the RVs. Miles and miles of vintage cream-colored RVs parked bumper to bumper along the inland shoulder of the PCH. My first thought was that they must have belonged to tourists spending a day at the beach. But they were still there at night, stretching down the shoulder of the highway like a caravan caught in purgatorial gridlock, no closer to entering the city than to escaping it.
I started reading about the homeless camps spreading across the western United States around 2014. My initial impression was that the stories were paranoid allegories about late capitalism and American greed—postscripts of a sort to the rumors of encroaching FEMA camps from the previous decade, not meant to be taken literally. But the reports didn’t go away, and at some point I started to wonder if they could possibly be true, and—if they were true, and dust-bowl-era settlements were cropping up across American cities—how it wasn’t bigger news.
I’d read in one account that it was a crisis of rising housing costs and stagnating wages, and then, in another, that it was a crisis of drug addiction, mental illness, and deinstitutionalization. Were warm weather and welfare benefits drawing homeless people from other states to the West Coast? Had progressive governments, fearful of infringing on the rights of even the most disturbed people on the streets, effectively ceded public spaces to unincorporated settlements? Were business interests and real estate developers to blame, or was this the consequence of family breakdown and social atomization?
I wanted to see for myself, so I went out west.
Any social unit larger than the nuclear family will tend to contain class divisions that are significant to the in-group even if they’re invisible to outsiders. But in Los Angeles, the extraordinary scale of homelessness has dragged the varieties of indigence, need, and affliction out from the ghettos, missions, and holding cells and into the public’s view. The homeless here are too numerous to be contained within any one district, and many would rather sleep on the streets than stay in the shelters, which lack the beds to house them even if they did suddenly choose to come. After a few days wandering through alleys strung up with tarps and covered in refuse; down the tent-lined sidewalks of residential streets mere steps from multi-billion dollar businesses; seeing crumpled bodies inside sleeping bags being stepped over by people inured to the sight; and after walking through Skid Row—which has a more hellish concentration of deprivation and disorder than anything I’ve seen before in America—I started to think that the people living in RVs didn’t have it so bad.
LA County reported 53,195 homeless people in 2018, with 31,516 of them inside the city of Los Angeles. If you’ve walked around LA in the past year, however, or listened to skeptical experts, you might suspect the real number is considerably higher. And among those tens of thousands, there is no more one cause of homelessness than there is one way to be homeless. It’s a different path from foster care to addiction to Skid Row than it is from a schizophrenic break to prison and then the streets, or from a layoff to an eviction notice and an RV by the beach. They all get rolled up together in the same homeless count, but it doesn’t make sense to think that their problems or their path back to society, or some kind of normalcy, can be the same.
In Los Angeles, the cumulative consequences of decades of policy failures going back at least to the deinstitutionalization of the 1970s have settled like sediment at the bottom of an increasingly gilded city above. Homelessness hasn’t gotten worse in spite of LA’s wealth but because of it. A city where working families can’t afford to live has fewer of them—and the web of social connections they form—to catch people as they fall into desperate circumstances and patterns of self-destruction. Without family and community, all that’s left for some are the jails and shelters of the state, or the tent cities granted all the freedom of leper colonies.
In 2017, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty visited downtown LA’s Skid Row district, where somewhere between two thousand and ten thousand people are estimated to live. “I think it’s on a scale I hadn’t anticipated,” he said of the experience. “Block after block of people. When you see how concentrated it is, it’s more shocking.”
The city has struggled to keep fewer than ten public toilets operating for the thousands of people who live on Skid Row. The first night I walked through the district, I passed a fenced-in area outside one of the missions where sand had been spread across the ground like cat litter.
“Skid Row is the greatest man-made human disaster in the U.S.,” the Reverend Andy Bales, head of the neighborhood’s Union Rescue Mission, has said. Last November he called it “the worst it has ever been . . . a crisis of epic proportions.” Bales gets around in a wheelchair now. He contracted a flesh-eating bacteria on Skid Row several years ago and had to have his leg amputated.
Every morning, the line forms up in the alley behind the St. Joseph’s Homeless Service Center in Venice Beach, part of the larger network of the organization known by many as St. Joe’s. The squat, off-white stucco building faces Lincoln Boulevard, about a mile from the bustling Venice boardwalk. The bright red façade next door belongs to MedMen, a one-room marijuana store crowded with young employees standing around glass display cases. Starting at around seven in the morning on weekdays, a line forms in the alley behind the buildings. At eight the door at the back of St. Joe’s is opened, and people come in to sign up for services including hot meals, showers, and laundry, which they will receive the following day.
On a late July day last summer, I had come in through the back alley and was sitting in one of the rows of plastic chairs when I met Cora, waiting two seats down, who was friendly and helpful as she explained the process to me. After a minute she was joined by her boyfriend Taylor, who had just finished with his appointment, and I suggested we all go talk at a nearby café. Over coffee and pie, I learned that the couple was from Arkansas. They had been in LA for less than a year but on and off the streets since they were teenagers.
Cora wore her hair in a shaggy two-tone mohawk, short and brown on the sides and with a longer mane of sun-touched, reddish-gold hair running down the center of her head to her shoulders. She was thirty-two and wore a sleeveless shirt and shorts. Taylor was twenty-nine and rail thin with short blonde hair and glasses. His T-shirt had the logo of the veteran punk band The Exploited.
Cora did most of the talking. “In the Midwest, where I’m from, if you go in anywhere right then and there you can get help. Immediately. Obviously you need help because you walked in that door. But here they’re gonna make you wait,” she said.
She talked about days spent standing in lines, making appointments, biding time in plastic chairs, a routine of hurrying up and waiting. Even after all that waiting, she felt, “If you need something they don’t have it. They really don’t.”
What kind of stuff? I asked.
“Maybe a blanket,” she said. “Some clothes.” There were penalties for being reasonable, they felt. Crazy people who didn’t mind yelling and causing a scene got priority and access to resources like city bus passes while people like Cora and Taylor were at a disadvantage among the needy.
Later, Cora said, “I can’t really hold a job. I’ve been trying to apply for SSI. Being autistic and bipolar, I haven’t really been able to hold a job.”
“Last job I had was in 2011,” said Taylor.
“In Arkansas he worked for like a pizza place for probably a month or two,” Cora added. “He has no patience, bad temper.”
“We can’t get nobody to hire us here,” said Cora.
To supplement the monthly $221 dollars they each draw in General Relief and the food stamps that last them through the first couple weeks of the month, they had, until recently, been “spanging,” or asking for spare change on the street.
“It’s hard to make money out here spanging,” said Taylor.
“There’s just too much competition,” said Cora. Angelenos struck her as indifferent. “It’s just a normal thing. Everybody’s homeless so they just go about their lives instead of realizing other people need help sometimes.”
Recently, the couple sold the SUV that they drove to LA from Arkansas, which had been their home, and used the money to buy an RV.
“We’ve been living in the RV for almost two weeks now,” Cora says. “People who don’t have anything like that, their stuff gets stolen all the time. People that are just like us steal from us.”
“Hell yeah,” Taylor said. “They’ll steal your shoes while you’re sleeping.”
The vehicle, for as long as they can hold onto it, is their security.
“We’re not gonna go to Skid Row because it’s even worse there. It’s disgusting.”
In its annual homeless count, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (lahsa) found 4,577 RVs housing an estimated 8,380 people across LA county, and about half that within the city lines. Lahsa arrives at its numbers by extrapolating from data gathered over three nights by volunteers using a “point in time” methodology that people who study and work in the homelessness field widely believe undercounts the population on the streets. Nevertheless, they’re the closest thing that the county and city have to official numbers, and that count drives policy and budget lines. This year, lahsa reported that after a 42 percent increase over the past seven years, the number of homeless people across LA county was down 4 percent in 2018; the first decrease since 2010.
Signs of progress were not evident in Venice Beach, where I met Cora and Taylor over the summer. The same stranded caravans of cream-colored RVs parked along the coastal highway lined the streets of Venice. The location depended on the day, as the vehicles’ owners moved between different streets to avoid being fined or having their homes towed away. On Rose Avenue they stretched down the blocks past the Whole Foods parking lot and next door to the Bread and Roses Café, where the meals people signed up for at St. Joe’s were served by volunteers. Following the RVs west towards the ocean, if you circled out into the surrounding blocks, you’d find, among the ranch houses, bungalows, and restaurants, clusters of people without the metal roof of a car or camper sleeping on the street under tents, plastic tarps, and in sleeping bags with no cover at all, alongside mounds of trash, debris, and human waste. Every night, large groups of people slept on the beach. In Venice, the encampments pushed out to the very edge of the ocean.
Surrounding the encampments is some of the priciest real estate in the country. Venice Beach, once the mecca of California’s indigenous bohemian-sleaze surf and skate culture, is now one of LA’s most expensive neighborhoods. The area’s distinctive mix of hippie artists, health enthusiasts, lumpen beach bums, and new age burnouts was, in part, a product of its relatively cheap beachfront housing stock. But over the past decade, a combination of factors has contributed to soaring rents in the area. Government regulations and fierce local resistance to new development meant that the housing stock in Venice actually shrank even as demand increased, sending prices soaring for the few available units. Abbot Kinney street, the neighborhood’s premier commercial strip, became a redoubt of highend boutique shopping. High costs were no obstacle for companies like Google, however, which in 2011 leased a large Frank Gehry building a few blocks from the Venice boardwalk, a move that later attracted companies like Snapchat and anchored an expanding LA-based tech sector known as “Silicon Beach.”
The net impact on the housing market has been dramatic. In the summer of 2018, the median price for renting a one-bedroom apartment was $2,850 per month.
Neal, 68, originally from Brentwood, California, was sitting on the steps of his RV parked outside the Venice Whole Foods when he offered me a combined art and family history: “My grandmother’s husband’s first wife was an assistant to Diego Rivera and a lover of Hans Hoffman. So we had Hans Hoffman artwork in the house.”
I asked if he was an artist himself.
“Oh no,” he said, “I do fiber-optic multiplexes.”
Neal is mostly retired but said he can make up to $4,000 a week setting up fiber-optic networks, if he chooses to work. “My normal pay, I’m pretty much spoiled rotten,” Neal said.
Had he tried finding an apartment, I asked?
“I’ve checked into living in an apartment, even a room in a house in Venice; if you don’t have at least $6,000 up front you can forget it. First, last, and security deposit. Plus they’re gonna run a credit check on you. Even if you’re just renting the house they’ll still run it.”
In 2003, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared the island of Manhattan, home to more than a million and a half people, a “luxury product.” Derided at the time, it did seem to foreshadow an ascendant billionaire-technocracy vision of metropolitan cities as the rightful preserve of the wealthy, their service workers, and those unfortunates too poor to leave. Cities like New York, Paris, San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles form an archipelago. They are islands, linked to each other across oceans, but disconnected from the parts of their society where they have exiled the remaining middle class.
In a major city like Los Angeles, the housing market functions as an invisible messaging apparatus. It conveys the priorities of the government and powerful private interests, and signals to people where they do and do not belong. In this sense, the realtor may be more honest than the mayor or your neighbor about where you are welcome and what purpose, if any, you serve. The message in LA is clear: the working and middle classes are not necessary for the functioning of the city. Those who get the message leave or, if they stay, must adapt to conditions of precarity. The problem is that the homeless live outside the norms and reach of the messaging infrastructure. The city’s poorest and most disturbed people are the least tuned in to the frequency of the market’s signals and otherwise unequipped to respond.
Halting Attempts at Policy Reform
“California has now taken on an increasingly feudal cast,” according to political economist Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, a professor of management science at Chapman University. In a paper entitled “California Feudalism: The Squeeze on the Middle Class,” they outline the conditions of the emerging order: “A growing group of the ultra-rich, a diminishing middle class, and a large, rising segment of the population that is in or near poverty. Indeed, amidst some of the greatest accumulations of wealth in history, California has emerged as a leader in poverty, particularly among its minority and immigrant populations and throughout its interior.”
While poverty has increased across the state, homelessness has concentrated in its major cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In a series of articles this year on the homeless crisis, the Los Angeles Times found that “the number of those living in the streets and shelters of the city of LA and most of the county surged 75%—to roughly 55,000 from about 32,000—in the last six years.”
New York City has a reported 25,000 more homeless people than LA and, combined, the two cities make up about a quarter of the U.S. homeless population. But where New York—with its cold winters and a unique constitutional right to shelter—has one of the lowest rates of unsheltered homelessness in the country at 5 percent, in LA roughly 75 percent of homeless people live and sleep outside. According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report to Congress in 2018, LA also had “the largest number of individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness in the country (12,782 people or 15 percent of the national total). Of its chronically homeless, 94 percent were living outdoors.
In 2007, the ACLU brought a court case on behalf of Skid Row residents arguing that the city of LA had no right to penalize them for violating public ordinances related to sleeping on the street because, given the lack of available shelter beds, the enforcement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. In the agreement that resulted from the case, known as the Jones settlement, the city agreed not to enforce the section of its municipal code stipulating that “no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street” until it had built 1,250 new units of housing for the chronically homeless, with half in the Skid Row area. The agreement impacted enforcement throughout the city, making it difficult, if not impossible, for police to move tent encampments once they were established. It also led to a series of secondary legal disputes: if you can’t force people to move, then you also can’t enforce other statutes related to blocking entrances and limiting how much personal property can be stored outside. And what about waste- and health-related issues on the streets in Venice and elsewhere? The city may have agreed not to move people, but neither did it appear willing or able to provide sidewalk encampments with the basic municipal services that keep sewage draining in one direction and drinking water running in the other.
It was 2015 before LA’s government announced that it was on the cusp of reaching its initial goal of 1,250 housing units promised in the 2007 case. But by then the goalposts had moved, and the city continued to uphold the Jones settlement. With an influx of new homeless into the city, some politicians and homeless advocates argued that the required number of new units should be increased as well.
Rather than contributing to homelessness, supporters of the Jones settlement contend that it is a countermeasure to the criminalization of poverty. And some argue that the spread of encampments has had salutary effects. “What Jones has done is made homelessness visible in parts of the city where it was never visible before,” Greg Spiegel, director of strategic initiatives for Inner City Law Center, told the Los Angeles Times last year.
Under Mayor Garcetti, elected in 2013, and the city council, LA’s government has pursued a “housing first” policy. The idea is to get people off the streets and into some kind of stable shelter before attempting to treat or even diagnose whatever problems made them homeless in the first place. In 2016, a measure called Proposition HHH allocated $1.2 billion, raised from the issuance of a municipal bond, for new housing to shelter the chronically homeless. Through a tiered approach, the homeless are supposed to enter a bridge housing system of temporary shelters, which act as initial entry and triage facilities; then they are to be provided with supportive services, like job placement or addiction treatment; and, eventually, moved into some form of permanent housing.
The city cites the reported drop in the number of homeless this year as evidence that its approach is working, but measurable progress has been slow. While a number of different projects funded through Proposition HHH got underway in 2017, and Garcetti has announced that he would spend $430 million over the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2018, on housing and homeless services, by the end of 2018, only one new facility able to serve forty-five people had opened. And in the midst of plans for new developments, studies found that, on an average night in 2017, one out of seven city shelter beds went unused.
Originally, plans had called for the city’s first new shelter to be built in LA’s Koreatown starting in June, but, consistent with a pattern that has played out in Venice and other planned bridge housing locations, fierce opposition from local residents pushed the plans back.
Grace Yoo, a lawyer and executive director of the Korean American Coalition, has been involved in issues related to real estate development in Koreatown for years. In 2015, she ran for LA City Council in an unsuccessful bid to unseat the current council president, Herb Wesson.
“Yes, I had the audacity to run against the council president because I don’t believe he listens to his constituents,” Yoo told me in her Koreatown law office, ripping public officials for “saying this is going to be a wonderful opportunity for you to clean up your neighborhood,” as she offered me instructions on how to operate her coffee machine. “If you take a bridge home, temporary homeless shelter, we are going to clean the neighborhood and the homeless will disappear,” she says imitating a dopey public official voice.
“And it’s like, excuse me, what laws are you going to break to make this happen? Or what lies are you telling us? Telling us that it’s going to be 24-7 LAPD presence. Uh, sorry, all of this jives into nothingness.”
It’s simple, according to Yoo: “The rent skyrocketing is making more people homeless.”
A May 2018 report by the California Association of Realtors found that the median price of a home in LA County was $545,540. Even a lower-than-standard 15 percent down payment on a house at that cost would require an applicant to put more than $80,000 down. The monthly mortgage on a house at that price comes to $2,820, according to the realtors’ association study, and requires a minimum qualifying income of $112,930.
The squeeze is even more severe for renters who can’t afford to buy. A December 2018 study by Zillow, the major online real estate database company, found that “communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a more rapid increase in homelessness.”
The Zillow study found two critical “rent affordability thresholds that directly affect homelessness”:
The first threshold is 22 percent: Any uptick in a community’s rent affordability beyond 22 percent translates into more people experiencing homelessness. The second threshold is 32 percent: Any increase in rent affordability beyond 32 percent leads to a faster-rising rate of homelessness—which could mean a homelessness crisis, unless there are mitigating factors within a community.
In LA County, people spend 49 percent of their income on rent, according to the study. For every 2 percentage points that number goes up, the study found, an additional 4,227 people are likely to become homeless.
“In some communities, such as Baltimore, the poverty rate plays a substantial role in the homeless count,” the study concludes. “In others, like Los Angeles, rent affordability is the larger player. Declining rent affordability affects homelessness in Los Angeles with eight times the force it does in Baltimore.” Of the 9,322 people the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reports were homeless for the first time in 2018—up from 8,044 in 2017—46 percent said that it was due to job or economic reasons.
I spoke with around twenty homeless people from various backgrounds and in several different parts of the city over the week I spent in LA. A tiny sample size, but most people I talked to clearly fit somewhere into the 26 percent that lahsa reports as having some kind of mental illness, or the 15 percent with a substance abuse problem, or the 10 percent who have both mental and addiction issues. This is the “high acuity” population that makes up the majority of the chronically homeless. In 2018, LA had the largest number of individuals who fit the pattern of chronic homelessness in the country with 15 percent of the national total. Of the 12,782 people in that category, 94 percent live outside of any shelter system.
On the other hand, one thing that became clear walking through LA’s Koreatown is how few homeless Koreans there are in the area. Yoo estimates that out of some 30,000 Koreans living in Koreatown, a neighborhood with a total population of around 120,000, no more than 5 are sleeping on the streets. LA’s official estimate is that the homeless are 36 percent black, 35 percent Latino, 25 percent white, and 1 percent Asian.
“There are a lot of people doing what they can to help individuals who have these issues” within the Korean community, says Yoo, “whether it is family members, church members, nonprofit organizations, or just friends who will take in a friend for a while. The fact that there’s so few Koreans doesn’t negate anything in my mind—there are also very few Koreans in the foster care system.”
A regular feature on the website veniceupdate.com gives a weekly report with photos showing where people are living on the streets in Venice, where garbage has piled up, and where it has been removed. (The site and its series called “Encampment Updates” have been criticized as cruel invitations for harassment by homeless advocates who insist that neither the city nor local residents have any right to move the homeless off the streets as long as they cannot provide housing.) One location that comes up regularly in “Encampment Updates” is referred to as Penmar. Just a few blocks from St. Joe’s, the nine-hole Penmar municipal golf course has been operating since 1962. A wire fence, double the standard height to keep golf balls from flying into the street, encloses the perimeter of the fifty-three-acre course. At its western edge, where the golf course abuts a number of dead-end residential streets, a strip of unpaved dirt road sometimes called the Frederick Passageway separates the last houses from the fenced-in green.
I was standing half a block away in July, counting the number of tents in the encampment along the Penmar fence, when I saw a small dog run into the street and, a few moments later, a slight, bald woman chase after it. I stopped counting at sixteen, when the woman scooped up the dog, and I tentatively started following her back to the tents.
The dog did not actually belong to Casey, the woman with the shaved head who said that she was watching it for a friend. Around five-foot-five and well under one hundred pounds, Casey said that she was twenty-nine and had moved to LA from Portland with a friend eight months earlier. At some point, I gathered, that friend had taken off with their car and all of her stuff. She was addicted to heroin, and now she was stranded. The hair on her head was shaved down to fine quills and small scabs were visible on her face.
Travis sat nearby straddling a BMX bike. He didn’t want to talk near other people so we walked away from the tents and strung-up sheets of plastic tarp where people lived back over to the mouth of the passageway on Rose Avenue where I had first watched the dog run away.
Travis, 42, came to LA from Indiana. He wore a backwards white baseball cap over a black bandana, an oversized T-shirt, and khaki shorts that went down to mid-shin. He had one small tattoo on his face, a clover under his eye, but his arms were covered in them—including a number of small red swastikas that looked more like markers of prison than of politics.
Though he was never in the official foster care system, Travis said, he grew up fostered because his parents couldn’t take care of him. He graduated into Indiana’s prisons where he spent eighteen years.
He sat on the bike with his feet planted on the ground and looked back at the tents. “My whole fucking life I knew I’d be homeless someday,” he said. Everybody in his camp was dealing with a drug problem, Travis said, and most had mental issues of one kind or another. Every morning he’d wake up depressed, but then he’d realize he was happier in California.
As we were talking, the dog sped past us and back onto Rose Avenue. Travis tried to collect it while he called for Casey. The blue flap of a tarp swung up and Casey tried to run, couldn’t, and came towards us in her jangly walk to collect the dog again.
On a Monday night in late July, the Oakwood Recreation Center, less than a mile from the Penmar Golf Course as the crow flies, filled up early for the Venice Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee. A crowd gathered on the steps outside, passing out fliers and holding signs that said “Clean Up Existing Shelters! Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money,” and “Stop Bonin’ Venice!! Venice is Sick of Getting Screwed!” (“Bonin’” referred to Mike Bonin, Venice’s representative on the LA City Council whose proposal to build bridge housing in the area, including a planned homeless shelter in an unused bus yard, was on the agenda for the night’s meeting.) There were around 130 people in the room, at least two-thirds of them hostile to the shelter plan. A six-foot banner was hoisted up on poles by two people at the back of the room. On a yellow background it said, “No More Housing!” Below that: “Venice Says No!” And at the bottom, “No More Shelters in Venice Until All of District 11 Takes Their Fair Share!!” A commotion arose when a tall older man with glasses and a bushy white mustache held up a marble notebook to block the sign. As happened whenever anyone in the room appeared to support the city’s housing proposal, people demanded that the older man prove he was really a Venice resident.
Council president Ira Koslow tried to restore order: “I hope everybody read this motion. The bus yard is not in the motion. The vote is on the general concept of bridge housing.”
But few people in the room seemed to believe this.
“Basically, Venice is already one massive shelter,” a man in the audience said during the time for questions. “More services will just bring more homeless,” he concluded to a round of applause from supporters.
On October 18, a GoFundMe project was set up to “Restore the Frederick Passageway,” put together by people living on the blocks alongside the Penmar encampment. “The police and sanitation department come out and clean up the area every once in a while, but within 24 hours, the area is back to its now-customary state—piled up with garbage, bicycles, filth and more than 30 people per night.” To solve that, the project, which according to the GoFundMe page has already received a permit from the city, calls for clearing the pathway and filling the “empty space . . . with native plants and landscape features.” The plants will be cacti, a comment on the page clarifies. The project’s fundraising goal is set at $80,000. As of the end of 2018, it had surpassed that baseline.
“Skid Row is Third to the north, Seventh to the south, Main Street to the west and Alameda Street to the east. Fifty city blocks.” General Jeff, sometimes billed as the mayor of Skid Row, is giving me the lay of the land in his ad hoc office, the lobby of a nearby Hilton, before we take a walk through his neighborhood.
We got off to a bit of a rocky start when I made a point of saying that he should feel free to let me know if there was anything he preferred to keep off the record. “I’m telling you right now,” Jeff told me, “spell my name correctly. I stand by every word I say. Make sure you put my name on it. I dare anybody on this planet to refute anything I’ve said.”
Born Jeff Page, the General grew up in South Central LA and was a player in the city’s hip-hop scene in the 1990s, before moving to Skid Row for reasons he doesn’t specify in 2006. After the preamble, he offered his condensed modern history of Skid Row for almost two hours before we stopped for dinner. At around ten, after the midsummer sun had gone down, we went for a walk from Third to Seventh, Main to Alameda.
The name Skid Row comes from “skid roads,” a logging industry term originally used in Seattle for the paths used to skid logs from the hills down to the mills and ports below. Los Angeles’s Skid Row began with the construction of railroads in the city in the late 1870s. The rail hub attracted itinerant men who came to work in the local agricultural industry. In turn, single room hotels were established along with other businesses catering to the workers, like brothels and saloons. Eventually, the work went away but some of the men, especially those with drinking problems and no family attachments, stayed. By the turn of the century, the area was known as Hobo Corner. The same pattern played out in New York’s Bowery district and in other “skid rows” throughout the United States.
Unlike in other cities, however, “LA hung onto its skid row because of a deliberate decision in the 1970s to preserve its SRO stock and enhance it with social services,” according to Manhattan Institute homelessness expert Stephen Eide. This is backed up by the account in an LA Chamber of Commerce history of the area, which reports that in the mid-’70s, “Los Angeles embarked on a program of acquiring, rehabilitating and managing the remaining single-room occupancy hotel units and adding a limited number of community amenities, most notably two vest-pocket parks, clinics and shelter facilities.” At the same time, the deinstitutionalization push was putting thousands of people, including many with chronic psychological conditions that made it impossible to live on their own, back into the larger society. In 1976, the LA City Council adopted what it called a “containment policy” towards Skid Row.
For General Jeff and other local activists, the containment policy is the source document that proves Skid Row was a deliberate plan by the city to quarantine its poor and leave them to rot: “What LAPD did pretty much was create an invisible wall and said, ‘if you’re on the inside of this wall you can do whatever the hell you want to do. Outside of this wall, we’re going to come down on you hard.’”
At certain points, the account of Skid Row I get from General Jeff, a black community activist who has lived in the area for the past decade, converges with conservative ideas about homelessness and disorder. “You pretty much let Skid Row get out of hand,” Jeff says, pointing at the police and city agencies. “Who let it get this way? Where’s the civility? Where’s the discipline? Where’s the structure?” he asks.
The only groups Jeff is harder on are the local nonprofits which he calls “poverty pimps,” echoing a phrase that comes up in right-wing circles: “nonprofit industrial complex.” “There’s never been a shortage of funding in modern-day Skid Row,” Jeff said, pointing to the fact that over a hundred different nonprofits operate within the area’s fifty city blocks. “This isn’t really about trying to end homelessness, that’s a marketing slogan. That’s just a marketing campaign. Just to make people outside of Skid Row feel good.”
It’s not obvious that many people in LA feel good about Skid Row, but there is clearly a cohort of activists and public officials who have become practiced over decades at how to agonize over its squalor without changing anything. It’s not necessary to accept all the ideological priors or historical details in General Jeff’s account of Skid Row to see that he captures something essential: this place did not form itself. Jeff puts it this way: “There was never a point in time where thousands of homeless people had some secret summit that no one knew about and said, ‘We’re going to go take over the eastern part of downtown Los Angeles and claim it as our own.’ Skid Row was created not by homeless people.”
Skid Row is not just a disadvantaged neighborhood where the normal range of human endeavors and aspirations has been blighted and constricted by poverty. It’s an experiment gone wrong and then left to decay. It resembles the fictional “Hamsterdam” from David Simon’s Baltimore drama The Wire—a designated lawless zone where the drug trade was given free reign, in hopes of quarantining it from the rest of the city. It works and crime drops in the city at large, but inside Hamsterdam, the end of prohibition does not make the dealers and addicts more humane; it makes them more depraved. They get the message that they have been consigned to lives of predation and despair and act accordingly.
In theory, LA’s well-funded bridge housing policy could address the needs of its multiple, overlapping, homeless populations. Schizophrenics and addicts who have been living for decades on Skid Row, and those suffering from severe health and behavioral problems, can be brought in off the street, evaluated, and then given the necessary level of ongoing care. Meanwhile, the recently unemployed or working poor can find temporary shelter, housing vouchers, job placement programs, and other less care-intensive options to help them get back on their feet as the city spends its bond money to fund more long-term affordable housing.
In practice, however, the crisis has been decades in the making and many of these solutions have already come and gone, deployed in previous cycles of public outcry. One of the few new ideas calls for the local tech industry to subsidize additional housing while applying big data to optimize services for the homeless.
There’s no doubt that LA needs more affordable housing, and taxing companies like Google is a start. But that is at best a tourniquet to halt a hemorrhaging of social capital that won’t be replenished until the city is once again a place where ordinary people can expect to lead decent lives doing ordinary work. Tech solutionism will do nothing to reverse the breakdown of family and community that has made homelessness so intractable—but it will likely continue driving up LA’s housing costs. That will leave those who can afford to live in the luxury city and those who cannot afford to leave; one class creating the wealth to sustain the other as wards in a program of managed obsolescence.