Monday, September 24, 2018

Homeless on Skid Row: Is it a Lost Cause?


To the average observer, the homeless population in Los Angeles may seem to have the right idea. Where else can a person live on the streets and hope that Paris Hilton will take time from her busy schedule and drop a C-Note in your lap? It never snows, hardly rains, and anyone could be “discovered” if enough time is spent strutting around Hollywood and its surrounding palm tree lined streets.

The reality of being homeless, like everything else in Los Angeles, isn’t always as it seems.

The homeless issue in LA County has reached epidemic proportions. According to The Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children are homeless in LA County each year. Every single night, some 80,000 people are sleeping on the streets while hordes of the wealthiest people in the country shuffle to and fro their evening activities, seemingly oblivious to the goings-on just a stone throw’s away, in Downtown’s Skid Row.

The stereotypical homeless person is a single, male individual. General disorder is associated to the mental image we create of the “typical” homeless person. We tell ourselves that he has a drinking or drug problem, is an ex-convict, or if he wanted to get help, he could. Statistics, on the other hand, show that families, headed by single mothers, are becoming more prevalent in the overall homeless population of LA. Rough nightly averages run from 20% to 40 % of the overall homeless populace is made up of families, with each usually consisting of at least 2 children. However, males do represent the majority of the “single population”, taking up around three-quarters of the general populous. Also, studies do prove that 80% of the homeless on LA’s Skid Row are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two. Mental illness and Sexual Deviance is also abundantly present. The LAPD has found that the drug of choice of Rowers is Crack-Cocaine with Heroin coming in as the second favorite narcotic. There is no need to seek out a dealer on Skid Row. In this neighborhood drug dealers commute in daily to bring the merchandise directly to the abusers. The drug scene on the Row is what Strarbucks is to rest of us.

An overwhelming number of the homeless in LA are classified as “unaccompanied youth”. This sub-culture, consisting of children under the age of 18 who are living without a parent or guardian, typically hovers in Hollywood and its surrounding communities. Classically, these minors involve themselves with “survival sex”, for food and shelter. As a result, disease and drug use becomes a very real part of the lives of those who, instead of attending high school, are busy wondering where their next meals may come from. Annual estimates lie between 4,800 and 10,000 young people sleeping alone on the streets of Los Angeles yearly.

Race is always a hot button topic when giving statistics on almost any topic and the homeless are no exception, especially in LA. African Americans are hugely disproportionate in an over-all census of the homeless population. 50% of the LA county homeless population is classified as African American compared with only 9% of county residents falling under the same ethnic category. Latinos come in second representing 33% of the homeless and 47% of actual residents. Coming in at a distant third are those falling under the White classification, with 14% homeless and 30% resident. The least dominating ethnic group in the Homeless population is Asians and Pacific Islander, making up only 2% of the homeless and 12% of the overall residential population. It’s difficult to pin point why the Black ethnic group in LA have such an over-whelming lead when it comes to the homeless. Some groups would point to racial profiling as a main cause. But, it’s uncertain as to why these statistics pan out the way they do.

Those numbers are intimidating when presented alone. But, when compared to other major cities, like New York or Chicago, alarms start to sound. LA, on average, has more than 100,000 more homeless on its metropolitan streets than either of those cities.

These issues have come back into the limelight of current affairs in Los Angeles after a kind-of hiatus. Ironically, the resurgence of interest in dealing with the homeless of Los Angeles coincides with an intense battle over the use of the real estate in and around Skid Row.

Skid Row has consistently been a news maker in regards to the homeless of Los Angeles. Fifty blocks, boarded by Main, Seventh, Alameda and Third Streets and centered on Fifth roughly make-up the demographics of the Row. Although not at all unique to LA, (skid rows have existed in other cities all over the U.S.), this particular Row has been infamously labeled the worst of the bunch.

Journalists have described Los Angeles’ Skid Row as a “human landfill”, a “wretched” place that resembles a “Third World Country”. The cast off of the most undesirable individuals imaginable assemble here: drug addicts, physically disabled and mentally ill along with sexually corrupt are all accounted for. Victims of domestic violence, the un-educated, laid-off employees and those “down on their luck” embark on a downward spiral when they acquaint with Skid Row. Most of these people were just like you before circumstance left them not only homeless, but for many, helpless as well.

Making way through the more desirably labeled, “Central City East” neighborhood isn’t an easy task. Each step brings a distinctive experience, ranging from open sexual activity to public deification and urination. In a recent series in the LA Times, journalist Steve Lopez experienced first-hand what life is like on Skid Row. In a short period of time, Lopez bares witness to several drug overdoses, is propositioned for drugs steps away from the neighborhood branch of the LAPD, meets with women who turn tricks in rat infested portable toilets, observes endless groups of tents and cardboard boxes used as housing all while bravely attempting to shed some light on why Skid Row is attracting new “residents” after decades of decay.

Focus on cleaning up the area comes at an important time for the city of LA. As downtown engages in revitalization and gentrification, the community has starting re-evaluating the burden of Skid Row. Here-in is where the battle stems.

Basically, the debate over Skid Row is between two main entities: city developers intent on turning the area into a destination for young professionals itching to drop millions of dollars on new lofts, thus creating a new Downtown LA niche. On the opposing side of the struggle are proponents of controlled single-room occupancy (SRO) housing working to maintain Skid Row as a central location for the homeless in LA to convene. The only thing both agree with is being sure that the “flavor” of Skid Row is kept in tact.

SROs are like motels for the homeless. Most are clean, freshly painted rooms with separate, communal bathrooms. For those on the city’s “general relief” program, the space can be rented for $56.00 monthly. 40 hours of community service a month earns a homeless person $223.00 to survive with. Eligibility for GR is only available 9 out 12 months a year and is one of the only services available after unemployment funds run dry. People who are issued Social Security Benefits for disability can rent for $298 a month. Of the around 65 SROs on Skid Row, 70% are owned by non-for-profit organizations that maintain the rent-control of the units.

For developers, the young people they are looking to attract have shown a continued interest in the “noir” feeling that the area in and around Skid Row personifies. They feel like “urban warriors” when conquering the dilapidated buildings and make shift housing of the homeless. In addition, this area of downtown is commonly known to be associated with “old-school New York City”, namely like early SoHo or Tribeca. Enjoyment of the best of both coasts while taking advantage of ground floor discounts and tax breaks is attracting new residents every day.

In recent years, downtown has grown in almost every way. New cultural destinations such as the Disney Concert Hall, the LA Philharmonic, the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Museum of Modern Art have also helped increase numbers of residents downtown. New restaurants, bars, clubs and coffee houses are sprouting up to attract the fresh faced, black wearing hipsters and are drawing in crowds from Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

Developers insist that by gentrifying the area, they are not taking away space that could be used to build new SROs. 36% of buildings in the radius of Skid Row are classified as “deteriorating structures”. Another 59% “exhibit characteristics of physical blight” and are classified as “deteriorated”. It’s impossible to scoff at their efforts when statistics like these prove that the buildings that are being converted have sat empty for years. In their eyes, progress has to come sometime. What better time than the present?

On the other hand, the SRO owners defend notions of having the homeless concentrated in one area. They think that by commercializing the area and raising property values, developers are inevitably pushing the homeless away from the central location of Skid Row and out into the rest of the county. Skid Row is home to many of the cities answers to the homeless problem. The headquarters for agencies like “The Salvation Army”, “The Union Rescue Mission”, and “The Weingart Center” all offer beds, showers, detox programs, food and just basic refuge to the homeless and are all located on Skid Row.

Although some of these programs and their frequent turn over of directors have been widely criticized for being “out of touch” with the real problems of Skid Row, they are the only source of assistance to thousands of people. If expansion continues, it is inevitable that the homeless will be picked up and dispersed all over the county. As they are pushed away from this central location, taking advantage of those services will become increasingly difficult. Shelters exist outside of Skid Row, but they are few and far between. Crime and Drug Abuse will increase as a result, but instead of it being focused on one area, it will spread and begin “infecting” the neighboring boroughs.

The people who would be segregated into Los Angeles have overwhelming medical issues. They suffer higher mortality rates in comparison to the rest of the county due to AIDS, suicide, homicide and cirrhosis of the liver. Infectious disease rates all are higher in Central City than elsewhere in the county:

AIDS: 2.9 times higher than the average
Hepatitis B: 2.4
Syphilis: 3.5
Tuberculosis: 3.4

A serious question lies within these figures. What will happen when the thousands of people who are suffering with these diseases are finally pushed out of the virtual seclusion of Skid Row?

Right now, change is upon Skid Row. The American Civil Liberties Union was shot down when it proposed to allow the homeless to erect their makeshift housing and sleep on the streets of the Row from nightfall until 6 a.m., at which time they would basically have to pack up and get off the sidewalks. The City Council thought that allowing the Row this loophole in the “No sitting, sleeping, laying…” rule would make for homeless in other parts of LA to believe it was legal for them to create the same structures. Although seen as a defeat for the ACLU, this story made major headlines, not only in LA, but all over the country. Attention has refocused on the problems that are starting to come to boil in downtown Los Angeles.

The LAPD has increased foot control in the area, launched new undercover narcotic squads and have more surveillance cameras up and running. IDS Real Estate Group has given $500,000 to the Skid Row Housing Trust, one of the major proprietors of non-for-profit SRO Housing. Mental health workers from all three levels of local government are being brought in to create better “street-corner” ministries for the mentally diseased and drug-addicted. The Safe City Initiative boosts a “serious crackdown on drug activity downtown” in combination with “a multi-agency effort to clean up the streets and get help to law-abiding homeless who want assistance”. The new operation is making an obvious improvement, with many streets on the Row looking cleaner and less cluttered. The homeless themselves are surprised at the efforts, many saying that the police were asking if any help was needed as they requested that individuals merely “push their stuff against the fence”. Others complained that the crackdown resembled war tactics and that the city was only trying to push them out of sight and out of downtown.

Although major efforts have been made every ten years or so at improving Skid Row, they have all failed in stopping the area from continuous boom. The hard work described will be a great start in dealing with the huge troubles that linger in Central City. But, when looking at the big picture, it’s hard to predict what will happen. Homelessness is not going to be solved by an increase of police officers. Spreading the inhabitants of the Row all over LA will only create uproar and move these people to areas of the county that know even less about how to deal with them. In order to make a dent in the resolution of the mass problem, money is the key issue. SROs can only build units if they have the money to do so. Agencies can only staff themselves with knowledgeable doctors if they have money to pay them.

Perhaps making Skid Row a place full of resources in a more defined area would be an answer. Gentrification could take place widely without taking over a new area (smaller than 50 blocks) allotted for SROs, larger space for diligent volunteer agencies, like “The Salvation Army”, shelters, soup kitchens, and clinics. Making sure there are enough beds in the city of Los Angeles to accommodate all of those who are law-abiding and want shelter and need assistance would make a vast difference. Progress is inevitable. But with progress can accompany compassion. It’s time for the city to take a realistic look at what is going on in Skid Row. In turn, individuals need to step back from their busy agendas and see the children, mothers, fathers; the people of Skid Row that desperately need help. In a city driven by power, money and chasing dreams, it shouldn’t be this difficult to find a way to start controlling Skid Row.

About the Writer

C. Reagan is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on Homeless on Skid Row: Is it a Lost Cause?

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By Rowan on October 04, 2006 at 06:55 am
Great article, well researched. Gentrification in downtown L.A. is good for the city government, but definitely bad for the homeless. Thank you for writing this.
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By Denise M on November 14, 2006 at 06:59 am
Well worth the time and effort! Wonderful investigative piece.
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By Steven Lane on December 22, 2006 at 01:03 am
What a great article. Very informative and well written. Really top class.
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