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» 11 ) some form of violence during the prior 12 months.
It was no accident that the situation did not get any better in recent years. Asked why Skid Row became such a center of problems, Rev. Bales says one word: “containment.” It was a deliberate choice of city officials to make Skid Row the capital of homeless- ness. In 1976, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a redevelopment plan that included a “policy of containment” for poverty. “This policy basically said: ‘Let’s send everybody who’s struggling in all of L.A. to Skid Row and then let’s turn our back on it,’” Bales says.
The effect, he tells me, was widespread. “Deputy sheriffs from every suburb used to drop people off on Skid Row,” Bales says. “Police from all over town brought people and dumped them here. Las Vegas has sent hundreds of mentally ill people over.” Ac- cording to him, this continues today even though the policy was ended in 2016. “Two hospitals have been fined within the last six months for dumping patients on Skid Row,” he says.
The reasons for homelessness are count- less. People end up on the streets due to family breakups, domestic abuse, drug ad- diction, mental health issues or prolonged unemployment. But why is the situation in L.A. so much worse than elsewhere?
William Yu is an economist at UCLA and author of the study “Homelessness in the U.S., California and Los Angeles.” As he speaks in his small office on the UCLA campus, I can hear the bewilderment over the homelessness issue in his voice. Yu is an immigrant from Taiwan.
“I have never seen a situation as shocking as in L.A.,” he says.
He is not alone: In 2017, a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and disaster zones was struck by the magni- tude of the human suffering he saw when he visited Skid Row: “I think it’s on a scale I hadn’t anticipated, block after block of people. When you see how concentrated it is, it’s more shocking.”
Even though homelessness is a huge prob- lem all over the country, the trend in L.A. is extreme. In his study, Yu states: “While the percentages of homeless people in the country and in California remain stable, the homeless percentage has been rising rapidly in L.A. County over the past several years.” From 2013 to 2017, the homeless rate in the city increased from 0.35 percent to 0.53 percent — a total of 55,000 homeless peo- ple. During the same period, the homeless rate in the United States decreased from 0.2 percent to 0.17 percent.
Why the discrepancy? Yu says: “Home- lessness is a conjunction of two factors: a bad personal economic situation and a bad housing market.” While people lose their jobs all over the country, in Los Angeles it much more quickly leads to becoming
homeless. That is the first L.A.-specific rea- son for homelessness: skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing units. Ac- cording to the latest report from the Cali- fornia Housing Partnership and the South- ern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, the city has an extreme shortfall of affordable housing. More than 550,000 units are needed to satisfy the demands of lower-income renters. It seems logical that the three states where homelessness rates are the highest are Hawaii, New York and California — all states with rents far above the average (only Washington, D.C., which Yu treats as a state in his study, has an even higher homelessness rate).
In addition, Yu claims that one of the biggest problems in L.A. is the way the city is constructed: with a high share of sin- gle-family homes instead of multi-family buildings and apartment complexes. Ac- cording to the basic laws of economics, in a high-demand marketplace, less residential space means rapidly rising prices, and more residential space means more slowly rising prices. Thus, it would make sense to build condos with at least three or four floors in order to provide housing for more people. Unfortunately, this urgent and necessary change has met with resistance. “It’s always the same,” Yu says: “Not in my backyard.”
But there is more to the story: No other U.S. city has as big a shortage of shelters. New York City, for instance, has by far the most homeless people of all cities: around 76,000. But unlike in L.A., in New York a lawsuit in 1981 resulted in an enforceable, citywide “right to shelter.” That’s why in L.A. people end up living on the sidewalks more often — and, as they’re seeking services, they tend to wind up on the streets around Skid Row. Three-quarters of the people ex- periencing homelessness in L.A. don’t have a roof over their heads, the Union Rescue Mission’s Bales says. In NYC it’s only 4 per- cent.
More than two years ago, Measure HHH was overwhelmingly approved by voters. It made available $1.2 billion for housing for homeless residents and for other services. But the execution has been lagging. “It’s being slowed down by neighbors saying: not in my backyard,” Bales says. The most recent example is a planned shelter in Koreatown that was approved only after numerous arguments over the location. “Eventually they found a compromise, but why isn’t it happening now?” Bales asks.
As long as there are not enough shelters available, people will live on the streets of Skid Row in the thousands. General Jeff Page is often called “the mayor of Skid Row.” I meet him in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel downtown. Page has had a turbulent life. After making a name for himself in the West Coast hip-hop community, he became one of the many homeless on the streets of Skid Row. Today Page still lives in Skid Row but with a roof over his head. In the last years, he has become one of the fiercest advocates for the Skid Row population. Page says the homeless in L.A. have nowhere to go but are simultaneously criminalized for living on the street.
“That’s pure victim blaming,” Page says. Eleven years ago, the city agreed to stop arresting people who slept on the sidewalks until the city built more homeless hous- ing. According to Mayor Eric Garcetti, this moratorium is over now since, in his opin- ion, L.A. has built enough housing to meet the settlement requirements. If L.A. starts ticketing homeless people again, it is likely to kick off a new battle with homeless ad- vocates — a battle Page is sure the homeless would win again.
Garcetti in June unveiled a $20 million plan to build emergency shelters across the city, but according to experts like Page and Bales, there has not been much progress on building them so far — in part because of the lawsuits against potential shelters that
have been filed by neighbors.
Page also emphasizes that Skid Row today
can’t be discussed without considering race. Back in the 1950s, Skid Row residents were a rather small group of white, single men. In the 1980s, federal budget cuts started to im- pact the housing market. As a consequence, the causes of homelessness changed. With housing assistance and safety net programs destabilized, Skid Row has become popu- lated predominantly by African-American people.
Asked what would have to change to solve the homelessness crisis of the city, Bales says affordable housing, immediate shel- ters, immediate triage care — but first and foremost a change of heart. He then tells a personal story: 32 years ago, when he was 26 or 27 and worked as a teacher at a Christian high school, he preached a sermon to the children of his classes, six times in total. The children were picking on a student. So he shared a message from the book of Matthew with them: The way you treat an- other person is how you treat God himself. Over the weekend, Bales worked at a down- town parking ramp and was sitting in the ticket booth, watching NFL football on a mini-screen and eating a sandwich, when a bearded man knocked on the window. “Sir, can I have your sandwich?”
So, after preaching the sermon about al- truism six times, what did he say? “I said no,”Balessays.Themanthenquicklydisap- peared into the darkness. “I quickly realized that I hadn’t practiced what I had preached.” So he hoped and prayed for another chance, found the man on the streets a few days later and fed him dinner. Some weeks later he was asked to work in a downtown rescue mission. Since then, he has worked to help the homeless.
Bales says: “The only thing besides law that will change something is a change of heart of the people of Los Angeles, a sense of caring for our brothers and sisters.”
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