Reverend Andy Bales is sitting in his slightly chaotic office — the walls full of certificates, an aquarium in the corner — and talking about how the public neglects the homeless community in Skid Row. Bales is the CEO of Union Rescue Mission, the largest and oldest homeless shelter in the city. Two years ago, Bales lost his right leg due to flesh-eating bacteria on Skid Row.
It was only then, he says, that the city declared a state of emergency for the infamous section of downtown Los Angeles. “Actually, they need to declare the state of emergency for everybody who is out on the streets,” Bales says angrily. “Skid Row is the greatest man-made human disaster in the U.S., and it's been here for longer than 127 years.” He pauses, then adds: “Right now it is the worst it has ever been. It is a crisis of epic proportions.”
Indeed, nowhere in the United States is the concentration of unsheltered individuals as high as on Skid Row. The numbers are shocking: On any given day in this 54-block area in downtown, there are around 4,300 homeless people on the streets. According to recent counts, the numbers have slightly decreased, but Bales and other experts doubt these statistics are accurate. From his daily experience, Bales says, “There is no evidence at all that the numbers have decreased in any way.”
In any case, even if the numbers have gone down by 3 or 5 percent, Skid Row is still the epicenter of the country's homelessness crisis. Why is that? L.A. Weekly looks into the history of Skid Row to try to understand what solutions could help solve this epic crisis.
The genesis of Skid Row lies in the early 20th century, when travelers from all over the country were drawn to the downtown area. The nearby railways provided jobs for many people. Little by little the neighborhood became a center for many of the poor and marginalized people of the city, who found a home in cheap, single-room occupancy hotels. This became even more the case in the 1970s, after Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, put in new legislation that deinstitutionalized hospitals serving individuals with severe mental illnesses.
With nowhere to go, many of the people forced out of mental hospitals were drawn to Skid Row, the only place in the city that provided services and shelters. The situation worsened in 2000, after several thousand residential hotel apartments were destroyed, according to the Skid Row Housing Trust. People lost their homes and were forced onto the streets.
Skid Row became the home of the homeless, but a home without safety. Eleven murders occurred in Skid Row last year, and a study found that 40 percent of unhoused women in the area had experienced 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 homelessness. 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.” According 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 countless. People end up on the streets due to family breakups, domestic abuse, drug addiction, 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 magnitude 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 problem 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 people. During the same period, the homeless rate in the United States decreased from 0.2 percent to 0.17 percent.
“I have never seen a situation as shocking as in L.A.” —UCLA economist William Yu
Why the discrepancy? Yu says: “Homelessness 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 reason for homelessness: skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing units. According to the latest report from the California Housing Partnership and the Southern 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 single-family homes instead of multi-family buildings and apartment complexes. According 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 experiencing 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 percent.
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 housing. According to Mayor Eric Garcetti, this moratorium is over now since, in his opinion, 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 advocates — 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 impact the housing market. As a consequence, the causes of homelessness changed. With housing assistance and safety net programs destabilized, Skid Row has become populated predominantly by African-American people.
Asked what would have to change to solve the homelessness crisis of the city, Bales says affordable housing, immediate shelters, 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 another person is how you treat God himself. Over the weekend, Bales worked at a downtown 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 altruism six times, what did he say? “I said no,” Bales says. The man then quickly disappeared 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.”