You’d think that a city, competing as it might on a 21st-century global scale to attract the best and the brightest, business and industry, its slice of the tourist trade pie, would do what it could to erase from the guide book maps the Skid Row name of a neighbourhood. It’s so, I don’t know, Dirty 30s. Old school dismissive and denigrating. Get a job, ya lousy hobo!
Or, you know, because morality.
Not Los Angeles. Right there below Little Tokyo, the Downtown Arts District, the Toy District, the Old Bank District. South and east of the Jewelry District.
I didn’t make my way there to see if it was actually true, if such a place could really officially still exist. I arrived by accident. Not an uncommon occurrence for someone without much spatial-directional-geographic skill who likes to wander cities. Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.
For anyone who’s been to Los Angeles, homeless encampments are not an unusual sight. Freeway overpasses provide shelter from some of the elements nature inflicts. Under-used strips of sidewalk space outside of fenced off commercial buildings like self-storage businesses keep pedestrian levels low and possible conflict to a minimum. There’s a woman outside the parking lot of my favourite Ralphs living under what seems to be a semi-permanent tarp enclosures.
But the magnitude of the homeless population in Skid Row is nothing short of shocking. Blocks and blocks of largely men, as best as I could tell, simply existing in the streets, some in full makeshift camping like conditions, sleeping bags, tarpoline shelters, suitcases or duffel bags or plastic bags, stuffed with their belongings. Others, just out there, with nothing more than a concrete bed.
I didn’t stop to linger, to take a closer look, to more fully assess the situation. I kept my head low, responded politely to anyone who engaged with me, but continued moving. The immediate response to finding myself where I did and recognizing the scale of it, of course, was to turn around, go back to the safety I’d come from.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Maybe if it had been dark or late. It wasn’t.
Besides, the immediate fearfulness I felt was completely baseless. No matter how justified every one of these people I passed would be in stomping me to death for my complicity in their current condition, there’d be more chance of me being struck by lightning in this place lightning seldom strikes than being assaulted by anyone here. Even if I were flashing hundred dollar bills and a Rodeo Drive purchased watch on each wrist, the upside for anybody here accosting me would only be short term, met most certainly with a heavy-handed crackdown that wouldn’t even have to explain itself.
As I was expressing my discomfort and disbelief on the Twitter (after safely reaching my destination, natch), Tobias Vaughan suggested I look up Jones v. City of Los Angeles. I did. Turns out this city has something of a sad, nasty history of trying to criminalize its homeless. “Is LA the meanest city in America to its skid row homeless?” The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless cite a 2007 UCLA study pointing out that, at the time, “… Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.” The kind of crime? Stuff like jaywalking and loitering.
I haven’t seen more recent data to know if things have changed. If conditions were less dire for those living on Skid Row now than before, that’s difficult to imagine. How could it be worse? Less police harassment?
This, at a time when other jurisdictions have accepted the fact that using the criminal system to penalize and deal with the homeless is much more expensive and ineffective than actually trying to deal with it in a more constructive manner. “If you want to end homelessness, you put people in housing,” the director of Utah’s Housing and Community Development Division, Gordon Walker said. “This is relatively simple.”
It’s not as if there isn’t space to construct housing in the area of Skid Row, filled as it is, unsurprisingly with derelict buildings and empty lots. The problem with that, I imagine, would be you’d establish a sense of permanence. The homeless housed. Skid Row as an actual place, with actual foundations, as opposed to just a name on a map, a name that can be changed when the conditions warrant.
A more traditional approach would be to slowly squeeze Skid Row out of existence. As downtown Los Angeles DTLA continues to revitalize outward, and make no mistake, it is revitalizing – the margaritas I found out on the fringes were fantastic! — there will eventually be no place for a Skid Row here. It’ll linger only as a hip bar name. Homelessness won’t cease to exist, of course. It will simply be re-located where people like me wouldn’t possibly want to go to or find ourselves by accident.
This is not a problem unique to Los Angeles. Remember, even Toronto the Good criminalizes ‘aggressive panhandling’ with its very own Orwellian named bylaw, the Safe Street Act. Safe from what and for whom exactly? For the likes of me, naturally, from the nuisance and annoyance of having to deal with the result of the unfairness and inequality we like to, instead, ignore and wish away.
Until we actually get serious about dealing with homelessness, and all the facets that create it, there’s never just one reason someone finds themselves living on the streets, maybe it’s good a Skid Row remains on the map. It’s there for people to see if they choose to look close enough. Huh. Skid Row. That’s still a thing? How?
— incredulously submitted by Cityslikr