Shameful Indifference: Shocking Injustice in Skid Row

Not that long ago, Marlene Quarless had a stable job and a four-bedroom home in Florida. When the Great Recession hit, she was laid off, had her home foreclosed, and lost all the good credit she had built up over her 62 years. In search of a fresh start, Quarless headed to Los Angeles to look for a job and an apartment. The economic downturn, compounded with her proximity to retirement, left her unemployed and extremely vulnerable. When her rent was increased, she was forced onto the streets of Skid Row, the capital of homelessness in America, where she’s lived since 2010.

Over the last five years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County has skyrocketed by nearly 20,000. City governments, community coalitions, and nonprofits are scrambling to meet the needs of people without stable housing. Last year, 9,000 individuals across the county experienced homelessness for the first time according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). That’s nearly 20% of the homeless population in Los Angeles County.

In Skid Row, however, housing instability is nothing new. While the majority of people living in the neighborhood are housed in rent-controlled apartments, Skid Row is home to the largest concentration of people experiencing homelessness in the entire country, with 4,200 people living without stable housing. The majority of Los Angeles County’s homeless population is only on the streets for part of the year. These periods of homelessness can have many causes, including a temporary inability to pay rent. Here in Skid Row, however, people are far more likely to have their homelessness classified as “chronic.” They deal with mental illness and addiction at greater proportions. And, overwhelmingly, they are more likely to be black.

We as people are told we have the right to a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” according to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For decades, many people of Skid Row have been systematically denied that right. How did that happen? Who made Skid Row? What is the neighborhood today? And, most importantly, where is it headed?

Part One: The Rents

At one point in the 1970s the United States enjoyed a surplus of affordable housing, thanks in large part to a well-funded Department of Housing and Urban Development. During the Reagan administration, though, HUD’s budget was slashed by tens of millions of dollars, forcing an end to affordable housing initiatives across the country. Government inaction combined with the private sector’s lack of interest threw Los Angeles County into crisis. According to some estimates, the County is short 500,000 units of affordable housing. There is currently next to no low-income housing being constructed in the City of Los Angeles.

Services for those without stable housing in the Skid Row neighborhood are concentrated in large complexes known as missions. Depending on the provider, missions can offer emergency shelter, job training, substance-abuse rehabilitation, space for after-school programs and much more. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, which has served the Skid Row neighborhood for 126 years, relays to me his frustrations with the affordable housing market in Los Angeles. He blames the crisis on the unwillingness of many communities to accept low-income housing in their neighborhood.

Recently, some high-profile affordable housing and emergency shelter development projects have been shut down by local residential councils. There’s no question that many people here support building low-income housing in general. Measure HHH, a countywide ballot measure that called to fund affordable housing developments, passed with a resounding 76% of the vote in 2016. Despite a general desire to help, perceptions of low-income developments as threats to public health, property values and community safety still dominate debates over local affordable housing projects. This popular support combined with local resistance results in the “Not In My BackYard” phenomenon, or “NIMBYism.” Essentially, communities will advocate for housing – just somewhere else. Thus, from North Hollywood to Koreatown to Norwalk, harsh pushback to low-income housing projects has presented difficult hurdles for advocates. “We went through a $1.9 million, 21-month, 34-neighborhood council meeting battle to get housing for our moms and kids. How many people are willing to pay that price?” Bales challenged.

These challenges come in a county with the second largest homeless population in the country, and by far the largest living without emergency shelters. Of the 53,195 people experiencing homelessness in the county, 75% are unsheltered, meaning they live outdoors. About half of Skid Row’s homeless residents live out on the street.

Such a situation leaves those who lack housing in Skid Row with no place to go. Quarless stresses that for the economically homeless, the largest problem is a lack of affordable housing. “If you go to the housing authority in Los Angeles, you’ll find a list of 9,000 people waiting for affordable housing. I was number 5,000 on another list for housing in Santa Monica,” she explained.

Even if she obtained housing, Quarless would have to move quickly to find the money to keep it. Though many residents of the streets of Skid Row have a source of income, their salary often falls far below the lowest rents Los Angeles has available – and that’s without considering the additional cost of necessities like food and health insurance.

Because of the Costa Hawkins Act, rent control in California can only be applied to buildings constructed before 1978. So, under current law, the City lacks the essential authority to keep any new low-income housing affordable in the long term. Developers have taken advantage of these rules, and thousands of luxury apartments have sprung up across the City. Most notably, areas immediately to the east and south of Skid Row are being gentrified. Many are suggesting that Skid Row might also soon be inaccessible to its longtime low-income residents.

On top of the barriers of getting into housing, there is also an eviction crisis brewing in California. Last year, there were 188,000 eviction cases filed across the state. Adam Murray is the Executive Director of the Inner City Law Center, a legal clinic that has served the Skid Row community for over three decades. He says they’ve been seeing an uptick in cases of landlords antagonizing long-term tenants, who often have lower rents and more rights than new tenants. “We had a case where a long-time tenant signed a lease for two adults and a child. When the child became eighteen, the landlord was seeking to evict them for no longer complying with the lease, because it was now three adults,” he recalled. “That’s the sort of nonsense we’re seeing.”

Los Angeles County suffers from one of the worst affordable housing crises in the country. For the residents of the streets of Skid Row, it offers them little hope to break the cycle of homelessness. With shelters and low-income housing in the area filled to capacity, NIMBYism blocking attempts to fill the need, and predatory developments creeping their way into the area, the housing situation for Skid Row’s most vulnerable looks terribly bleak.


Part Two: The Police

In 2006, then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa championed the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), a new method of aggressive policing across the City. The goal was to reduce crime at its root by enforcing punishments for “quality-of-life” offenses like jaywalking and, famously, sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk.

While accusations of targeting have been denied by the LAPD, there is no question that Skid Row was disproportionately impacted by the initiative. Despite making up just 0.26% of the City’s population, Skid Row was the site of 12.5% of pedestrian tickets handed out in the City, according to a study by Professor Gary Blasi at UCLA. Residents of Skid Row were around 50 times more likely to receive a ticket than the average resident of Los Angeles.

For residents of Skid Row’s streets, a $159 infraction can deprive them of nearly three weeks of income. Many of those who couldn’t pay ended up serving jail time, which left them ineligible for many of the neighborhood’s free services. The sidewalk sleeping ban (§41.18b) caused so much harm to the community that a judge ruled that the SCI had violated the Fourth Amendment because it exemplified “cruel and unusual punishment,” as the City provided residents no place to go but the sidewalk. An agreement now called the Jones Settlement required the City of Los Angeles to equip the area with enough shelter to house residents of the street before §41.18b ticketing could begin again.

The LAPD often points out that half of the arrests documented during the SCI were drug-related offenses – and nearly half of those were for drug sales. However, Blasi and his research team documented stories like those of Mr. Y, which add another dimension to those statistics. According to Professor Blasi’s team, Mr. Y was approached by an undercover officer and offered $20 if he could give two rocks of crack cocaine to the “buyer.” Mr. Y said he didn’t possess any drugs at the time, but offered to acquire them from a dealer for the supposed client, which he quickly did. When he took the money and passed the drugs, he was arrested for the sale of narcotics.

The Safer Cities Initiative ended in 2010, but is still referenced by residents as a large reason for the distrust of law enforcement in the neighborhood. Steve Diaz, a community organizer at the Los Angeles Community Action Network, believes law enforcement officials assume criminality in those living in the neighborhood. Diaz and many other residents of Skid Row feel that there’s a reason they aren’t given the benefit of the doubt. “There’s a fear of the black person in America. There’s a fear of the brown person in America,” Diaz said. He recalled a piece in the LA Times published just before the Safer Cities Initiative began which chronicled images of predominantly black homeless people using heavy drugs in the Skid Row neighborhood. “It wasn’t by coincidence that those images were there. It was used to justify a certain treatment of the neighborhood.”

Discriminatory housing practices like racial covenants created a deeply segregated Los Angeles County, with the black population historically living in a few highly concentrated neighborhoods – one of which is Skid Row. To many, it isn’t by chance that the most heavily policed neighborhood in Los Angeles (and, during the Safer Cities Initiative, the entire country) is also one of the area’s most black. According to U.S. Census data, Black residents make up only 9% of the City of Los Angeles, but they make up 45% of Skid Row’s population – and 66% of Skid Row’s homeless population.

The LAPD often points to rising crime rates downtown as the justification for a recent uptick in policing. According to recent data, the LAPD is right to say that crime has risen throughout the downtown neighborhoods. However, while the rise in crime is by no means restricted to Skid Row, many locals feel that the enhanced police presence is. Critics of law enforcement answer that it is the growing prevalence of police activity that is causing the increase in the amount of crime reports, not the other way around.

Whether or not the recent increase in police activity is justified, it is happening. Earlier this year, the LAPD settled for $1.95 million after being found liable in the 2015 death of Charly “Africa” Keunang, a man living on the streets in Skid Row. Keunang, who was unarmed and had a history of mental illness, was shot six times in the back by LAPD officers responding to an attempted robbery report. Such an incident of brutality is just one of many which residents say violate the human rights of those in the neighborhood. Putting further strains on neighborhood trust, Mayor Eric Garcetti recently announced that the requirements outlined in the Jones Settlement had been reached, and that the City could now explore reinstituting the sidewalk sleeping ban. With rooted issues of alienation and distrust between the local community and law enforcement already a divisive problem, it seems that peacemaking efforts won’t be taking place any time soon.


Part Three: The Discharge

“In the 1970’s, when homelessness was first becoming widespread, local officials didn’t really know what they were dealing with,” said Jerry Jones, Director of Public Policy at the Inner City Law Center. Around that time, the City of Los Angeles chose to enforce what they called a “containment policy.” Essentially, people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles and the organizations designed to serve them would be concentrated in a specialized zone. The City’s boundaries for this zone were the 7th, Main, 3rd and Alameda streets – Skid Row.

As a result of the policy of containment, it became customary for hospitals to discharge patients to the streets of Skid Row when they had nowhere else to go. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of people being taken alone in a taxi wearing nothing but a hospital gown to densely populated intersections in Skid Row like 5th St. and San Pedro St. Andy Bales recalls a patient lying in a gurney, shivering as he was wheeled into the lobby of the Union Rescue Mission by an ambulance driver, then left at the front desk. Though laws are beginning to hold hospitals accountable, locals still see some of these instances of “hospital dumping.”

Once people are discharged to the streets of Skid Row, they are swept up in a community that simply doesn’t possess enough resources to fit the needs of its residents. One example is the movement of deinstitutionalization in the mental health sector. In the 1970s, a series of policy changes led to the release of hundreds of thousands of patients from California’s mental institutions. Hundreds of facilities were shut down as a new era of mental health reform began. Due to a lack of funding, however, the community mental health facilities that were supposed to fill the void went largely unbuilt. By 1986, California ranked forty-second in care for the mentally disabled. This lack of funding severely burdened local nonprofits, and former patients began a new cycle of poverty and housing insecurity, many of them in Skid Row.

In 2014, Proposition 47 reduced the sentences of inmates serving time for many non-violent drug offenses in California. At least 13,500 inmates were released from California’s jails and prisons during the first two years of its implementation. Its promised $100 million budget to support rehabilitation and case management programs has been slow to materialize, and experts worry that many of the formerly incarcerated will suffer the same fate as the mental illness patients decades before them. Time will tell if services will catch up quickly enough.

Perhaps the most egregious immediate need in Skid Row is public restrooms. The over two thousand residents of Skid Row share nine public restrooms scattered around a fifty-block area. People may have to walk up to twenty-five minutes from their belongings to get to a cleaning station. Oftentimes the street is the only option, leading to a dangerous public health hazard. Andy Bales contracted an aggressive strain of bacteria that caused him to lose a leg. Steve Diaz recalls conversations with people experiencing homelessness that spend a large portion of their social security check on cleaning supplies. Even with some new public restroom developments in the works, the area falls about eighty restrooms short of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’s requirements for a refugee camp. A refugee camp must have a restroom for every 20 residents – Skid Row has one for every 200.

Many residents of Skid Row have seen the healthcare industry and the criminal justice system fail them. When they arrive in the neighborhood, they are faced with conditions that threaten not only the right to shelter – but the fundamental right to exist.


Part Four: The Future

In the last two years, voters in Los Angeles passed Measure HHH and Measure H, both aimed at curbing the homelessness crisis across the County. Billions of dollars in funding have been allocated toward solving the issue, and nonprofits are doing more work than ever. In the recent California primary election on June 7th, homelessness was one of the most hotly discussed issues among the candidates. That attention has led to some positive results – homelessness in Skid Row declined by 7% last year. However, Skid Row saw its population of homeless families more than double since 2017’s annual homeless count. There are also more women, trans, and gender non-conforming people experiencing homelessness in Skid Row now than there were a year ago.

In the distant future, greater threats loom large. With the United States winning a joint bid to host the World Cup in 2026, and Los Angeles being awarded the 2028 Summer Olympics, there is anxiety over what might happen to the City’s poorest residents. In 1984 the City infamously, in the words of then-LAPD Police Captain Billy Wedgeworth, “sanitized” its streets in preparation for the Games. This meant arrests, detentions and the forced relocation of homeless people with their belongings destroyed in the process. Many recall the summer of 1984 as a dark period for Los Angeles’s poorest residents. Organizers have already begun resisting the City in their planning process.

A new zoning plan also endangers the existence of people in Skid Row. The City of Los Angeles anticipates over 125,000 new residents by 2040, and aims to build over 70,000 housing units to account for them. DTLA 2040, still in its early stages, is a proposed plan to modernize zoning in Los Angeles. The plan calls for Skid Row to be rezoned to include market rate – not low-income – apartments, opening the door for the last pocket of affordable housing in Los Angeles to be gentrified. The proposal includes no distinct plan for new affordable housing units and, more grossly, no indication about where Skid Row’s current residents, housed or unhoused, might have the option to go. The City Council is expected to vote on the plan sometime next year.

To Jerry Jones, this is another turning of the cycle this City has had with its residents experiencing homelessness. “You always see a few years of smart and well-thought out policy, then people get impatient and fall back into the criminalization,” he says.

As for residents of the neighborhood, Steve Diaz hopes to see perceptions – and more importantly, treatment of this neighborhood, change. “This is one of the only communities where you walk down the street and get a good morning,” he says. When change has come to Skid Row before, however, he says, “It’s always been about what somebody else wants.”

Despite its history, there’s still a sense of hope in this place. Marlene Quarless carries around a list for her first trip to the grocery store once she gets housed – her own piece of hope. Between emboldened luxury developers, a new LAPD chief, growing nonprofits, and a stronger interest in organizing the community, all signs point to a changing Skid Row.

But who will that change be for?

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