Surviving in Skid Row
LOS ANGELES – In June 2017, Robert Ford sat in a taxi and stalled against him the bag containing his few belongings. As the car headed downtown, he observed the colorful signs, the glare of the sun on electric cars, the smartphones held by blue-haired passersby, and all the changes that had occurred in the largest city on the West Coast in the last 30 years, while he was in prison. Free at last and aged 65, Robert Ford had nowhere to go. That is why, sitting in the back of the taxi, he clung to the address his probation officer had left him.
“Los Angeles Mission, 303E on 5th Street”, he told him. “It’s a Christian mission in Skid Row, they have a program for people like you.”
But what Robert found when he arrived at the parvise of the housing center shocked him so much that he ordered his taxi to bring him back at his motel. In front of the Mission and in the surrounding streets, hundreds of homeless people huddled on the sidewalks strewn with filth, some yelling in the void or leaning to defecate against walls corroded by urine. Dense rows of tents and makeshift shelters stretched block after block. Robert Ford recognized the smell of crack cocaine and methamphetamine.
“For Christ’s sake, what the hell was that?” he asked his probation officer on the phone that evening.
– I’m sorry,” he answered, “I should have warned you. “
Indeed, the officer had not told Robert that over the last thirty years, a shortage of affordable housing had slowly fermented in California, and that the streets of Skid Row were now the most important fixation point for homeless people in the entire United States. On this area of barely one square kilometer, up to 2,000 homeless people try to survive on pieces of cardboard, in tents or in housing centers.
“We are overwhelmed, we will still leave many people in the streets tonight”, says Nadia, a volunteer at the Los Angeles Mission, observing the hundred people queuing in front of the center in the summer heat, hoping to spend the night here. “Skid Row has always had a bad reputation, but lately it has gone completely out of control”, she laments. In just six years, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County has jumped from 32,000 to 57,000.
“This problem has only gotten worse since I started working here”, explains Chaplain Dwight Lewis in his cramped office on the ground floor of the housing center. It was fifteen years ago. On the walls, photos show him baptizing residents, or handing them diplomas marking the stages of advancement within the one year long rehabilitation program offered by the Mission. “The services offered by missions like ours explains why homeless people flock to Skid Row”, he says. It is a place of insane violence and the final destination: the neighborhood where the homeless go when they have exhausted all their recourse, when they have no one left to lean on. That is why, after overcoming his initial revulsion, Robert Ford also returned to Skid Row.
For over a year now, he has been a member of the Los Angeles Mission program and lives in the housing center, sharing his time between work and study of the Bible. “People here have been great to me”, he says, sitting on a loading dock at the back of the building. “They assist me with my paperwork. I will soon get my veteran pension and find a job”. In front of the Mission, the Joshua House Clinic treats his hepatitis C and gives him free access to dental and ophthalmic care. Between the two buildings, in a little-frequented street, men in rags crack open parking meters to collect some coins. “We join this Mission to follow a healthy life and the will of the Lord, but as soon as we step outside we see this hell, madness and drugs”, Robert says. “Last week, we organized a wake for Terry Green, a pensioner who died of drug and alcohol poisoning. Not long ago, four of our pensioners died in just six weeks”.
In the hell of Skid Row, the housing centers emerge here and there as islands of sanity. Impeccably coiffed, Joey Weinert, 37, leads the visit in the Midnight Mission, Skid Row’s oldest charity. “This home was founded in 1914 to distribute food, and in more than a century we have never missed a meal”, he says. “It was at the end of the 19th century that this district gained its shady reputation, when many miserable hotels opened to welcome seasonal workers passing through Los Angeles. Soon, alcoholics and homeless people of Los Angeles poured in, and the opening of housing centers to help them attracted more and more people in need.”
At noon, 600 people gather in the cafeterias on the ground floor. Aged 25 and addicted to methamphetamine, David Mesa forces himself to eat at least once a day. “Meth cuts hunger and is cheaper than food”, he says. “With crystal, you can stay awake several days in a row. If you sleep, you get mugged.” At the end of the table, 54-year-old Larry nods in approval. An employee of the Midnight Mission, he supervises the pensioners of the program that took him out of the street in 2014. “Walk in Skid Row, and you’ll see that people are divided according to the same two criteria as in prison: their drug of choice and their race”, he says. “That’s exactly what this neighborhood is, an open air prison.”
Unfortunately, none of those criteria are of any help if you are a woman in Skid Row. In the courtyard of the center, about fifty women are allowed to stay for the night. They will not have a warm bed, but will at least be able to enjoy a safe place to sleep. “Women often sleep together to avoid problems”, says Linda, 40. “We take turns to sleep or stand guard, and try to never be alone in Skid Row.” Beside her, 45-year-old Rochelle also came to sleep here for fear of sexual assault. “We must be constantly vigilant to not be raped when we urinate on the street, when we change our clothes, or when we wash ourselves”, she mumbles. Swaddled in filthy clothes, her left leg spreads a mephitic stench. “Our bodies are polluted”, says Linda. “Everyone gets sick from wading through shit and urine”.
Skid Row’s hygiene problem could hardly be more urgent. The district has only nine public toilets accessible by night: one tenth of the minimum requirements set by the UN for refugee camps. Despite regular cleanup operations by the municipality, the streets of Skid Row are littered with excrement, and diseases spread, not sparing the social workers who roam the neighborhood. In 2015, Reverend Andy Bales, president of the Union Mission, had his right foot and part of his chin amputated after contracting E. Coli.
In an attempt to curb this situation, residents of the Los Angeles Municipality approved in November 2016 a $ 1.2 billion plan to build 7,000 new affordable housing units by 2026. In addition, the County of Los Angeles voted in March 2017 to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to help the homeless and increase emergency shelter capacity. The charities of Skid Row have welcomed a change of attitude of the authorities, from a repressive security policy to a socio-economic consideration of the homeless. Many, however, deplore the inadequacy of the measures in view of the magnitude of the problem.
“This debate is completely foolish”, argues Chris Mack, a local agent of the Wesley Health Center. “By building 7,000 new homes, we will at best reduce to 48,000 the number of homeless in Los Angeles, and that in only ten years! It does not change the root of the problem”. And the root is deep. California has been experiencing a chronic shortage of affordable housing since the 1960s. While incomes have stagnated for twenty years, the increase in rents continues at an alarming rate. Far from being confined to the gentrified neighborhoods of the Silicon Valley, this inflation affects all of California: 10% increase from 2017 to 2018 in Los Angeles for a one bedroom apartment, 12.4% in Oakland, 15% in Long Beach and Anaheim, 11.5% in San Diego.
“Los Angeles County lacks at least half a million affordable housing units”, says Alisa Orduna, who was in charge of homelessness policy in LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office from 2015 to 2018. “The homeless are just the most visible part of a bigger problem: in California, rents have become so expensive that we are both the wealthiest State in the nation and the one where standard of living is the lowest”, she says on the terrace of a Starbucks Coffee in Santa Monica. She recently moved to this coastal city with superb beaches to take up her new job, always at the service of the homeless, hoping to be able to make things change at last. With regard to Los Angeles and Skid Row, she fears that it is already too late.