Skid Row: “A Very Cool Place”

Estimates for the number of homeless people living on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles County range from 83,347[1] in October 2005 to 51,340[2] in 2011. Of this number, 42% or more individuals are chronically homeless, homeless for one or more years or with four or more incidences of homelessness over a period of 3 years. These chronically homeless also “have one or more disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse, and health conditions.” These conditions are barriers to overcoming homelessness.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the homeless population has increased.[3]

To cite Mark Twain, “there are liars, damned liars, and statisticians.”[4]

There are no accurate figures. There are homeless. The largest concentration of chronically homeless in the United States reside in the Central City East District of Downtown Los Angeles between 3rd and 7th Streets and Alameda and Main, an area known as Skid Row.

So, on March 19, 2013, I joined Danny Fisher and my classmates from the University of the West Spiritual Leadership course to walk through Skid Row. There is a reason why Liberation Theology demands co-location with the poor. Only through direct exposure can one begin to understand the experience of the poor. Individual responsibility and accountability for poverty is a function of varying degrees of agency in the socioeconomic structures of oppression. The poor and oppressed have no agency. Rather, power is asymmetrically distributed. Power relies on dualism, the rendering of a class of individuals as the “other.” Direct exposure, seeing things-as-it-is, penetrates the illusion of dualism.

As a native Los Angeleno, this was not my first time in Downtown Los Angeles or Skid Row. As a child, I had learned to walk over bodies and around human urine and excrement to get through Skid Row. This time, my experience of Skid Row was different.

The first thing that hits you is the smell of urine. Forget the official dimensions of Skid Row. The boundaries of Skid Row are marked in urine. A colleague tried not to vomit from the overpowering smell. I stopped and examined the gestalt.

Along a chain link fence lined with tarp-covered shopping carts, homeless people slept. Everyone sleeps. Everyone drinks. Everyone, especially in the cold, gets up at some point in the night to urinate. I do it. The homeless do it. I looked around. No available bathrooms in sight. So, there were rivers of urine and, sometimes, human feces. Like the famous book says, “Everyone poops.”[5] How can these basic human activities be criminalized when there are no alternatives.

We continue to walk. Several times we observe drug use; most obvious is the occasional smell of marijuana. Someone comments, “Well, they seem to have money for drugs.”

I reply. I don’t know the stories of the individuals here. For some, perhaps many, I imagine substance abuse played a role in arriving here and remaining here. I imagine drugs help many individuals survive the pain of being here and other pains; illegal drugs can be a source, perhaps the only source, of self-medication. I am pretty sure no one here has health insurance. Drugs might also be one of the few economic opportunities available.

As we walked, I saw a younger man walking toward us. He was homeless. He was white. He had an above-average amount of muscularity. And, his stride…his stride was a form I associated with the streets, but it failed to entirely mask a solidity I recognized from military service. He was cleaner than the others, a more recent arrival, I figured. As he crossed the street, our eyes connected. For a moment, I saw fragility. Then, right before he arrived at the sidewalk, his eyes became dead. He leaned down into the urine-soaked gutter and stood up holding a cigarette butt. Without breaking stride, he smelled it, pocketed it, and kept on walking.

Gabor Mate described such people as hungry ghosts.[6] Yet, the persistence of Skid Row adjacent to billions of dollars in real estate development and commerce suggested to me that a greater level of greed, anger, and ignorance is manifested in the avarice of the developers.

I sat with my classmates and professor at the Los Angeles Public Library and meditated upon the experience. For the first time in my life, I opened myself to feeling the experience of Skid Row. I wept. The city in which I was born and raised, the City of Angels, and its socioeconomic structures, are maintaining my brothers and sisters in a state of oppression.

In our discussion, one single observation emerged. People care for one another in Skid Row. There is a community.

It is a community under attack.

According to the DCBID, billions of dollars in investment are helping Downtown realize its “full potential as a great place to live, work and play.”[7] Per Chris Cooper, CEO of Los Angeles-based real estate firm Charles Dunn Co., “more and more people are saying downtown is a very cool place.”[8]

Such statements make it obvious. The “homeless,” the created “other,” no longer merely don’t count. The residents of Skid Row are now seen…as a threat to hundreds of billions of dollars of return on investments.

The homeless are under attack. Even the term homeless is an attack. It individualizes the problems of poverty and oppression. These individuals are not homeless. Skid Row is home. Injunctions stopped the previous tactics of seizing the property of homeless individuals. So, the tactic is to individualize, de-humanize, and criminalize the residents of Skid Row.

In 2012, Central City East’s annual arrests for part one crimes, “a category that includes all violent crimes and serious property-related offenses,” increased 12%. Annual arrests for violent crimes increased 5%. According to the Los Angeles Times, crime did not increase; arrests increased. The homeless are being targeted as part of the Safer Cities Initiative, “a crackdown on low-level offenses in Skid Row” enabling authorities to report that “crime plummeted by 30%.”[9]

Behind this effort is the Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID), a coalition of 1,200 property owners united in their commitment to “enhance the quality of life in Downtown Los Angeles. The organization helps the 65-block central business district achieve its full potential as a great place to live, work and play” (emphasis added).[10]

Per the Los Angeles Times, the homeless population is “surging back” while funding and donations supporting the homeless have been cut.[11] Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 are at all-time highs. The contrast is clear. To cite Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, there really are The Rich and the Rest of Us.[12]

Like Chris Cooper said, “more and more people are saying downtown is a very cool place.”[13] I agree. From the perspective of the residents of Skid Row under imminent threat of destruction from developers, Los Angeles has become a very cold place indeed.


[1] Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, “Los Angeles’ Skid Row,” Author, October, 2005, http://www.lachamber.com/clientuploads/LUCH_committee/102208_Homeless_brochure.pdf

[2] Hayley Fox, “Volunteers Descend on Skid Row Tonight for ‘Homeless Count,’” Southern California Public Radio, January 29, 2013, http://blogdowntown.com/2013/01/7125-volunteers-descend-on-skid-row-tonight-for

[3] Alexandra Zavis, “Skid row street population surges back in Los Angeles: A city initiative had helped to reduce the numbers and clean up the sidewalks, but the weak economy and other factors have reversed the trend,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/31/local/la-me-skid-row-homeless-20120328

[4] Benjamin Disraeli as cited in Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper Collins, 1996/1959), 195.

[5] Taro Gumi, Everyone Poops (La Jolla: Kane Miller, 193).

[6] Gabor Maté, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Berkeley: Close Encounter Books, 2010).

[7] Downtown Los Angeles Center Business Improvement District (DCBID), “DCBID Annual Reports,” Author, Accessed March 30, 2012, http://www.downtownla.com/5_03_annualReports.asp

[8] Jennifer Popovec, “New Projects Fuel Downtown L.A.’s Transformation,” National Real Estate Investor, July 28, 2011, http://nreionline.com/national/new-projects-fuel-downtown-las-transformation

[9] Ryan Vailancourt, Ámid Rising Crime, LAPD Overhauls Skid Row Unit: Downtown Cops Beef Up Patrols, Preach Prevention and Outreach,” Los Angeles Downtown News, January 17, 2013, http://www.ladowntownnews.com/news/amid-rising-crime-lapd-overhauls-skid-row-unit/article_35ca88d4-60cc-11e2-950c-001a4bcf887a.html

[10] DCBID.

[11] Zavis.

[12] Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (Carlsbad: Smiley Books, 2012).

[13] Popovec.

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4 thoughts on “Skid Row: “A Very Cool Place”

  1. buddhakaruna says:

    Very nice. I like how you expressed your personal experience and the attempts by LA to criminalize homelessness.

  2. Despite a lack of meaningful statistical figures, government agencies cite declines in the Los Angeles County homeless population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a 6.8% reduction in the Los Angeles County homeless population and a 22% reduction in the estimated number of homeless Veterans in 2012 continuing a multi-year downward trend. “The Department of Veterans Affairs, in collaboration with local government officials and nonprofits,” responsible for controlling millions dollars to help homeless Veterans, house 60-73 homeless Veterans and claim success. 60-73 Veterans is roughly 0.3-0.6% of the Veteran homeless population. This is achieved at a cost of millions of dollars in direct costs (e.g. grants) and additional millions of dollars in indirect costs. The levels and modes of expenditure are inefficient. I believe this is because the money is spent without the required intention and oversight. 60-73 homeless Veterans out of thousands. What about the rest of the Veterans? What about the rest of the homeless individuals? Skid Row remains.

    Committed individuals, like Joe Leal, Founder and President of Vet Hunters (http://vethunters.org/), is out there everyday across Southern California helping Veterans and non-Veterans alike. With little external funding, Joe and his Vet Hunters go out and help Veterans get housing, clothes, food, basic toiletries, and the things that they need to try and get back on their feet. Joe sees people and he believes in them and commits to them. I think this is the difference. He is committed and his efficiency is orders of magnitude better.

    What about the residents of Skid Row who are unable to adapt, whose illnesses interfere with daily functioning? What about the residents of Skid Row whose lack of education limits their employment opportunities? Are we to believe that some of the residents, with bodies and minds bearing the scars of long-term life on the streets, will be hired? And, if hired, will they be given second or third chances when they fall?

    There are programs that subsidize employment for people with Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities. For the same amount of money that was spent to house 60-73 homeless Veterans, for the millions spent every year, with all of the land, urban, suburban, and beyond, could we not create agricultural co-operatives and provide the residents of Skid Row the option to move? Perhaps individuals, families, and children, those in transition and those who will never transition, could be offered a place to grow things and a place in which they could grow? Perhaps the place could produce agricultural crops beyond its basic needs? Maybe it would not and still need to be subsidized.

    This week, a Judge criticized Dallas for trying to stop religious groups from feeding and helping its homeless people (http://cityhallblog.dallasnews.com/2013/03/federal-judge-rules-that-dallas-homeless-feeding-ordinance-violates-ministries-religious-freedoms.html/). A great judicial response, the judge basically said, “I’m sorry, Dallas, but you have not convinced me how you can starve people into jobs.” Her response shows justice and love are not mutually exclusive. It shines the light on myopic and oppressive political policies that create the poor and then try to destroy the poor.

    Consistent with milieu therapy, I envision a community built and based on love…a love that knew in advance people would fall again and again. Those with so much are failing miserable at helping the residents of Skid Row. Yet, the residents of Skid Row do a good job picking each other up again and again given so little. What would happen if we gave them more…a lot more…gave it out of love…gave it with hope…gave it with support and autonomy?

    In Latin America, the cry is “Justicia, tierra, y libertad!” Justice, land, and liberty. The cry of the impoverished directed at the oligarchs reveals a fundamental understanding that there is no justice or liberty without land.

    Whatever form the solution takes, it strikes me that the residents of Skid Row need more than housing and food. They need to support and autonomy to participate in the development of sustainable and subsidized economies that offer security, stability, and re-enfranchisement. They need toilets (lots of them) and other resources. The fact that they have been maintained at a subsistence level so long without these resources suggests an intentional effort to de-humanize them. Yet, for the cost of one day of war (approximately $300-720 million), or one day of training at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, CA ($1million), we could provide these things and more.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Good. Very nice! I like how you expressed your personal experience too.

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