Estimates for the number of homeless people living on the streets and in shelters in Los Angeles County range from 83,347 in October 2005 to 51,340 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.
To cite Mark Twain, “there are liars, damned liars, and statisticians.”
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.” 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. 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.” 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.”
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%.”
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).
Per the Los Angeles Times, the homeless population is “surging back” while funding and donations supporting the homeless have been cut. 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.
Like Chris Cooper said, “more and more people are saying downtown is a very cool place.” 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.
 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
 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
 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
 Benjamin Disraeli as cited in Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper Collins, 1996/1959), 195.
 Taro Gumi, Everyone Poops (La Jolla: Kane Miller, 193).
 Gabor Maté, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Berkeley: Close Encounter Books, 2010).
 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
 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
 Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (Carlsbad: Smiley Books, 2012).