Inside Skid Row: America’s homelessness capital | AJ+

Inside Skid Row: America’s homelessness capital | AJ+


It’s really hard to describe how
difficult the circumstances are for living out here in Skid Row. There are so
many people who are battling mental illness. A lot of people got triggered
just by seeing us with our cameras. – You’re gonna get your *ss killed on Skid Row about that camera! We’ve seen syringes in the street. We’ve seen feces in the street. You can smell the lack of sanitation. So not only is this a major homeless crisis, it’s a public health crisis and a mental health crisis too. When you hear “Los Angeles,” you probably think movie stars, beaches and endless shopping. What you don’t hear, though, is that this is ground zero of America’s homelessness crisis. I’m on Skid Row, which is the epicenter of it, and I’m about to tour these 50 square blocks
where folks have hit rock-bottom. L.A.’s homeless population is exploding. The number of people living on the streets and in shelters has soared by 75 percent in the
past six years. There are up to 60,000 homeless people in L.A. County on any
given night. The largest concentration of them live here on Skid Row, a sprawling
tent city in the heart of downtown L.A. A UN official described living conditions
here as “shocking.” Suzette Shaw has lived on Skid Row for six years. She used to live in the shelters, but now has a government-subsidized apartment. I asked her to take me on a tour of her neighborhood. All of these people in this
very condensed population … again, where do you see trash cans? Where do you see
water fountains? Where do you see food? Law enforcement, they don’t like the
tents up during the day. But then, look, we have all of these people out here
on the concrete that are subjected to the heat and the sun and all the
other ills of the street. Just a block away, police closed off the street as workers conducted a massive cleanup of the sidewalk. Tell me what we’re seeing right now. So this here are the hazmat street-cleaning teams that come out. And they do street cleaning, and it’s periodically done. They have been known at times to confiscate people’s belongings, from their prescription drugs to
sometimes people have, like, birth certificates and all of that mixed in.
But along with that, people are carrying a lot of other personal items that are deemed hazardous, and therefore they end up throwing them away. The street cleaning is done ostensibly to stop the spread of diseases, as living in these
encampments poses several human health risks. There are only nine public toilets
for about 2,000 unsheltered homeless people on Skid Row. Most don’t have soap, toilet paper or paper towels. Port-a-potties used to be here and they took them out. They recently, you know, installed a
couple of more, but there’s been a it’s been a huge fight and pushback from
the community in regards to the fact that there’s no public toilets. Because where else are people supposed to go to the bathroom? Because where are people supposed to go? The lack of sanitation
largely contributed to a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that started in San
Diego and spread to Los Angeles last September. On top of that, the streets are
littered with needles that get reused, further increasing the risk of spreading
diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. It’s estimated that more than half of
homeless people in L.A. County struggle with substance abuse, and about a quarter suffer from mental illness. Life expectancy here is 48 years compared to
the average American, who lives to 78. The homelessness crisis is made worse by a cycle of people going from prison and jail to the streets. They don’t qualify for food programs, housing and so forth. And so then that puts them at the mercy
of being on the streets. And once here, they face further criminalization from law enforcement. We saw a heavy police presence on Skid Row, and while it’s
meant to deter violence and crime, residents here feel targeted. Police give
tickets for minor things like jaywalking, and when people fail to appear in court,
an arrest warrant is issued. Oftentimes, former inmates with mental
illness end up homeless, without access to medical or psychiatric help. The death
of 43-year-old Charley Keunang, who was previously treated in a prison
psychiatric hospital, brought this issue to national attention. In 2015,
Charley was shot and killed by LAPD after a confrontation over a suspected
robbery. The situation quickly escalates when officers force Charley out of his
tent and tase him. They take him to the ground, and that’s
when police say he reached for an officer’s gun. He’s got my gun! He’s got my gun!
[shots fired] Prosecutors said the officers acted in self-defense, and a police commission ruled that they were
justified in the shooting. Suzette took me to the spot where Charlie was killed. Obviously maybe we should’ve had a mental health team out here to maybe
help the situation before then we chose to pull Charley Keunang out of his tent,
taser him and then kill him. Women are a growing population on Skid Row. Nine out of ten women here have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. I actually felt preyed upon at times. Because, if you’re a woman living out here, then you must be you must be a prostitute. You must be a ho. Women have to become tough to survive Skid Row, even with each other. Run some more. I don’t open my legs, b*tch. I don’t open my legs. The irony of Skid Row is that it exists
against a backdrop of glittery downtown L.A. The area has rapidly developed and
gentrified in the last decade. Trendy cafes, high-end lofts and upscale
restaurants have popped up everywhere, and buildings are being converted into
luxury housing. All of this is driving up rent prices and making apartments
unaffordable. Adam Murray is the executive director of the Inner City Law
Center. He works with people who are homeless on Skid Row and helps them
fight evictions and find permanent housing. Why do you think the homeless
population is exploding the way it is here? I’d say more than anything else,
it’s the disconnect between people’s incomes and the cost of living in Los
Angeles. In the past 15 years, the median rent has gone up by 28 percent in Los Angeles and the median renter income has gone down by 8 percent. So you literally have hundreds of thousands of people every month who are struggling to pay
the rent. And then when you add in those other factors that are going on in their
lives, there’s just not a safety net to keep them from ending up on the streets. Is the city just not doing enough, in your opinion? The city is definitely not
doing enough. The county is not doing enough. Individually we’re not doing
enough. Communities aren’t doing enough. In 2016, L.A. voters passed a ballot
measure to provide $1.2 billion in funding for the construction of
10,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years. But where to build them is
now the problem. Part of the challenge is in a lot of resistance, NIMBY resistance, “not in my backyard” resistance, to any new housing that goes in, especially
affordable housing. That needs to change. The American homeless population
increased last year for the first time since 2010. On any given night, about half
a million people in the U.S. were living on the streets or in shelters. Meanwhile,
President Trump and congressional Republicans want to cut spending on
social safety net programs, including federal housing assistance. In his budget
request, Trump included work requirements for people who receive public housing
subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid. He also proposed cuts to housing voucher programs that have helped people like Suzette find a stable place to live. Skid
Row is an extreme case study example of homelessness in the U.S. – and how, for now, the problem seems intractable. Most people here are chronically homeless,
meaning they’ve been living as such at least a year, or repeatedly. What do you think is really misunderstood about a place like Skid Row? We oftentimes
pathologize poor people. We see them as lazy. We see them as not really trying to …
Yet we don’t see the resolve the resolve that it takes to actually sustain
out here. To have hope when there is no hope. I’ve met women who are nurses,
Stanford graduates that come from families. I met people who are connected to celebrities, living out here. And we lack the seeing that these people are actually human, that we’re human. Because I live here. Hey guys, it’s Dena and I’m on Skid Row. So that’s a glimpse of L.A.’s homelessness crisis. Make sure you check out the rest of the videos on our playlist for Direct From.

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