WITHOUT A HOME
They’re part of the Los Angeles streetscape, as familiar as the swaying palm trees and idling traffic, living under freeways, alongside riverbeds and on canyon hillsides. The mentally ill, the drug addicts, the economically disadvantaged, many with their life belongings in a backpack or shopping cart. Here, The Times launches Without a Home, a special endeavor to examine a crisis of homelessness in our region. It is a challenge for each and every one of us. Citizens voted twice to open their wallets to fund a solution. Now, city leaders and others must act to improve the plight of some 58,000 of the county’s most vulnerable residents.
It was another warm January day, the afternoon sun sailing across a blue sky, the air thick with the scent of urine, rotting trash and human misery.
Beginning at Central Avenue and heading west, I counted 16 tents on the south side of 5th Street. My longtime traveling companion, Times photographer Francine Orr, counted 15 tents on the north side of the street.
One block, 31 tents.
On skid row, this is the norm, and it has been for years. On a recent day, it was not possible to walk on the sidewalk in the one-block stretch of 6th Street between San Julian and Wall streets. Rows of tents and blue tarp shanties lined the entire stretch, extending all the way to the curb, so you had to walk in the street.
I spent quite a bit of time in this area 13 years ago, when Orr and I first covered skid row and the thousands of homeless people who lived there. Back then, I never got past a sense of disbelief that this could exist, without an immediate crisis response, a few blocks from the halls of power and the towers of success.
I recall the two prostitutes who conducted business in port-a-potties at the corner of 6th and San Julian streets, just a block from the police station. I recall the wheelchair brigades, the haunted faces of those tortured by mental illness, the cruising drug dealers and the heroin addict who died of an overdose before our eyes in the ambulance on the way to the emergency room.
I recall former Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton calling it “the worst situation in America.”
But millions of tax dollars and dozens of speeches and political promises later, the situation is no better.
“It’s worse,” Orr said as we counted tents and people — the unemployed, the addicted, the sick, the destitute.
But what’s most alarming is that we have a growing constellation of skid rows across greater Los Angeles, from Burbank to Bel-Air and Pasadena to Pacific Palisades. Los Angeles, rich beyond dreams, is a refugee camp, its riverbeds and alleys draped in blue tarpaulin.
So here is my question — a question that taxpayers, merchants, sympathetic observers, disillusioned critics and the homeless themselves have every right to ask:
When, if ever, will the situation get better?
“We can bring these numbers down,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in 2016, when the county’s homeless number rose to 47,000, with 28,000 in the city alone. “This could be the year that we bring the numbers down.”
Can and could.
Here we are now in 2018, hopes dashed, and this could be the year Garcetti’s presidential pipe dream ruptures under a shantytown in the homeless capital of the United States.
To understand why Los Angeles always seems to be playing catch-up, you need to go back to a time when there was open contempt and little cooperation between city and county officials, and little in the way of comprehensive planning or coherent execution.
It was not even known, until 2015, how much the city of Los Angeles was spending to curb homelessness. The answer, contained in a blistering report from the city administrative officer, was more than $100 million. But the money was not well spent.
“There appears to be no consistent process across city departments for dealing with the homeless or with homeless encampments,” said the report by City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who added that the city was managing rather than solving the problem.
Things have changed for the better since then, especially on the cooperation front, with Garcetti and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas working closely together.