Postcard from Los Angeles

January 24, 2018 - I’m writing this on the plane ride home after three days in Los Angeles.

Two colleagues and I have been given the job of evaluating LA County’s efforts to address homelessness through its comprehensive Homeless Initiative plan. This plan is in response to a homeless population that is estimated at almost 58,000 on a given night, and includes resources that were established through Measure H, a referendum passed last year where LA County taxpayers agreed to tax themselves an extra quarter-cent on sales to raise money ($335 million annually) for financing the homelessness plan.

This reflects an extraordinary time. On one hand, homelessness is widely seen as being out of control, and the predominant narrative is that this is homelessness is karma blowback from skyrocketing real estate prices that has rendered housing difficult for many middle class households and out of reach for increasing numbers of poor households. The shelter system, with about 15,000 beds, is only able to accommodate about one quarter of this population, which increases the visibility of LA’s homelessness, especially in and around the downtown area. After the last few days, I can verify this firsthand.

On the other hand, there is a palpable public desire to do something about the problem. This is manifested in the willingness to raise taxes, and also in the people and agencies who are mobilizing to address this issue. I am starting to immerse myself in this context, familiarizing myself with the particulars of homelessness in LA, how things got to this point, and the very different services structures that exist out here as compared to cities that I am more familiar with, such as Philadelphia and New York. Hopefully I’ll write more about this in upcoming posts.

Over the last few days, we have met with the various County officials who have enlisted us to do this evaluation, as well as with researchers and policy people who are working on various facets of this issue (one of the key players here is someone who was a student in one of my classes over a decade ago). It has been exciting to interact with many smart and committed people, and also to realize that there is a large audience, beyond the usual researchers and policy wonks, who want to see how much of an impact such an effort will have on reducing the extent of homelessness. Yesterday, we gave a presentation on our evaluation (still in its early stages) to the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at USC (the PowerPoint deck for this presentation is here for anyone who wants to get an idea of the evaluation framework).

As part of my crash course on all things LA and homelessness, I started off my day with a walk through Skid Row. LA is unique insofar as it has this 50 square block area, just east of downtown, that has continuously served as the nexus for its homeless population since the late nineteenth century. The place I stayed was on 5th Street, two blocks west of where it becomes Skid Row’s main drag.

Not long after starting up my walk, I struck up a conversation with a man looking for a bus ticket to relatives in Bakersfield. He talked openly about how he got there, having just been released from jail and having come to California a few months back after losing a coal mining job in eastern Kentucky. A back injury got him a Oxycontin prescription, and after he figured out how to snort it he lost everything. He choked up after mentioning that he left a wife and two kids in Kentucky, but spent more time talking about losing his pickup truck. We talked for a bit, and the longer we engaged in conversation, the more tacit the understanding that I would help him. I gave him the money he said he needed for transportation, told him not to get sucked into Skid Row, and to get help. He responded he had tried, and had been unable to wait for that weren’t immediately forthcoming.  I wished him luck and wondered whether he would ever make it to the bus station.

Continuing down “the Nickel”, the sidewalk became impassable due to blocks of tents bivouacked along the sidewalks. Snippets of conversation I caught all seemed to mention urination, and indeed the air smelled of piss and shit. A near-literal shithole, something which hasn’t escaped the notice of UN poverty officials. My little tourist jaunt had a surreal feeling, as though I was in a dimension apart from the misery that I walked past. In a sense I was.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine texted me a link to a podcast, from 99% Invisible, that chronicled how Skid Row came to be. As I packed my suitcase, I used the podcast to debrief on what I had seen. LA’s skid row was intentionally set up as a containment zone for homelessness, and these de facto arrangements are now breaking down where clusters of homelessness are now sprouting across LA. Then, once I got on the plane, I started reading Forrest Stuart’s Down, Out and Under Arrest, a recent ethnography of policing on Skid Row, where he does an excellent job of recounting the history of skid row and tying it into contemporary dynamics.

Those of you who have read my prior blog entries will be familiar with my interest in Philadelphia’s Skid Row. In Philly, like in virtually all other cities, the geographical skid row is gone. I have speculated on a Philadelphia neighborhood that now stands in for skid row, but in LA this link between past and present is tangible. For those who wonder what might have happened if Philadelphia’s skid row were still standing, LA provides an illustration. And now, fifty years later, the pressure to demolish LA’s Skid Row is again building, and is linked with the more general fate of homelessness is LA.

I'm looking forward to this project.

Stephen Metraux