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What to do about Skid Row

TANYA MCNICHOLS moved to Los Angeles from Cincinnati when Eartha Kitt died. She says she is on a mission from Jehovah. Asked how she spends her days, she fires off four words: “Shower, wash, read, pray.” Ms McNichols lives surrounded by her possessions on the street in front of the Union Rescue Mission, a non-profit that serves the homeless of Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Reverend Andrew Bales, who runs the Mission, sees Skid Row as a humanitarian disaster. “It couldn’t be a worse situation”, he says, “unless it was hell itself.” He has experienced this hell first-hand. While delivering water in the area, Reverend Bales contracted a painful infection that resulted in the partial amputation of both legs.

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On April 20 a federal judge ordered the city and county to clean up Skid Row. In a flowery 110-page injunction, Judge David Carter chronicled the century-plus of history that culminated in Los Angeles’s contemporary homelessness crisis. In its final pages, he made his decree. Los Angeles must set aside $1bn to tackle homelessness. By mid-July, the city and county must offer shelter to all unaccompanied women and children on Skid Row. By October 18, the county must offer shelter to all of the homeless people in the area. The city and county are appealing against the order.

Los Angeles has long fought a losing battle against homelessness. The county provides around 50,000 shelter beds for a steadily increasing homeless population of more than 60,000. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an average of 207 people exit homelessness every day, while an average of 227 become homeless. Around 5,000 people are concentrated on Skid Row, a little over half of whom are in shelters or other temporary housing; the rest sleep rough. More than a third suffer from a substance use disorder and many are mentally ill or physically disabled. The area is squalid.

This concentration of misery is a result of both historical accident and deliberate policy. Beginning in the 1880s, the proximity of downtown Los Angeles to a rail terminal made it a locus for poor transient labourers. Charitable organisations and public agencies soon appeared to serve this population. In the 1960s, urban-renewal efforts reduced the area’s housing stock, and displaced residents flooded the streets. A deliberate policy of “containment” beginning in the mid-1970s led the city to concentrate services for the indigent within the 50-block area. Homeless people from across the region now gravitate there.

The city and county argue that Judge Carter’s ruling is an instance of judicial overreach and that its timeline is unreasonable. Mayor Eric Garcetti has suggested that it will complicate long-term planning around homelessness. Existing efforts include two ballot initiatives: Proposition HHH, which set aside more than $1bn to build up to 10,000 housing units for the homeless, and Measure H, which raised county sales taxes by a small amount to pay for improved services.

The problem with these efforts, charges Reverend Bales, is that they have proved expensive and slow. While the city dallies, he says, people are dying on the street. He has a point. In 2020 nearly four homeless people died in Los Angeles per day. The first units made possible by Proposition HHH, which passed in 2016, did not open until 2020. A third of the homes in the pipeline will cost more than $500,000 each to build. And the city has dragged its feet: although Los Angeles is eligible for federal reimbursement for homeless services, it has not even applied for the money; city officials plead a lack of staff.

In his order, Judge Carter takes the city to task for this “embarrassing performance”, arguing that it has long failed to achieve its stated goals. In addition to its requirement that the city shelter the residents of Skid Row, the order also imposes accountability requirements: the city must explain how funds intended to help with homelessness are being spent.

Some homelessness experts are sceptical. Suzanne Wenzel of the University of Southern California acknowledges that long-term solutions take time but worries that money for permanent fixes could now be siphoned off to temporary ones. And she fears unintended consequences. If the city is forced to rapidly clear Skid Row, she says, “they will be forced to make some decisions that are ultimately not going to be in the best interests of those now on the streets.” Gary Blasi, a law professor who works on homeless issues, agrees. “The way this city would comply with such an order”, he says, “would be to build shelters that people living in encampments find inferior to where they are now.”

What would be better? Experts recommend permanent supportive housing for those who may be struggling with mental illness or drug addiction, something Proposition HHH was supposed to do. The city also needs to find a way to bring down astronomical construction prices. And a better safety net would help: thousands of Angelenos spend nearly all they earn on rent, teetering on the edge of homelessness. Mr Blasi points out that LA County’s general relief programme pays out a paltry $221 per month to indigent Angelenos.

On April 25, Judge Carter stayed some provisions of his initial order and agreed to give the city 60 days to spell out how its homelessness funds will be spent. He has invited the parties to discuss a settlement. Such a settlement might look like an earlier case Judge Carter presided over in nearby Orange County. In that one, the city could be required to create enough shelter for 60% of the homeless people in each city-council district. Council members would then be free to have remaining homeless people cleared from the area. Mr Blasi thinks this is a bad idea. “It does give individual city-council members power to clear encampments that are bothering their most powerful constituents,” he says. “But at the end of the day many of those people would still be homeless.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The Row row”