This is part of an ongoing series of reports called 'Chasing the Dream,' which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.
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SIMON OSTROVSKY: Los Angeles. The home of some of the most desirable zip codes in the country. But right at the heart of this wealthy metropolis exist conditions that have been described by the city's own newspaper, the Los Angeles Times as a "national disgrace." One expanse of 50 city blocks is an area that has become synonymous with poverty, crime, and homelessness. It's existed for decades and has dogged successive mayoral administrations that've tried to eradicate it. It's called "Skid Row" and is home to an estimated two thousand members of Los Angeles County's homeless community.
STEVE RICHARDSON: LA has one of the highest rents in the nation. And the reason why come to so many tents out here because people can't afford to live in a house. Steve Richardson, who goes by the name "General Dogon," is an activist at the LA Community Action Network, which advocates for the city's homeless community.
STEVE RICHARDSON: The majority of the people that you see sleeping on the streets are black and these are folks that have fell to the poverty level. It makes me really mad. Long the subject of local and national concern, Skid Row recently garnered international attention when it became the focus of a report written by the united nations rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston whose job more often involves assessing conditions in the developing world.
PHILIP ALSTON: The homelessness on the streets in LA is pretty staggering in terms of magnitude, in terms of how long running it is. There is a chronic shortage of affordable housing. Nationally, homelessness has been mostly on the decline since 2010, though it ticked upward slightly in 2017, to nearly 554 thousand people without their own roof over their heads in a so-called point-in-time count. The Los Angeles area meanwhile, has trended in the opposite direction as the cost of living here soared over the last decade forcing thousands onto the street in what has amounted to a nearly 50 percent increase in homelessness since 2012 to almost 53,000 people. The sheer size of Skid Row makes it look like a refugee camp. But according to a 2017 report by several homelessness advocacy groups, the availability of toilets here is worse than in a UN-run Syrian refugee camp.
PHILLIP ALSTON: It smells of urine everywhere. Skid Row had about 10 toilets, I think, for thousands of people. So it's a pretty bad setup.
STEVE RICHARDSON: So this is uh, they call it the big green machine. And, uh, it's a bathroom.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: According to the LA Community Action Network, nearly 1,800 unsheltered people in Skid Row share access to just 9 toilets like this one which means many avoid them altogether and use buckets which are then emptied into the streets and trash cans.
WILLY VAN SEALS: That was PTSD, but I didn't know nothing about that.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: Willy Van Seals is a Vietnam vet suffering from heroin addiction, one of almost 3900 homeless veterans in LA County.
WILLY VAN SEALS: I'll show you. The buckets that we use, are to urinate, bowel movement. There's nowhere around here to use the bathroom, And that's hard on a person you know what I mean? Suppose you walk around find somewhere to take a crap? Come on now.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: The authorities know hygiene is an issue here. The County Health Department reported that its teams observed feces and urine on eight of ten sidewalks during a survey back in 2012. Street washes like this one have been instituted to help stop the spread of disease.
OFFICER DEON JOSEPH: If we don't power wash the streets we end up with what we had years ago when we had a tuberculosis outbreak or hepatitis outbreak or some kind of disease, it has to be done, it has to be done.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: Officer Deon Joseph has been patrolling the streets of Skid Row for close to two decades. He says he's seen well-meaning policies to improve health conditions backfire. OFFICER DEON JOSEPH: Years ago we had 27 porta potties in Skid Row. My concern was that they would be taken over by the criminal element, and day one that's exactly what happened. Uh, when those bathrooms were here, gangsters were charging the homeless one to five dollars to use the porta potties for what they were designed for.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: While we're with him Officer Joseph receives a complaint.
MAN ON STREET: I've got these people who have pulled up in front of the doorway. I've asked them repeatedly to move and trying to have a rational conversation with irrational people. I just don't want to do it.
OFFICER DEON JOSEPH: How are you? I'm sorry to bother you. There's a gentleman here who has a business, and the law says you can't be within 10 feet of his doorway, can you guys move about 10 feet this way so he can have his space?
SIMON OSTROVSKY: He resolves the situation without incident. But the UN report points to data from the LA Times showing that 14,000 homeless people were arrested in LA in 2016, a 31 percent increase since 2011. The report encouraged authorities to shift from a "criminal justice response" to a "human rights-centered response" to homelessness. Homelessness is being criminalized in many ways. And it's as though you sorta keep moving the pieces around the chessboard and suddenly it's going to improve, instead of saying "Ok, we actually need to work out how to create places where these people can go."
OFFICER DEON JOSEPH: I agree with the UN, we shouldn't be the tip of the spear, fix the system especially in places like Skid Row where many individuals struggle with dual diagnosis where they're addicts and mentally ill. We don't want to be the tip of the spear but we have to be until those solutions arise.
SIMON OSTROVSKY: According to Victor Hinderliter of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, mental health and addiction are a huge factor contributing to homelessness.
VICTOR HINDERLITER: Approximately 30 percent of people experiencing homelessness self-report that they have a severe mental health disorder, about 30 percent of people experiencing homelessness self-report that they have a substance use disorder. Homelessness, uh, in and of itself is a traumatic experience. Christina Miller, the LA Mayor's Senior Project Manager of homeless strategies agrees that addressing homelessness is a multi-tiered process but disagrees that the homeless are being criminalized.
CHRISTINA MILLER: Instead of leading with police, leading with enforcement, we are doing everything we can to lead with services because we know that police officers are not social workers and that is not necessarily in their purview and having an enforcement heavy response is not ultimately going to get people off the streets. Activists say they know what will get people off the streets.
STEVE RICHARDSON: The solution is simple. This is what the solution is. This is only thing that ends homelessness. It's this right here, house keys. Until everybody got 'em, hey you gotta be good neighbors 'cause they gonna be people sleeping on the streets.
CHRISTINA MILLER: There are a lot of solutions that we are focusing on currently in terms of trying to expand our interim shelters by capacity. But we also know what the only solution is to homelessness, which is permanent housing. Miller told NewsHour Weekend the city of LA had embarked on an unprecedented drive to build 10,000 units of housing for the chronically homeless – those who've repeatedly ended up on the streets or been there for at least a year. It's funded through a 1.2 Billion dollar city bond over the next 10 years. That's in addition to a 30 million-dollar "bridge-home" program directed at providing interim housing in the meantime. And the efforts may have started to pay off. This year, the homeless count in LA County went down for the first time since 2014. Only modestly, from 55 thousand people to just under 53 thousand, but it bucks a 6-year-long trend in the opposite direction.
CHRISTINA MILLER: We are cautiously optimistic, we are celebrating the fact that there seems to be a change in the direction of the trajectory and it does tell us that we are doing something right.
JOSE SOTO: Well they were considerate enough to give us a pantry. Jose Soto, another veteran, is one of the lucky ones who has recently been housed after years in and out of prison and Skid Row.
JOSE SOTO: I'm really happy with the closet space. But, what do you fill it with? Soto, who is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction gave us a tour of the residence the city has provided to him free of charge.
JOSE SOTO: I've been on and off the streets for what year is it? Wow, 14 years and in my situation, it was all due to substance abuse. I just like to get drunk a lot every day. And then, before you know it, the lifestyle catches up and I end up, I'm one of the people on Skid Row or under a bridge. Until newer housing comes online homes like this are in very limited supply. Only veterans who have gone through a lengthy recovery process from substance abuse qualify for this building.
WILLY VAN SEALS: They treat us like trash. For vet Willy Van Seals who is still struggling with addiction, that seems like a distant prospect.
WILLY VAN SEALS: I went through rehab. And when I went through, they promised me when I got through that they would actually give me my voucher and I could go and find me a place to stay and none of that happened. This is where I ended up at. So did you manage to kick the habit in rehab?
WILLY VAN SEALS: Nah.
STEVE RICHARDSON: America paints ourselves as a "Good Samaritan country." I'm glad the UN came here, because you see third world conditions right here, you know, in the richest country in the world that's worse than other countries. The United Nations report notwithstanding, there are other indications things may be improving for the homeless in L.A. In 2016, Angelinos voted overwhelmingly for a tax increase directed at funding the creation of homes for the chronically homeless. And while tents still line the streets of Skid Row, this year chronic homelessness has dropped 18 percent in LA County.
WILLY VAN SEALS: When it rains, you must have something on this floor. But for Willy Van Seals and others like him, Los Angeles still has a long way to go.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.