‘Epic disaster’: World’s worst tent city

AS SYDNEYSIDERS argue over the fate of homeless people in 40 tents camped squarely in their CBD, America’s biggest

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== With AFP Story by Veronique DUPONT: US-CALIFORNIA-POVERTY-HOMELESS == A sign reading "Skid Row" is painted on a wall next to the Los Angeles Mission, September 22, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck / AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK

AS SYDNEYSIDERS argue over the fate of homeless people in 40 tents camped squarely in their CBD, America’s biggest homeless enclave is in fresh crisis.

Los Angeles’ Skid Row is a virtual no-go zone for tourists.

It sprawls across more than 50 blocks of desperate poverty, home to about 8000 downtrodden, destitute and disadvantaged.

By day, the mass of people fill its streets, footpaths, alleys and parks. A teeming mass with nowhere left to go.

At night, those that can take refuge in shelters the queue for space in, or try to sleep in the tents that line footpaths for blocks on end.

Some might find a park bench. Others huddle under tarpaulins. More find what space they can for their blanket, scant possessions — if indeed they have any — spilling into the street.

It’s been like that for decades. Countless attempts to “clean up Skid Row” under the weight of sheer numbers and reality: There’s nowhere for the homeless to go.

And it’s not getting any better.

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Tents form makeshift footpath camps which stretch for blocks in Skid Row. Picture: Robyn Beck//AFP Source: AFP

Skid Row is in crisis.

Homelessness numbers across LA have soared 23 per cent in a year, a recent Homeless Services Authority found, identifying “economic stress on renters” and extreme poverty as two of the many culprits.

The yearly homeless count in Los Angeles County rose to 58,000 in 2017, up from 46,874 in 2016. Makeshift tent encampments sprawl across the city.

But nowhere is that concentration worse than at Skid Row.

The numbers vary — some recent counts say 5000, others estimate between 8000 to 11,000 people live on its streets at any one time.

The yearly homeless count in Los Angeles County rose to 58,000 in 2017, up from 46,874 in 2016.

LIFE IN SKID ROW

Skid Row doesn’t appear on any city map, but take a drive down it, as this writer did a few years ago, and its reputation defines it.

It’s pretty much a no-go area for tourists, and is one of the most dangerous places in America, with drugs, violence and crime rife.

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Homeless veteran Kendrick Bailey's tent stands on a street corner near Skid Row. Picture: Picture: AFP Source: AFP

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Kendrick Bailey is a homeless war veteran. Picture: AFP/Frederic J Brown Source: AFP

It’s unsanitary, it stinks and it’s dangerous. And that’s just during the day.

At night, it’s a constant battle for a sea of humanity to find somewhere to rest their heads.

Those who can’t find refuge in the tents or under the sagging tarps and boxes that fill the footpaths; or score refuge or shelter accommodation for the night, wedge themselves on the concrete, amid soiled clothes and rubbish.

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Homeless people and their belongings on a Skid Row footpath. There is a continual battle to stop unattended belongings being stolen, or cleaned up. Picture: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images Source: Getty Images

Many use the battered suitcases or bags housing their meagre belongings as pillows.

Some are barefoot, having traded their shoes. Others never had shoes to begin with.

Alcohol and drug addiction are rife. There are addicts, the mentally ill, the ex-cons, the jobless and the impoverished.

Step out of the drug treatment centres and programs on offer, and you’re back on the street, where illicit substances are easily available. Temptation at every corner.

Residents have to be hard to survive. They’re careful who they look at. Who they swear at. They advise newbies to “look crazy” if they feel threatened. And defend their space on the footpath.

As night falls, many queue outside shelters hoping for a spot to spend the night.

There are never enough beds.

‘UNNATURAL DISASTER OF EPIC PROPORTIONS’

CEO of the Union Rescue Mission Reverend Andy Bales says 14,000 more people on the streets of LA County than there were a year ago is “an unnatural disaster of epic proportions”.

“Anywhere else you have 14,000 people lose their homes in one year and many died, you’d call that a natural disaster. You’d call out the Red Cross. You’d call out FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency),” he said in an LA radio interview.

He said the stress of living on the streets, in cars and in overflowing emergency shelters is severe.

“You’re being devastated hourly and daily. Your life is being destroyed right in front of everybody’s eyes from what you suffer on the streets.

“Nowhere to go to the rest room, nowhere to get a shower, nowhere to lay your head, nowhere to escape either the heat or the cold.”

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti presides over the homeless capital of America. In March, voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to raise an estimated $355  million a year for 10 years to help homeless people transition into planned affordable housing.

In 2015, Los Angeles elected officials declared a homelessness “state of emergency” and pledged $100 million in funding to tackle the crisis.

Garcetti knows his city is “an imperfect paradise”. In a recent podcast, he agreed homelessness levels were the worst they had ever been with a grim reply: “Number one in the country, unfortunately.”

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Rosie: the new face of homelessness on Skid Row. Supplied by Union Rescue Mission Source: Supplied

THE FACES

EACH night, the Union Rescue Mission’s chapel and day rooms in Skid Row become emergency shelters.

Blankets are laid out end to end and the homeless filter in to fill the camp beds.

During the day, they have to move out to the streets.

“Skid Row is definitely somewhere where you don’t want to see your kids or where you don’t want to be yourself,” says 23-year-old Rosie, in a video on Union Rescue Mission’s

Facebook

page.

Rosie’s is the new face of homelessness: one of almost 6000 young people with nowhere to sleep on any given night in LA. Young people aged 18 to 24 are the fastest growing group of homeless people, up 64 per cent on last year. The number of children without a home increased 41 per cent.

“I’m struggling with the streets of Los Angeles. Like my birth mum, and my birth dad,” Rosie says.

Taken from her birth family aged four, she was adopted. At 17, an abortion saw her spiral into drug use and “left me on my own”.

She’s been homeless for six or seven years.

“I would usually be in abandoned house or an abandoned car I would find on the street,” she says as she beds down for the night at United Rescue Mission.

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Living full times on the streets was “the worst year of my life”, says Evilyn. Supplied by Union Rescue Mission Source: Supplied

Another Mission sleeper, Evelyn, was on the streets for “the worst year of my life” before finding Union Rescue Mission to lay her head.

“I had ex-boyfriends I would stay with but to me it was worse than being on the streets because I was violated by my ex-boyfriends,” she says.

“There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, I couldn’t call on nobody. I was still being raped. Still being drugged.”

A tear rolls down her cheek as she says, “Here, to even have a bed to lay on.”

“Sometimes I get ungrateful throughout the day (on the streets) and I have to remember there’s somebody out there that’s worse off than you.”

Her 11-year-old son is in group care, because she doesn't have “a stable base to bring him to”.

“If it feels like there’s no way to go, there is a way to go,” she says. “I just have to keep pushing forward.”

STINKING MESS

As other areas of downtown LA have boomed and been rejuvenated and developed, Skid Row remains neglected.

“It’s like a slow landslide — it just keeps going down,” said Mel Tillekeratne, whose volunteer group, Monday Night Mission, feeds residents every week night, told the

LA Times

.

A recent audit showed the thousands of homeless people have less access to toilets than refugees in places including Syria, based on UN standards for hygiene.

Just nine public toilets were available overnight for 1800 unsheltered people, the

Los Angeles Downtown News

reports.

Another 89 toilets at night would be needed to meet the UN standard of no more than 20 people per toilet in long-term refugee camps.

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A homeless woman sets up a barricade in front of her tent. Picture: AFP/Frederic J Brown Source: AFP

Automatic public toilets designed to operate 24 hours, are reportedly shut down at night.

Others have no doors, or are filthy. Toilet paper and feminine hygiene products are rationed.

They’re also popular venues for drug dealing, and drug taking. And violence.

Those caught short resort to nature’s call in plastic bags, or just have to go on the street.

From January to March this year, the Central City East Association’s Industrial District Business staff received 262 requests to pressure clean footpaths clear of human waste.

THE FUTURE

The forecast is if rent hikes continue, more will be put onto the streets.

The crisis is “just killing people”, Mike Alvidrez, CEO of LA’s Skid Row Housing Trust, told the

LA Times

.

“There seems to be a new cohort of people joining the homeless ranks. Some of them are working but can’t afford to pay rent in a market that doesn’t give them options.”

He’s been fighting homelessness for years, but is increasingly despairing.

“Our own kids can’t find a place to live in the cities they were raised in,” he says.

Those who end up on the streets also have much shorter life expectancy, he says. This crisis “is just killing people,” Alvidrez says.

Meanwhile, Bales’ Union Rescue Mission shelter is housing 55 per cent more people this year than last.

“It’s never been worse,” he says.

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