LA homeless “emergency” sums up U.S. inequality – The income inequality gap in America’s second-largest city between high and low-income families is among the largest in the United States.
Studies have found that families at the top of the income distribution have been earning eleven times more than families at the bottom ($270,000 vs. $25,000).
But that is nothing in comparison to the neighborhood of Skid Row in Los Angeles.
The LA skyline, where the wealthy and rich are based overshadows an area, which also happens to be in the downtown LA area.
But there is no skyline here in the largest city in the state of California.
Just an endless number of blocks and roads where tens of thousands of ordinary homeless people live in tents. The area is visible from the richest neighborhoods in the city.
And alarmingly, among the homeless are U.S. army veterans.
Over the years, many failed attempts to solve the homelessness “epidemic” has been made in the U.S.
It remains to be seen if this latest approach will bring any success.
The fact that a state of emergency has been declared points to the magnitude of the wide-scale inequality in LA and across the U.S.
According to the Los Angeles homeless services authority (Lahsa), there are upwards of 69,144 unhoused Americans squatting in the neighborhood.
In the summer of 2020, Los Angeles County saw an almost 13 percent jump in its homeless population in a year, an increase that came even before the economic meltdown from the coronavirus pandemic that impacted the employment of millions.
Los Angeles is a city known for its Hollywood stars, and the TV and movie industries, which has made it a popular tourist destination spot. But it has experienced a four percent increase in its homeless population during the pandemic.
The figures are a rough estimate count from a single day and are widely reported to be an undercount.
This is despite the state of California having the fifth-largest economy in the world.
There are also widely believed to be severe racial disparities in the neighborhood.
Black residents in Skid Row make up 30% of the homeless population despite accounting for only nine percent of the broader population.
Studies show there has also been a sharp increase in unhoused Latino residents, who are reported to make up around 44 percent of the unhoused population. Latinos make up 49% of LA county residents.
It’s also why the growing homeless epidemic was the main talking point of the mayoral campaign for LA and prompted the newly inaugurated Mayor Karen Bass, the first black woman to take up the post, to officially declare a state of emergency on homelessness in her first day at work.
The idea that everyone sleeping rough on Skid Row suffer from mental health issues or substance abuse is also a myth.
Officials have recently acknowledged that nearly 40 percent of people living on the streets were experiencing substance abuse disorders and/or serious mental illness.
Which means the majority of people experiencing homelessness suffer from neither.
The reality is that many simply cannot afford to get on the housing ladder.
Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of the homeless services nonprofit PATH, said the city’s years-long approach to the crisis has been a disaster with no “tangible housing solutions.”
In a statement, she said, “from individuals just falling into homelessness, to those living outdoors or in interim housing … we know that the affordable housing they need is just not here.”
The humanitarian crisis that comes with homelessness has been underreported. An average of five people living on the streets die every day in LA, some due to extreme summer heat and others because of hypothermia in the winter.
The new mayor says the decision to officially announce an emergency declaration would streamline efforts to address the problem, calling it a “seismic shift.”
The Los Angeles City Council voted to ratify the state of emergency on homelessness, confirming newly-elected Mayor Karen Bass’ first official act. The measure has been approved for six months.
Homelessness had been the main issue of the mayoral campaign, which featured a David-and-Goliath race between Bass and the billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who spent $104m on his campaign – nearly 11 times more than Bass’ own $9m in expenditures.
“Using the emergency order is our ability to fast-track things,” said the mayor.
She claimed that her mandate “is to move Los Angeles in a new direction with an urgent and strategic approach to solving one of our city’s toughest challenges and creating a brighter future for every Angeleno.”
“If we are going to bring Angelenos inside and move our city in a new direction, we must have a single strategy to unite our city and county and engage the state, the federal government, the private sector, and every other stakeholder,” Bass said.
She also addressed the coastal city’s broader cost of living crisis, saying that “too many Angelenos have no choice but to crowd multiple families into one home, and to work multiple jobs to just barely pay the rent”.
Cities across the U.S. are also grappling with worsening housing crises and inequality, but LA and California have faced the most scrutiny because the state has the fifth-largest economy in the world, a budget surplus, and some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the U.S.
Experts say the region could find a home for every homeless person in LA in a short matter of time.
However, the number of people falling into homelessness is outpacing the ability to house them.
Earlier this year, when Heidi Marston stepped down as the head of Lahsa, she called the crisis a “monster of our own making”.
Then comes the other wider issue of veterans.
Sent to fight in wars on the back of a pack of lies and fake intelligence, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 6,000 homeless army veterans can be found in the Los Angeles area.
One Los Angeles Magazine described it as Veterans Row, not Skid Row.
Reginald Smith, a Marine Corps veteran pointed to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ West LA, saying “all of that land is just sitting there,” while U.S. army veterans are sleeping on the streets.
Smith says, “every day, 22 veterans die because of homelessness, or mental health issues. The costs are big.”
Rob Reynolds, a formerly homeless veteran who now advocates on behalf of other veterans struggling with housing issues also says “we call it Veterans Row to get rid of the Skid Row stigma.”
He argues that if U.S. military officials cared for their soldiers returning from war zones, they would at least provide them with a path toward some form of housing instead of abandoning them on the streets.
“It just goes to show that if they were given the tools in the first place—a place to stay, somewhere to get stable, dumpsters, all that—they can clean up and take care of themselves,” he said.