What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Skyscrapers. Tents. Dreams. Nightmares. Words can’t adequately describe the extent of LA’s conflicting scenery. This city in which all has been deemed possible now seems more like the setting for a downward spiral into untold misery for the have-nots. What for a few remains a playground, a heaven on earth, is quickly becoming a suffocating hell for the tens of thousands living without shelter.
Watch Marcel Cartier’s full report “Humanitarian crisis in Hollywood”.
Almost 60,000 people across LA County are currently homeless, with a further 10,000 living out of their cars or other vehicles. In 2015 the city’s Mayor Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency paving the way for the United Nations to send a Special Rapporteur to investigate extreme poverty in the US at the end of last year.
The magnitude of the UN coming to inspect the conditions of scores of people living in tents in the middle of one of the wealthiest cities in the US cannot be overstated. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s investigation in cities like LA led him to conclude that “the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.”
“It Shocks People from Other Countries”
For years now Skid Row in downtown LA has been home to the greatest concentration of homelessness in the US. There is nothing particularly new about tents piling up street after street in the 49-square block area. In fact it has been building up over more than one hundred years due to a corresponding concentration of social services and resources in the area. More recently, Skid Row gained the reputation of being a dumping ground of the city’s homeless, a place where hospitals and emergency services literally dump homeless people in the streets instead of providing or finding them shelter.
Rev. Andy Bales, the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, a Christian organization committed to providing services to the homeless in the middle of the Skid Row, has become the city’s authority on the crisis. His personal experience of living on the streets and then losing his leg due to three flesh eating diseases is harrowing.
It was Bales’ testimony at a city council hearing in 2015 which moved the Mayor to seriously consider declaring a state of emergency and when I met him I got the sense that while he is keen to tell his story, he’s more eager to find solutions to a crisis which he said “shocks people from other countries”.
I was one of those people. Even though I am a US citizen by birth, I grew up for the most part in western Europe which has contributed to an inner conflict when it comes to my own country, one which was stoked further at the sight of such shocking inequality in LA.
While poverty, homelessness and inequality are all pervasive throughout Europe, particularly as post-World War Two welfare states become infected by the doctrine of austerity, conditions in the US where a welfare state never really existed in the first place, are overtly more dire.
Rampant individualism has always been the name of the game, and the consequences are horrifyingly obvious.
Refugee Camps in the Shadow of Hollywood
Bales is armed with the statistics that confirm what’s visible on the streets outside the Union Rescue Mission – a humanitarian crisis.
One of the most staggering is that there are just nine permanent toilets and five temporary ones for 2,500 people. Skid Row, in the world’s most powerful economy, has 180 toilets less than the minimum standard for a United Nations refugee camp in Syria.
While I am uncomfortable comparing the plight of people fleeing the trauma of war to homeless people in southern California, what I have witnessed during travel to camps in Iraq and Syria in the past year are sanitation conditions far more advanced than what I found in Skid Row.
Yet perhaps the comparisons don’t end there. Here in the shadow of Hollywood, I sensed a subtle type of war being waged against the poor and dispossessed. The tents symbolize a makeshift refugee camp for many of those displaced from the houses or apartments with rising rents which their wages, or lack of them, cannot keep up with. Dignity is elusive – not a right, but something that has to be purchased.
As the cost of living in Los Angeles continues to soar. So-called regeneration is making rents even more unaffordable and so the crisis is only worsening. Mayor Garcetti says he has $4.5 billion to spend to end homelessness in time for the olympics in 2028. LA Tenants Union activist Rene Moya says this is “utter claptrap” and the only housing I saw going up around me was for the rich.
NIMBY – Not In My Backyard
Over the last six years homelessness in LA has risen by a staggering 75 per cent. So while homelessness is far from a new phenomenon in the US it can no longer be kept away from the sights of people living in relative comfort.
It’s not just in Skid Row where the homelessness crisis is out of control but practically every area across greater LA including Hollywood Boulevard where tourists now walk around the homeless sleeping on the Walk of Fame.
It was here where I first heard the expression NIMBY for Not In My Backyard. The idea behind the acronym is that if the crisis is contained to certain areas, it can be ignored. In fact some property developers are building bridges between their luxury apartments, literally constructing an LA within LA, a bubble for the rich, by minimising the frequency they have to face the streets and reality around them.
One of my contacts who I worked closely with on the story told me that one of his family members who lived in a rich part of the city actually didn’t know about the extent of the crisis until he was shown video footage of the tents on Skid Row. He was shocked that this was happening in his home city that he assumed he knew intimately all his life.
However, despite the efforts described above, the crisis is so huge the middle classes and wealthier residents of LA can no longer choose to ignore it. It is in their backyard, but the services and affordable housing to tackle the problem are not. And NIMBYism is part of the problem because it encompasses the idea that affordable housing shouldn’t be built or opened up in wealthier areas, in case working-class residents would move in and taint their imagined prestige.
President Donald Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’, but the UN’s Philip Alston warns his plan to slash $1.5 trillion in taxes by gutting already underfunded social programs will “be fatal for many programs, and possibly also for those who rely upon them.” Alston’s scathing report published by the UN Office of the High Commissioner in December 2017 explicitly stated that the US wasn’t meeting its basic human rights obligations. Here is an excerpt:
“International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to healthcare, a right to social protection for those in need, and a right to an adequate standard of living. In practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation.”
If the American dream truly ever existed – I would argue much of it has always been illusionary – over the course of the time I recently spent in LA, I found where it has gone to die. Skid Row should be a wake up call for the entire country, a cry for society to reassess its priorities and how truly democratic its way of life actually is in the face of a crisis where thousands of people have literally been dumped, excluded – but no matter how America tries, they will never be invisible.