Coming back down to earth from Hollywood’s glittering Hills, we land in Skid Row, one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in America. These days it is only the epicentre of the Los Angeles’ staggering homelessness problem that festers across the entire urban sprawl. Its prominence in this city of capital grimly epitomises man’s ability to turn his back on his fellow man.
One sunny morning in LA I had intended to find a park in which to eat my breakfast before catching a bus back to Santa Barbara. Far from the grassy gardens I had envisioned, Google maps sent me to a concrete basketball court covered in tents and tarpaulin shelters. The sound of heavy trap music was being pumped out from the court, the heart of Skid Row, and dancing to these reverberations were two elderly men, oblivious to the world around them. Confronted with this rather strange behaviour at ten o’clock in the morning, I felt a deep sense of guilt and unease. The total estrangement of our lives dawned upon me, and I began to comprehend the danger of this separation that clouds our capacity for compassion.
Yet by telling this story I endorse the social prejudice that I am warning against. Contrary to popular belief, the raving, hair-matted drug addicts only make up a minute proportion of Los Angeles’ homeless population. Drastic cuts to affordable housing in LA have made low-income households more vulnerable than ever to becoming homeless. Tackling this humanitarian crisis depends on the cultivation of empathy, and recognition that those on the streets may have lead a life just like your own.
Privileged members of society are extremely quick to accuse the homeless of drug addiction or idleness. Absolving ourselves of our own sense of guilt, we ignore the fact that homelessness is a consequence of society’s greatest prejudices. One sector of society that has fallen victim to this crisis is the mentally ill, who account for one third of LA’s homeless population. Since their ‘de-institutionalisation’ in the second half of the twentieth century, the government failed to provide alternative support systems, making the mentally ill more vulnerable than anyone to ending up on the streets.
If the situation wasn’t grave enough, Los Angeles has recently seen a worrying rise in cases of typhus across the city. Associated with homelessness, the recent outbreaks of disease enhance perceptions of Skid Row as a breeding ground for sickness and immorality. Incidents like these have contributed to the popular delusions about homelessness that are powerful obstructions to housing policies. After the people of LA astoundingly voted to raise their own taxes last year, never in the city has so much money been available for housing the homeless. Yet fierce NIMBY resistance, and pushover politicians pandering to rich residents have proven to be the biggest obstacles to finding a solution.
The socioeconomic problem is even reflected in LA’s built urban landscape. Tents and sleeping bags collect on the underside of the city’s vast network of highways, rather symbolically separating the lowest members of society, and those who drive above their heads. This architectural separation is not uncommon, as a similar phenomenon once existed on our doorsteps in Edinburgh. The streets of Cowgate, now home to some of the city’s trendiest student clubs, once housed hundreds of impoverished workers living in slums and tenement housing. Wealthy members of society, disinclined to confront the squat and squalor of the lower classes, travelled on Edinburgh’s bridges, blissfully unaware of the inequality lying below. Although centuries have passed, depressingly we are still reminded of these Dickensian conditions in one of the world’s most iconic modern cities.