Too Big to Ignore

03.08.15 10:45 AM ET

How Los Angeles Created Skid Row

Somewhere between 2,000 and 11,000 homeless people live in a 54-block area in Los Angeles, the site of an officer-involved shooting last week.

How did Los Angeles’ Skid Row come to be? It depends on who you ask.

The Union Rescue Mission, the charity that’s stationed at the epicenter of last Sunday’s shooting of a Skid Row resident, takes a long view of how the half-mile bubble came to quarter 10,000 homeless people in 2015, even as property rates skyrocket around its perimeter.

The Mission developed in parallel to Skid Row, and can trace its origins to the late 19th century, when the area east of tony Bunker Hill became the domain of brothels and saloons. By 1876, Los Angeles was the final stop on the transcontinental railroad, leading to an early population boom fueled by land speculation.

Then, as now, the city attracted immigrants, and the $10-per-night hotels were chosen by newcomers as a base upon which to build their fortunes. The Union Rescue Mission’s website captures the scope of the problem: “Many people who come to America view it as a place where they can start over with nothing–and frequently end up here with little to no resources.”

Despite this long and ugly heritage, Los Angeles does not lay claim to coining the term “Skid Row”—that dubious honor goes to Seattle, where communities of loggers sprouted up along the pathways, or “skid roads,” on which the Washington timber would be dragged out to port.

When the Great Depression hit, demand for construction fell, and the out-of-work loggers soon shared their neighborhood’s nickname with impoverished areas across the country.

A similar population influx has greeted Skid Row with every downturn since: In the late ’60s, the amount of low-cost rental housing in the area was halved right before the oil crisis in 1971. In the late ’80s, the explosion of crack cocaine hit just in time for the recession of the early ’90s and the privatization of state mental hospitals, which was overseen by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.

The burst of the housing bubble of the mid-2000s happened to coincide with a hideous practice among several private hospitals found depositing impoverished, mentally ill patients on the doorstep of the Union Rescue Mission in 2005. One especially determined hospital spent five years busing nearly 500 patients to Skid Row from Las Vegas.

Homeless shelters and rescue missions exist county-wide in Los Angeles and throughout America. What sets Skid Row apart is the extreme density. According to a report released by the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, the 0.4 square miles that form the boundaries of Skid Row house over 2,521 homeless persons, meaning that “roughly 3% of the country’s entire homeless population [reside] within an area that comprises only .0001% of the country’s total land area.”

Worse, L.A.’s Skid Row is merely endemic of the homeless epidemic facing the entire county. Seattle, the location of the original Skid Row, has the third-highest homeless population of any U.S. city, 8,879, according to a 2013 estimate. L.A. County, by way of comparison, has 53,798. Only New York City can boast more.

That’s why Steve Diaz, who works as a community organizer at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (and, prior to that, was a Skid Row resident for five years) has a much narrower view of how the neighborhood came to be.

Back in 2006, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the Safer Cities Initiative with then-Police Chief William Bratton as a way of curbing this population growth. The theory behind the initiative was fundamentally similar to the now-famous “Broken Windows” theory of policing, which originated in New York City and posits that strict punishments for minor offenses early on in a criminal’s “career” makes them hesitant to commit greater crimes. In his previous job as NYC police commissioner, Bratton was a “leading practitioner” of the approach.

Bratton brought his policy of “stop-and-frisk” with him when he was hired by Mayor Villaraigosa in 2002, even paying for a 2009 study to show the increase in police “stops” over his tenure.

“Safer Cities has been nothing but a police occupation of Skid Row,” says Diaz, echoing the frustrations with the LAPD expressed by many who work or live in the area. Diaz continued, “Worse, mental health workers are never the first responders to these situations.”

When 14.5 percent of Los Angeles’ homeless have “serious alcohol problems and a lifetime diagnosis of schizophrenia,” the 36 hours of mental health training most officers receive probably isn’t enough.

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Before Bratton, the number of “stops” of motorists and pedestrians equaled 587,200. Five years later, total police encounters in L.A. shot up to 875,204.

To achieve such a significant increase in police stops, Chief Bratton needed to enlist more police, so the SCI called for 50 additional officers to work on Skid Row. 50 cops doesn’t seem like an extreme number, but a 2007 UCLA study pointed out that for the 0.85-square-mile area, 50 more officers “would be equivalent to adding 470 officers to Rampart Area, or 1,700 to Van Nuys.”

In their first year, the larger SCI task force handed out approximately 12,000 citations, though the great majority of which were for “pedestrian violations, primarily signal (‘walk’/’don’t walk’) violations.”

Contrary to claims that these strict violations would make the area less attractive to the homeless, six years after SCI was fully implemented, the homeless population in Skid Row remained almost the same as before (1,876 in 2006 to 1,693 in 2012), according to the LAPD’s own statistics.

Today, that figure is at least 2,500, though some estimates go as high as 11,000. After a brief stint at a private security consulting firm, William Bratton was rehired as New York police commissioner by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2013.

As for Bratton’s Safer Cities Initiative, the UCLA report was forced to conclude, “there is no reason to believe the SCI as presently constituted will reduce chronic homelessness, though it may pressure some chronically homeless people into other neighborhoods of the city.”

Yet the report doesn’t specify which neighborhoods. Part of what makes Skid Row so popular with the homeless community is that there is a collection of resources there—from soup kitchens to social workers, from housing with reduced rents to 24-hour shelters. The effectiveness of these organizations depends on how many people they can serve, and that number would likely decline If they dispersed. The chances of the homeless shelters finding a new location—with the rampant N.I.M.B.Y.-ism pervading throughout Los Angeles—are unlikely.

With the tragic shooting of one of Skid Row’s residents just seven days ago, L.A.’s  growing homelessness problem has just metastasized. This city, so proud to self-identify as a beacon of liberalism, can willfully ignore a humanitarian issue like this only for so long.