In Skid Row, the notorious 54-block section in downtown LA, a middle-aged woman in multiple jackets, two pairs of pants, and wool socks stooped on top of her belongings under a polka-dotted umbrella, letting the raindrops stream down the sides of her umbrella like curtains. A few blocks away, an old woman in a beanie and bright purple velvet scarf hobbled out of her tent over to her wheelchair parked on the sidewalk. One young man had nothing—no tent, no tarp, no blanket—so he simply sat staring into the streets with his hoodie on, letting the cold rain sink into his bones.
In LA, homelessness is like the weather: not worth talking about unless there’s a crisis. But it seems that crisis has come, and local officials and residents are paying attention: According to a recent report, LA County spends almost $1 billion and the city more than $100 million per year simply managing homelessness—and that’s excluding additional expenses not factored into the budget. Despite the big spending, more and more people are living on the streets. From 2015 to 2016, homelessness increased 6 percent countywide and 11 percent citywide. “Visible” homelessness—people sleeping in tents, shanties, vehicles—jumped 21 percent over the 85 percent increase in 2015.
The city’s response: In 2015 the City Council declared a state of emergency, and a task force drew up an “ambitious and achievable” comprehensive plan to address homelessness. Voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.2 billion bond measure increasing property taxes to finance the construction of 10,000 housing units over the next decade. Voters also agreed to increase sales taxes. But can politicians solve a complex problem such as homelessness with comprehensive plans and more money?
To find answers, we’ll examine the homelessness problem from the perspective of people whose lives are already immersed in it. In a series of stories we’ll walk the streets with law enforcers, volunteers, and ministry workers and hear the stories of individuals who never dreamed they would one day live without permanent shelter.
During that perfect storm on the weekend of Feb. 17, 2017, the downpour flushed away the perpetual urban smog and cooled the air into piney scents. Lawns and parks twinkled with dew-dotted greenery. Not so in Skid Row: Here in this dense, lawless jungle of about 10,000 homeless people, the pavement smells permanently soiled by urine, spit, and vomit. Drenched furniture, trash, and clothing ferment into mold and mildew.