Homelessness in America is a problem that is far from solved. Every city has a part of downtown where small groups of homeless people gather. Here in Los Angeles the situation is uniquely bad. Los Angeles’s Skid Row has the highest concentration of homeless people in the country. And it has been that way for a very long time. But there are signs that for the first time since the city’s founding, the area may be changing.
On a recent Friday night in Skid Row, I met Little Daddy. He was walking briskly up a hill on the outskirts of Skid Row. He looked sharp in his black leather jacket, silk shirt and purple pants.
In a smooth, almost musical voice, he told me he was originally from Texas, Detroit and Chicago. “It’s like poppa was a rolling stone,” he said, and then asked me if I had any smokes.
Tonight Little Daddy will sleep on a small rectangle of cardboard, if he sleeps at all. He is one of about 5,000 people living on the streets in this 50-block neighborhood Little Daddy calls The Devil’s Den. “It’s disease and drugs and alcohol and poverty. An outside giant insane asylum. That’s what this place consists of,” he explained, his voice lowering into a much more serious tone.
In the morning, Skid Row is full of color. It’s the fashion and toy district. Wholesalers put out sidewalk displays of huge rolls of fabric with flowers and paisley prints. And dozens of toy stores are filled with every imaginable plastic bauble. But when the sun sets, all the fabric and toys are dragged inside and secured behind padlocked metal gates.
This part of downtown has always been home to the poorest people in the city. In the 1870s, it was a transportation hub for the seasonal laborers who worked in the nearby citrus groves.
“Railroads would have come in there and people who got that day labor would have lived there in rooming houses,” says Martha Burt. She grew up in Los Angeles and studied U.S. homeless communities at the Urban Institute. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles had a deliberate policy to concentrate the homeless in Skid Row.
“This doesn’t mean there was any actual increase in services or in public money going into assist anybody who was being herded into that area,” Burt says. “It just means that whatever was left by way of services was highly concentrated in a relatively few blocks of downtown.”
The policy worked. Because Los Angeles built out and not up and was designed for the automobile, people rarely encountered Skid Row. It was out of sight so there was no political pressure from the public to do anything about it. And developers had no interest downtown so there was no pressure from businesses to clean up the area. That started to change in the early 2000s.
This homeless population map from Cartifact takes raw data about those living on the streets in Downtown Los Angeles and transforms it into a visual tool for mitigating the situation. Click to interact.
Today, new restaurants are opening, old hotels are being renovated into expensive lofts, and these new downtown residents are bumping up against Skid Row. “Now there’s a huge amount of development and pressure on the Skid Row area,” Burt says.
One response to that pressure is a building under construction in the heart of Skid Row.
On a recent afternoon, I hopped into the car of Mike Alvidrez, the executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust. He was eager to show me The Star Apartments.
The building, which is owned by The Trust, is not a renovated loft or high rise condominium. It will be permanent housing for the homeless. When we arrived a tall yellow crane towered over an angular concrete structure that looked like it was made out of giant Legos. The crane is being used to stack 102 pre-fabricated modular apartment units on top of the concrete foundation. The building is one of the first of its kind. By having each individual apartment built off-site at a factory in Boise, Idaho, The Trust was able to keep construction costs low.
“We want to target the people who are costing the taxpayer the most by not being in housing” says Alvidrez. The people selected to live in these apartments are those who make frequent trips to the emergency room or get arrested a lot. They tend to rack up huge bills that fall on taxpayers to cover. The city hopes that targeting this population will be the most cost effective way getting homeless Skid Row residents off the sidewalk and into apartments.
The Trust wants to keep those residents in the neighborhood. The nonprofit currently own 25 buildings in Skid Row, most of which are former Single Room Occupancy hotels and rooming houses. Alvidrez says his goal is to buy up the old buildings, renovate them “and make it possible for people with limited means to have a decent place to live at a rent that they can afford.”
When The Star Apartments are completed, the building will have its own clinic funded by the Los Angeles County Health Department. Alvidrez says this partnership with the county is a new strategy. It’s also a sign that the city is taking an active role in reducing the homeless population of Skid Row — something it avoided for a long time.