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The pungent smell of urine and marinated trash lingers in the air of the infamous downtown neighborhood; Skid Row. It’s where the city’s indigent and outcasts get “dumped” like trash on pick up day. Over 50 city blocks, dozens of tents are lined up, inch by inch, next to waste covered sidewalks, human excrement and used needles. It stretches from 3rd Street on the north, 7th Street on the south, Main Street on the west, and Alameda Street on the east.

Skid Row has always been known for housing the unfortunate of society, ex cons, the chronically homeless, mentally ill, and drug addicts found the holy ground to build their own community in Skid Row. It’s estimated that Skid Row’s population lies between 5,000 to 8,000 people.

But how did they all get there?

The area of Skid Row is said to be approximately 62 percent Black. It was once predominantly White, and dates back to 1870. When the railroads were built on the margin of an unfolding downtown—as we know it today—the area was for industrial use and therefore attracted mostly men for temporary work by the railroads and similar businesses around the area.

Eventually, small hotels and transitional living spaces arose, which became the single-occupancy residential hotels of today, attracting a service community to cater to the needs of the workers, and opportunity seekers. But during the Great Depression, these hotels and services also drew in a high population of pariahs, many who were waging battles against substance abuse. In the 1940s, LA became a hub for war jobs and soldiers to be shipped off. Because the demand to entertain a new population was high, various bars, and adult shops, as well as small theaters opened.

Urban renewal

Between 1950 and 1960, the City of LA decided the hotels in the area weren’t safe and needed to be repaired or demolished. Landlords would eventually demolish these structures (because of low rent receipts) and because of an elderly population that lived on a fixed income. This would leave many persons displaced, especially after the housing stock dropped from approximately 15,000 units to about 7,500 units. From the ‘60s to the‘70s, Skid Row saw an increase in young African-Americans from the Vietnam war who were experiencing trauma, unemployment, and drug addiction. These events set the battlegrounds for Skid Row.

These days, Skid Row is also the deposit hub for former inmates released from prison with $200 or less in their pockets, and no place to go, as well as discharged patients, and the mentally ill. Often, hospital case workers from nearby County-USC and White Memorial hospitals will come to Skid Row to check on individuals requiring medication and other out-patient services, but many times these indigent persons have been dropped off still in their hospital gowns and slippers. Hospitals like Kaiser Permanente and Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center have received backlash in the past for this practice. Lawsuits have been brought forth and subsequently settled with the city of Los Angeles.

But being free doesn’t mean it’s safe, and without proper guidance, parolees are forced to join a community, with the so-called dumped pariahs of society, in an area that’s considered a “containment zone.”

Veteran Derrick Thomas, knows this firsthand. As he got released from jail, a few blocks away from Skid Row, and no place to go – except the streets or back to jail – he chose one of the endless blocks of Skid Row.

“It was cold as hell,” Thomas said in a published video made by the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. “We just get pushed to the curb.”

The night, he was released from jail, Thomas was left to figure things out on his own. He received no information on how to fill his prescription for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without an ID – because he lost his – or how to receive counseling, or housing assistance.

There is a lack of adequate care for mentally disabled inmates upon being discharged from county jail. These persons, unfortunately, may contribute to the Skid Row-to-jail cycle that contributes to the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.

Mark Rosenbaum, directing attorney for Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, mentioned in a statement that by “failing to provide needed assistance to the mentally disabled when they are released from jail, the county sends mentally disabled homeless people back to the streets of Skid Row and exacerbates the expensive Skid Row to jail cycle — the cycle of arrest, release, and re-arrest of mentally disabled individuals.”

Mentally ill inmates

In 2015, the Public Counsel attorneys that represented Thomas and seven other former inmates, filed a federal lawsuit against the LA County’s jail system—and its procedures—in regard to the treatment of inmates with mental disabilities. Their proposition was that although the county had settled with the federal government, more needs to be done to avoid recidivism, and break the cycle of depositing former inmates on Skid Row. 

“As soon as a person with a mental illness and disability are incarcerated, there needs to be thinking about the release of that person,” Alisa Hartz, a Public Counsel attorney said in an interview. “There needs to be a lot more coordination between the jail and the community in order to break the cycle of homelessness and recidivism and incarceration.”

According to journalist and author of  the book“Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” Alisa Roth, the LA County jail holds roughly 16,000 inmates on any given night, and about a third require mental health care—about 25 percent of men and 40 percent of women.

“The court’s ruling offers real hope that something positive can be done to end the Skid Row to Jail cycle that creates and perpetuates homelessness in our community,” said Rosenbaum. “The bottom line is a clear one: the mentally disabled don’t belong on our streets or in our jails. They belong in  housing with access to needed services. That would be a victory for all of us.”

 LA County jails have the largest mental health facility in the country. Daily, the regions jails treat approximately 3,500 to 4,000 mentally ill inmates, these numbers are higher than patients managed in the entire California State Hospital system, according to Sheriff  Jim McDonnell of the Los Angeles County.

According to a 2018 report from Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), it shows that more Black women, with children, over 45 years (who have been formerly incarcerated), are homeless. Although there are a few shelters around that area, it’s not enough, especially for women and children. And even though the Downtown Women’s Center made more space to host 25 women with children from the approximately 800 homeless women on Skid Row, it’s hard to cater to all of them, and women are at greater risk for assault on a daily basis. 

The report also shows that ex-cons tend to be 10 times more likely to be homeless than the regular population. This is especially true of people who have been in and out of jail. According to PPI’s analysis, the formerly incarcerated are inevitably linked with homelessness. Although non-profit reentry organizations are available to help parolees get back on track, many fall through the cracks, because they are unaware that these services exist, or don’t know how to reach out to them. 

Last year in December, Public Counsel finally reached a settlement with the LA county that will provide proper care for inmates suffering from mental illness—as well as establishing an “upon-release” date—to better assess public services. The new policy will help reduce or even break the jail-to-Skid Row cycle, and help reduce homelessness.

New approach to medical care 

As stated in the settlement, “LA county will adopt an approach  to its treatment of persons with mental disabilities that promises to make important steps in reducing recidivism. By engaging in a proactive release planning process that addresses the housing, medical care, employment, benefits, and social needs of individuals with mental illness and by promoting relationships with community-based providers, the settlement provisions will make it easier for individuals with mental illness to reenter civil society and reduce the likelihood of homelessness and recidivism.”

According to United Nations’ rapporteur Philip Alston “on extreme poverty,” the sanitary and living conditions on Skid Row are so severe, it’s comparable to Syrian’s refugee camps. 

There are various issues that contribute to this cycle of in-and-out of jail and the dystopian scenery, that plays a reality for many homeless people on Skid Row. The main issue is the lack of housing for the residents on Skid Row, as well as the need for more rehabilitation and detox options. But this might all change in the near future, since city developers are thinking of rezoning and peeking interest in real estate that’s available around Skid Row, because of the many abandoned buildings in that area.

This may exacerbate the homelessness challenge as new developments typically place people out of the societal marketplace in terms of housing, health care and the ability to care for themselves.