skid row

After an absence of nearly 40 years, I visited Skid Row in Los Angeles. In my Pentecostal youth, I volunteered to provide services to the folks who lived there. They were predominantly WWII and Korean War male veterans, mostly white, single and alcoholics.

The world has changed. In 1970, L.A. County had a population of 7 million; today it’s about 10.3 million. When I helped on Skid Row, there were about 1,500 people living there, and the population of down & out was largely limited to that area.

Today there are 60,000 homeless throughout L.A. County, with 5,000 on Skid Row, maybe higher. The situation in Skid Row became so dire that the conditions didn’t even meet United Nations standards for long-term refugee camps of one toilet for every 20 people. And compared to other cities, Los Angeles ranks near the bottom of sheltering homeless.

About 35 percent of the homeless in L.A. County are Black American descendants of slaves. The Guardian described the large homeless population in Skid Row as “a patchwork of tents, tarps, boxes and carts, with black and brown faces peeking out from pockets of shade that provide a modicum of respite from the blazing summer heat.”

Skid Row is different too now in that there are families. My heart broke seeing a tall slender Black man walking behind his daughter as she rode her pink bicycle, protecting her from harm.

I sat in an air-conditioned vehicle looking at fellow Americans reduced to living in an incomprehensible and unsanitary situation of danger, insecurity and privation. Yes, there appeared to be substance abusers and those with mental health challenges. But there also were families attempting to remain sane and somehow give their children some sense of normalcy. I wondered how more than 30 years of bad immigration policies and other poor government policies had contributed to the huge numbers of people reduced to living outside – and how much more poor governance lies ahead.

As I looked around, I saw no bathroom facilities, no showers, no laundry and no shelter for so many. I was with my friend, former Army officer Kevin Lynn, and asked him, “Doesn’t the Army have some kind of mobile toilet/shower/laundry units?” Yes, indeed the military does have such equipment, he told me, adding that I would need a State of Emergency order from the Governor and the National Guard to obtain it.

I wrote a former elected official who had been in the Quartermaster Corps. He wasn’t interested and informed me that Skid Row was populated with drug users.  So I went to the Board of Supervisors and asked for a letter to the Governor requesting a State of Emergency and military mobile toilets, showers and laundry.

For several months, between the City of Los Angeles and the Office of the California Governor, I tried to get some traction on providing basic hygiene units to the area. Then Gov. Jerry Brown had a long history of directing seemingly the entire government of the state to providing services to illegal immigrants – as does his successor Gavin Newsom. Surely, I thought at the time, Brown could help with such a relatively small request in the whole scheme of things. But I received no response from the Office of the Governor and little from the City.

After that, the anti-Trump messaging machine “discovered” that families from Central America attempting to cross into the United States illegally or by claiming asylum were detained at the border for processing, and by law children and adults were being separated.

The outrage generators propagandized the situation and ramped up the rhetoric to manic levels in an attempt to connect the situation to some of the worst war atrocities in the 20th century. In reality, those attempting to come to the country are being accommodated in the best way possible given the large numbers and necessity of having some order to a chaotic situation. They are in air conditioned shelter, fed and provided medical attention as needed.

This brings us back to the military-style shower/toilet units. America has been providing food, shelter, medical care, education and entertainment for hundreds of thousands who have headed El Norte to the U.S. not just in the more recent arrivals of immigrants en masse, but since the Central American “surge” began several years ago. The cost of providing for the children brought to the U.S. illegally or under asylum claims is $35,000 a year. Yet, we cannot provide even the most basic shelter for Americans living on the streets. And this isn’t just Los Angeles. The U.S. has an estimated 550,000 homeless, a quarter of which are in California.

My progressive friends’ compassion for children from other countries seems boundless, but we cannot continue to ignore how to meet the most basic needs of our own citizens and children.