Diversity is Our Strength Part IV: The Great Dump of California
Managed Obsolescence: Homelessness in America’s Gilded Cities
by Jacob Siegel
I STARTED READING about the homeless camps spreading across the western United States around 2014. My initial impression was that the stories were paranoid allegories about late capitalism and American greed — postscripts of a sort to the rumors of encroaching FEMA camps from the previous decade, not meant to be taken literally. But the reports didn’t go away, and at some point I started to wonder if they could possibly be true, and — if they were true, and dust-bowl-era settlements were cropping up across American cities — how it wasn’t bigger news.
I’d read in one account that it was a crisis of rising housing costs and stagnating wages, and then, in another, that it was a crisis of drug addiction, mental illness, and deinstitutionalization. Were warm weather and welfare benefits drawing homeless people from other states to the West Coast? Had progressive governments, fearful of infringing on the rights of even the most disturbed people on the streets, effectively ceded public spaces to unincorporated settlements? Were business interests and real estate developers to blame, or was this the consequence of family breakdown and social atomization?
I wanted to see for myself, so I went out west.
Any social unit larger than the nuclear family will tend to contain class divisions that are significant to the in-group even if they’re invisible to outsiders. But in Los Angeles, the extraordinary scale of homelessness has dragged the varieties of indigence, need, and affliction out from the ghettos, missions, and holding cells and into the public’s view. The homeless here are too numerous to be contained within any one district, and many would rather sleep on the streets than stay in the shelters, which lack the beds to house them even if they did suddenly choose to come. After a few days wandering through alleys strung up with tarps and covered in refuse; down the tent-lined sidewalks of residential streets mere steps from multi-billion dollar businesses; seeing crumpled bodies inside sleeping bags being stepped over by people inured to the sight; and after walking through Skid Row — which has a more hellish concentration of deprivation and disorder than anything I’ve seen before in America — I started to think that the people living in RVs didn’t have it so bad. . . .
In Los Angeles, the cumulative consequences of decades of policy failures going back at least to the deinstitutionalization of the 1970s have settled like sediment at the bottom of an increasingly gilded city above. Homelessness hasn’t gotten worse in spite of LA’s wealth but because of it. A city where working families can’t afford to live has fewer of them — and the web of social connections they form — to catch people as they fall into desperate circumstances and patterns of self-destruction. Without family and community, all that’s left for some are the jails and shelters of the state, or the tent cities granted all the freedom of leper colonies. . .
The city has struggled to keep fewer than ten public toilets operating for the thousands of people who live on Skid Row. The first night I walked through the district, I passed a fenced-in area outside one of the missions where sand had been spread across the ground like cat litter.
“Skid Row is the greatest man-made human disaster in the U.S.,” the Reverend Andy Bales, head of the neighborhood’s Union Rescue Mission, has said. Last November he called it “the worst it has ever been. . . a crisis of epic proportions.” Bales gets around in a wheelchair now. He contracted a flesh-eating bacteria on Skid Row several years ago and had to have his leg amputated. . .
Following the RVs west towards the ocean, if you circled out into the surrounding blocks, you’d find, among the ranch houses, bungalows, and restaurants, clusters of people without the metal roof of a car or camper sleeping on the street under tents, plastic tarps, and in sleeping bags with no cover at all, alongside mounds of trash, debris, and human waste. Every night, large groups of people slept on the beach. In Venice, the encampments pushed out to the very edge of the ocean. . .
In 2003, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared the island of Manhattan, home to more than a million and a half people, a “luxury product.” Derided at the time, it did seem to foreshadow an ascendant billionaire-technocracy vision of metropolitan cities as the rightful preserve of the wealthy, their service workers, and those unfortunates too poor to leave. Cities like New York, Paris, San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles form an archipelago. They are islands, linked to each other across oceans, but disconnected from the parts of their society where they have exiled the remaining middle class.
In a major city like Los Angeles, the housing market functions as an invisible messaging apparatus. It conveys the priorities of the government and powerful private interests, and signals to people where they do and do not belong. In this sense, the realtor may be more honest than the mayor or your neighbor about where you are welcome and what purpose, if any, you serve. The message in LA is clear: the working and middle classes are not necessary for the functioning of the city. Those who get the message leave or, if they stay, must adapt to conditions of precarity. The problem is that the homeless live outside the norms and reach of the messaging infrastructure. The city’s poorest and most disturbed people are the least tuned in to the frequency of the market’s signals and otherwise unequipped to respond. . .
Skid Row is not just a disadvantaged neighborhood where the normal range of human endeavors and aspirations has been blighted and constricted by poverty. It’s an experiment gone wrong and then left to decay. It resembles the fictional “Hamsterdam” from David Simon’s Baltimore drama The Wire — a designated lawless zone where the drug trade was given free reign, in hopes of quarantining it from the rest of the city. It works and crime drops in the city at large, but inside Hamsterdam, the end of prohibition does not make the dealers and addicts more humane; it makes them more depraved. They get the message that they have been consigned to lives of predation and despair and act accordingly. . .
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Source: American Affairs Journal