US & Canada

Los Angeles homelessness emergency: 'A city of shanties'

Media captionLos Angeles has become a victim of its own success as James Cook reports

Los Angeles recently declared a state of emergency over the city's growing homeless population - up 12% in two years. Residents of the city's main homeless encampment say a mix of drugs and rising rents are driving the problem.

The City of Angels has another nickname: the homeless capital of America.

The accuracy of the title may be disputed - there are many ways to count, none of them definitive - but no one else wants it, and it has stuck.

The heart of this capital is in the shadows, beneath the gleaming skyscrapers, on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

In this land of glitz and glamour, the forgotten people have made camp.

Block after block, the homeless and their scant belongings - tarpaulins, tents and trolleys - are scattered on the concrete in the baking sun. Most of the faces are African-American.

Steven Kuklinski has been living here on and off for 10, perhaps 15 years. He is not keeping count. The woes that brought him to Skid Row are common.

"Emotional and psychological problems, which led to escape through drugs," is his own frank assessment of how he ended up on the streets.

"Drugs and prison and jail go hand in hand," he adds.

At the last count there were 44,359 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 25,686 in the city itself, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), an agency set up in 1993 to find a solution to the problem.

LAHSA estimates that more than two-thirds of homeless people are on the streets with no shelter at all. Southern California's warm climate makes that possible but still tough, especially recently when the temperature downtown by lunchtime was 34C (94F).

"We need some help," says Denise Scott, taking refuge in the shade, her hair pulled tight in a black bandana.

She compares Skid Row to a Third World country. "It doesn't look like America. We can bomb countries and build them back up, but we can't take care of homelessness?"

Image caption Skid Row resident Denise Scott sees illegal immigration as part of the problem

Not everyone here is on drugs, she insists. Many just can't pay the rent. "We don't have affordable housing," says Ms Scott, and for that she blames a failure to control immigration.

"We have over 20 million illegal aliens, undocumented people, in this country. And they live indoors."

The Pew Research Center puts the number of undocumented immigrants closer to 11 million.

Whatever the figure, the billionaire businessman Donald Trump, currently campaigning for the Republican nomination for president, would sort it out, reckons Ms Scott.

She would vote for "The Trumpster", as she calls him, "because he seems to know more about immigration," than President Barack Obama.

Others share her assessment of the problem, if not necessarily the solution.

"Spice" lives on Skid Row with her husband "Dice". They are here out of choice, living in a tent which doubles as a kitchen catering for the homeless.

Their business on the fringes of society appears extremely popular with the people on the street. Its legality and tax status may not be clear, but the food smells delicious and the menu is surprisingly varied.

Image caption Skid Row resident "Spice" says soaring rents in Los Angeles have driven some to the streets

Rising rents have driven more and more people on to the streets, Spice says.

"Nobody can afford rent on Skid Row, or anywhere else. Rent is going up and salary is not going up and it's not balanced.

"Homelessness is going to continue until legislation steps up and say 'Put a cap on it. Stop!'"

Herb Smith, the president of the Los Angeles Mission, a non-profit organisation on Skid Row, says the problem has actually worsened as the economy has recovered from the financial crisis of 2008.

"We were making in-roads for a number of years during the hard economy time but because of a number of factors we've seen a growth recently of people coming back out onto the streets," he says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Los Angeles' homeless population has jumped 12% in the past two years

"Affordable housing in LA is almost non-existent," says Mr Smith who points to recent data that suggests that the average two-bedroom unit in the city now costs more than $2,600 (£1,700) per month to rent.

"If a person's earning minimum wage they may be spending 50 or 75% of their income on housing costs and so that makes it very difficult for them to be able to survive," he says.

At City Hall, council member Mike Bonin agrees. Mr Bonin, who represents the city's 11th District, was at the forefront of a recent move to declare a state of emergency because of homelessness.

His district includes Venice Beach, where rough sleepers are a particularly serious problem.

"We have become a city of shanties," says Mr Bonin, noting that homelessness has not only increased by "a whopping 12%" over the past two years but is now spreading out across the city.

Encampments are almost everywhere, he says. "We have people by the hundreds living in tents."

It is this "tremendous crisis" says Mr Bonin, which has prompted the first state of emergency in Los Angeles since the Northridge earthquake of 1994, when 60 people died.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The average rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles costs more than $2,600 (£1,700) per month

Declaring a state of emergency could make it easier to find homes for residents by easing some housing restrictions and fast-tracking permits for more affordable housing.

"I think this is absolutely as serious as the aftermath of an earthquake," he says.

"All levels of government have been effectively negligent in dealing with this problem for way too long," he says.

"There's something absolutely shameful and disgusting about it. It's absolutely wrong that in a nation this wealthy and in a city this wealthy that this problem has continued. We've got in Los Angeles a growing gap between the rich and poor."

Tackling it will require an extraordinary effort.

Proposed changes include raising the minimum wage, building more affordable housing and specialist shelters, and providing rental subsidies as well as improving mental health services and drug treatment programmes.

Mr Bonin insists the city will find an extra $100 million to help fund such solutions, although even he concedes that this is a "drop in the ocean". The money has not yet been allocated.

Back on Skid Row, the sirens are wailing as yet another ambulance rumbles up to the kerb to help someone who has collapsed. This seems to happen every 30 minutes or so.

But amid the despair here, there is some hope. Christian Lofland, 50, works at the Los Angeles Mission, looking after facilities maintenance. Three years ago he was on the streets himself.

It was the mission's faith-based programme, offering shelter, a shower and the prospect of a job, which helped him turn his life around.

For Mr Lofland, the slide into drug-addiction and homelessness happened fast.

Image caption With help of friends and social services, Christian Lofland now has a job and a place to live

"One day I woke up and thought, you know I don't have a roof over my head, I have no money, I don't have any gas in my car. I don't have a job," he says.

It took the support of friends, the assistance of the mission, will-power and prayer to kick heroin and get back on his feet, he says.

On the streets, not enough stories have such happy endings and the city authorities are now under intense pressure from sceptical voters to do more to help the homeless.

"There's a lot of fat cats who are going to have their hands out for $100 million," Mr Lofland says.

"They're building the tallest building in LA for a billion dollars and they're going to spend a tenth of that on sheltering homelessness," he adds. "So where's the priority?"

More on this story