Los Angeles counts its growing homeless population
Los Angeles (AFP) – Tents, makeshift shelters and dilapidated motor homes line the streets of Skid Row as Mike Murase and his team tally up the explosion in the number of homeless people in Los Angeles.
In the second largest city in the United States, homeless people gather around small fires, trying to keep warm during one of the coldest nights of the year.
Homelessness is “an intractable and persistent problem that politicians and agency leaders have not had the will to try to solve,” Murase, 75, told AFP.
Murase and his colleagues are traveling the dozen routes assigned to them as part of a three-day effort to count the number of people living on the streets.
Figures for 2020 – the last time the survey was conducted – showed the city of Los Angeles alone had more than 66,000 homeless people, up more than 13% from the previous year. .
Everyone expects the number this year to be much higher.
“During Covid, there were so many jobs that were lost, you know, restaurant workers or laborers,” says Murase.
“A lot of these people haven’t been able to pay rent for maybe two, three months. They get kicked out and they don’t have family or other relatives to go to and they end up on the streets.
“I think there’s a misconception that they’re mostly criminals, drug addicts, or mentally ill people.
“There are a large number of people in these conditions, but there are (also) families, children.”
Visitors to Los Angeles are often shocked by the sheer number of people living on the streets of one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest state of the wealthiest nation on earth.
Tents and tarp shelters cluster next to Hollywood sights or line the embankments beside the city’s freeways.
Rusting mobile homes with shattered windows line the roads of Venice Beach, where multimillion-dollar homes stare them down.
Obviously, sick people are walking through traffic, swearing at unseen demons or attacking their filthy clothes, mumbling into greasy beards.
Others rummage through garbage cans or stand dazed on the traffic lanes, the smell of urine an odor that pedestrians choose with reluctance.
Some of the homeless are new to the streets, victims of the pandemic economic crush, but others have been there for years.
“I’ve lived downtown for about seven or eight years. And it’s always been a problem seeing people on the streets,” says Kimberly Briggs, who volunteers with Murase.
“I just want to be part of something that helps solve this problem, because there is suffering on the streets and housing is a human right.”
The count is a federal government requirement that will help determine grants to local organizations trying to repair the irreparable.
Volunteers are instructed not to interact with people; rather, they must simply document what they see.
Murase and Briggs’ investigation takes them between ripe warehouses of spices whose heady scents mingle with the smell of cannabis.
Many streets seem deserted, although there are traces of presence: here, the shell of a motorhome; there, plastic sheets stretched between shopping carts to form a rudimentary tent.
A closer look at a dark area reveals a human form reclining against a brick wall, almost camouflaged by the head-to-toe blanket that covers it.
Briggs carefully records their attendance in a special app on her phone, and the team moves on.
An occasional “good evening” comes from some of those trying to settle in for the night, but most – like the man who sits idly in his wheelchair – ignore the census takers.
Trash and rats
Homelessness is easy in the United States, where the social safety nets of other developed countries are largely absent, and the uninsured or underinsured can be a hospital bill away from a missing rent check and the resulting expulsion.
In California, this problem is exacerbated by soaring real estate prices that have pushed the average purchase price of a home to around $700,000, double the national figure.
Before the pandemic, experts calculated that someone earning minimum wage would have to work 80 hours a week just to pay the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles.
To be able to pay for food and bills, they would have to work even longer.
On Skid Row, flickering campfires fueled by scraps of trash cast shadows on the walls, revealing the occasional rats scurrying from one hiding place to another.
Less than a mile away, luxurious apartment buildings and office towers glow silently against the night sky.
“Look at all the private developers building all these high-rise buildings in downtown LA,” Murase mumbles.
“What we need in the city is more affordable housing and more services. That’s what we should be spending our money on.
“Let’s treat people like human beings.”
© 2022 AFP