Introduction to Housed: Life on Skid Row

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Tents line the streets in Skid Row. Photo: Aaron Fallon

The most recent census of Los Angeles county’s homeless population found the largest number of unhoused people in the smallest geographic area: 11, 681 in Metro LA. For this series, we focused on the most densely populated neighborhood: the .4 square mile region known as Skid Row. The main thoroughfare is S. San Pedro Street.

Market rate rental units and pricey condos dot the neighborhood and continue to encroach on it. Meanwhile, the numbers of people on the streets continues to swell.

Los Angeles’ Skid Row has long been a place that’s magnetized the less fortunate. The arrival of the railroad in the 1870’s brought an influx of migrant workers who stayed at cheap, single room occupancy hotels and availed themselves of the abundance of local saloons and brothels. Over time, this subsection of downtown continued to serve as a place where hopeful arrivals to Los Angeles landed and could live cheaply on the margins of society.

As buildings fell into disrepair amid the frenzied redevelopment of downtown in the sixties, many of the affordable residences were knocked down in the name of revitalization. Older poor people had nowhere to go. Returning veterans from Vietnam flooded the area and added to the population, which now had to resort to living in the streets. Drug addiction replaced alcoholism as the prevailing social ill.

Skid Row is today a centralized place for social services like free health, dental and psychiatric services, warm meals and temporary beds for the needy and unhoused. It’s also the location of hundreds of units of low-income housing for people looking to get back on their feet. As real estate downtown booms, developers are constructing market-rate apartments closer to the edges of Skid Row. It’s also a place where drugs flow freely. For some, the area can be a way station to a better place. For others, it’s a place where survival means community, drugs, and a regular spot on the street.

“You got one population that needs all this,” said Los Angeles Mission outreach coordinator John Kelly, who helps people find housing and navigate the maze of services available on Skid Row. However, Kelly also says that because of the easy availability of all manner of drugs on the streets, there’s another population “that sees this as Disneyland.”

Housed: Life on Skid Row tells the stories of some of the people living in the heart of Skid Row.

Housed: Life on Skid Row follows five people living different lives in the heart of Skid Row. Map designed by Mike Royer. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

*This post has been updated to accurately reflect the number of homeless people living near Skid Row.