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Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘Fighting the pandemic at Skid Row was the toughest challenge of our lifetime — we were trying to save lives while saving ourselves’

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On Skid Row, a 50-block area in downtown Los Angeles that is synonymous with homelessness, the days never have a beginning, and the nights never end. 

Thousands of people live on the streets, stuck in unstable tents, diminished by the abuse of drugs, and sickened by the pandemic to extremes that local health officials struggle to translate into either numbers or words. Nearby homeless shelters were overwhelmed with demand during the pandemic.

“Steve,” 30, who lives on Skid Row, said he would leave if he could. “I have been living here for four years now,” he said, standing beside his tent. “I am without a home,” he said. “I am without a future.”

Steve said he used to be a drug dealer when was in his early 20s, and spent months in jail for dealing. He said he uses drugs daily.


‘I made mistakes in my life, and I chose the wrong people to spend time with.’


— ‘Steve,’ a Skid Row resident

“I made mistakes in my life, and I chose the wrong people to spend time with. If I could, I would change,” Steve added.

Census estimates for 2019 put the Skid Row population at 4,757. More than half of that total, at least 2,700 people, lives permanently on the street.

Homelessness in Los Angeles before the onset of the pandemic had jumped 13% from the previous year to 66,436 as of December 2019, according to the latest federal estimates.

In March and April of 2020, 2.7 million people in California alone lost their jobs. The state’s Employment Development Department stated recently that the state economy had regained only 1.3 million of those jobs. 

With the virus still spreading across the district, the homeless population and the housing providers of Skid Row have struggled on.

In April, a district judge ordered the city and county of Los Angeles to offer housing to the entire homeless population of Skid Row by mid-October, a decision that could drastically transform the area. 


‘It was like playing chess with a monster genius. It was something that we will be forever traumatized by.’


— Andy Bales, Union Rescue Mission

But both local- and county-level institutions have already said they are not ready to follow the judge’s order, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the timetable “unprecedented.”

Still, many local providers fear that, without a coordinated effort, it would become another missed opportunity for the district. 

“Fighting the pandemic at Skid Row was the toughest challenge of our lifetime,” said Andy Bales, president of Union Rescue Mission, the oldest rescue mission in downtown Los Angeles. “We were trying to save lives while saving ourselves.”

Bales said he was “thrilled with the judge’s order. It is something I prayed for during my 16 years in Skid Row. But we need coordination from everybody to make the best out of this.”

In the 110-page order, Judge David O. Carter wrote that all of the “rhetoric, promises, plans and budgeting can’t obscure the shameful reality of this crisis — that year after year there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year more homeless Angelenos die on the streets.”

The order came after a 14-month court battle that started with a motion filed by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of downtown business owners and residents, in March 2020.

According to the judge, the city and county of Los Angeles “created a legacy of entrenched structural racism,” especially toward Black people who have been “effectively abandoned on the streets. Such governmental inertia has affected not only Black Angelenos, not only homeless Angelenos, but all Angelenos — of every race, gender identity, and social class.”

Carter, the judge, gave the local and county institutions less than 180 days to shelter the entire homeless population of Skid Row. 

Jet Doye, vice president of advancement at Skid Row Housing Trust: ‘I live in downtown L.A., and walking to work every day over the last year I saw more and more people sleeping here.’

Photo by Davide Mamone

There has been pushback to the court order. Garcetti, who included in the city’s 2021 budget a plan to spend nearly $1 billion to combat homelessness, said that the timetable set by the judge would be onerous. 

“Obviously, that would be an unprecedented pace, not just for Los Angeles but for anyplace I’ve ever seen for homelessness in America,” he said. “And I want to be as bold and as ambitious as [the judge], but I think many of us feel it is not just about getting people into shelter. It is getting people into homes.”

Last month, a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit froze Carter’s preliminary injunction until June 15: “[F]urther proceedings may impact whether a stay pending appeal is necessary or justified,” Judges Marsha Berzon, Danielle Hunsaker and Margaret McKeown wrote. 

(The Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative did not respond to a request for comment.)

The pandemic hit hard in Los Angeles County. Last January, at the peak of California’s second wave, COVID-19 killed a person every 15 minutes on average in the county, according to Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. 

“We became a sort of hospital for a while,” Bales, the rescue mission’s president, recalled. “It was like playing chess with a monster genius. It was something that we will be forever traumatized by.” 

That also had an impact on the capacity of homeless shelters. Union Rescue Mission, before the pandemic, used to welcome 1,000 people on average daily under its roof on San Pedro Street at the heart of Skid Row. “Now, we can’t host more than 300 people due to COVID-19,” Bales said.

Deon Joseph, a law-enforcement officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for over 25 years: ‘Gang members have more tents where they can hide while they operate.’

Photo c/o Deon Joseph

Outside, those working with nonprofit agencies say the homeless population keeps growing.

“I live in downtown L.A., and walking to work every day over the last year I saw more and more people sleeping here, building their own tents, moving into Skid Row,” Jet Doye, vice president of advancement at Skid Row Housing Trust, told MarketWatch. 

To grasp the situation, one just has to walk across the district. By daylight, it’s filled with desperate eyes. At night, it is openly dominated by criminal gangs and, as this reporter witnessed, people dealing drugs in plain sight. 

Endless rows of tents act as makeshift homes. In front of nonprofit organizations and rescue missions, hundreds of people stand in line for hours to claim bags of food and clothes.

Crime in the encampments, meanwhile, has been rising since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“You can feel it, the atmosphere is tenser, and the presence of criminal organizations has increased, because now gang members have more tents where they can hide while they operate,” Deon Joseph, who has worked for the Los Angeles Police Department, including patrolling Skid Row, for over 25 years, told MarketWatch. 

“The Grape Street Watts Crips, the Bloods Gang, the Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips, Black Pistons — you name them. These gangs, among smaller ones, control the streets in Skid Row, and they work together,” he added. 

Data from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner show that 1,383 people experiencing homelessness died in Los Angeles County in 2020, nearly double a comparable figure of 741 just five years earlier.

Incidents of crime on Skid Row in Los Angeles are said to have been rising since the beginning of the pandemic.

Photo by Davide Mamone

Women on Skid Row face unique challenges, including sexual assault, abuse and rape. If they’re unable to find a bed in a shelter, local activists and providers say, women often have to borrow money from gang members to survive. 

Two-thirds of the women in the district have experienced sexual abuse at least once in their time on the streets of Skid Row, Joseph, the law-enforcement officer, estimated.

“Ariolina,” 41, is one survivor. She has lived in a tent near Fourth Street on Skid Row for months. She does not have a job. She does not see her kids, whom she fears have become drug dealers.

“I think I got the virus months ago. I had to pay the price here when I wanted to buy some medicine,” she said as she ate a bowl of white rice. “And that price was my body. I owed them.”

In her blue tent, Ariolina covers a television screen under assorted bags. Two old tires are used as a coffee table. A bicycle pops up from a pile of blankets. “If they told me tomorrow to leave, I would say, please, house me everywhere else but not here anymore.”

(Ariolina, liked Steve, asked to use a pseudonym when speaking to MarketWatch.)


‘When I first read the order from the judge, I thought, how are they going to move more than 2,000 people in six months?’

The task at hand appears Herculean. “When I first read the order from the judge, I thought, how are they going to move more than 2,000 people in six months?” Jet Doye of Skid Row Housing Trust said.

Doye’s nonprofit organization provides permanent supportive housing to those who are eligible. To qualify, people must be able to prove that they’ve spent two years in a row living on the street.

The process of rehousing so many people after they have to spend so much time on the street  “creates oceans of problems,” she added.

Steve and Ariolina are just two of several thousand. They survived the coronavirus pandemic, and now they are willing to move from Skid Row. Many others are not.

“We need to use all 180 days to make sheltering possible, and we are willing to work with the city and the county on this,” Union Rescue Mission’s Bales said.

“If we do not treat this like the FEMA disaster that it is, especially after the pandemic we have experienced,” he added, “we will miss another opportunity to change Skid Row forever.”

This article is part of a MarketWatch series, “Dispatches from a Pandemic.

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