In recent years, homelessness marked by meth abuse and tents has moved from the Southland to other cities. But will more housing really solve the crisis?
By Sam Quinones, Published in Los Angeles Magazine
Estela Lopez doesn’t leave her office in Skid Row much these days, but when I drop by to meet her, the first place she wants me to see is what’s known in this besieged and neglected district as a “bike store.”
We leave the order of her office–linoleum tile, fluorescent lights, a security guard at the entrance–and walk out onto Crocker Street, which is covered in tents. Next door is a scorched wall from a tent fire that then spread and gutted a fabric business. Lopez mentions this as we walk. We turn the corner and, there, covering the sidewalk and spilling out onto the asphalt, are piles of bike frames and wheels, inner tubes, and tires, growing and shrinking by the day, and protected, or hidden, by several tents under royal-blue tarps.
The bike store is run by a fellow named Tony Ray, 51. Most of this stuff is stolen, Ray acknowledges, just not by him. “Everyone knows I don’t steal bikes,” he tells me. He says he buys only bikes people bring him, which in due course he dismantles and sells from his tent compound off Crocker Street. He tells me he’s been operating for five years.
Lopez wants to show me this because, to her, Tony Ray’s bike store encapsulates all that has come to afflict Skid Row.
Skid Row, she says, has always been grimy, but in the last decade, it has devolved into what it never was before: a zone of libertarian lawlessness where people die almost daily, where drugs are, de facto, legalized, where city sanitation workers require police protection. Skid Row’s streets are glutted with tents and blue tarps that colonize sidewalks, shroud dope dealing, pimping, addiction, mental illness, death, and disease.
Lopez–69 and, in her words, “5 feet 1 inches of Aztec fury”–is optimistic by nature. Indeed, her job requires it. For most of two decades, she has held the thankless post of business-improvement director for the industrial zone that includes most of the 50 square blocks of Skid Row.
Business-improvement districts emerged in the 1980s to give local businesses a voice in city affairs and allow them to sweep up litter. But Lopez’s 40 contract BID workers have become first responders to tent fires and overdoses. BID unarmed security officers wear bulletproof vests. BID workers daily spray away vomit, feces, urine and blood in front of member warehouses. “We’re not improving anything,” Lopez tells me. “I’m the person trying to keep the dam from bursting.”
I wanted to meet Lopez because she stands at the intersection of two social issues that I’d been covering. One is homelessness and the shape of it nationwide, now evolving into permanent encampments of tents. The other is the spread of methamphetamine, which my reporting had shown had turned many tent cities, intended as a compassionate response, into hives of deranging meth addiction.
Lopez’s mornings begin with Los Angeles Police Department texts: a man on drugs waving a gun in the street. A man dead on a bus bench. A woman who routinely disrobes in front of Ninth Street Elementary, one of the three schools in Skid Row. On these streets, people sashay conversing with ghosts; others slouch half-conscious on broken office chairs; a woman bends down to study her feces; another, in a wedding dress, washes stuffed animals. Discarded clothes and shoes, meth pipes, and needles clog gutters. Amid the chaos, mostly unbeknown to Angelenos, hundreds of tiny fabric, toy, and flower shops, along with produce and seafood-storage warehouses operate in the neighborhood. Yet despite the thousands of working-class jobs they provide, these businesses are only faintly heard amid Skid Row’s escalating squalor.
In Lopez’s view, what created today’s Skid Row includes municipal abandonment combined with methamphetamine, the abdication of drug addiction and mental-illness treatment, misguided charity, and the city’s settlement of court cases that, in practice, now limit enforcement of laws governing drug sales, street habitation, pimping, and assaults. In recent years, Skid Row-style homelessness, marked by meth abuse and tents, has spread across Southern California and many parts of the U.S. By 2018, tent cities had emerged in Mid-Wilshire, Santa Monica, Highland Park, South Central, and along freeways commuters rode to work. A strip of tents on Venice Beach became known to locals as Methlehem.
The loudest narrative on homelessness comes from far-left activists: that homelessness is caused by high housing prices, and thus the only solution to it is affordable permanent housing; until enough of that is built, people should be allowed to occupy sidewalks. Those with other ideas have been largely cowed into silence.
Virtually alone, Lopez has raised her voice. Activists despise her. Her hearing was damaged when a Los Angeles Community Action Network activist blew an air horn in her ear at one of the monthly tours of Skid Row Lopez organized years ago. Activists, she said, once tried to push her car over while she was in it. (LACAN did not respond to interview requests.)
Homelessness is now top of mind for voters who could ignore it when it was confined to Skid Row. In a one-party town, where most voters agree on climate change, Donald Trump, legal abortion, and gay marriage, the city’s approach to homelessness now divides liberals and the far left.
Irate constituents have given the Los Angeles City Council political cover to take actions it could have taken years ago–including the removal of a large encampment around Echo Park Lake in 2021. Activists, meanwhile, have picketed the homes of elected officials, screaming obscenities through bullhorns and egging the houses of some. Homelessness activists twice shouted down the City Council over the summer as it prepared to prohibit tent encampments within 500 feet of schools and day-care centers; two were arrested by police in riot helmets for vaulting over barriers at Council President Nury Martinez.
Veteran L.A. politician Gil Cedillo lost his council seat in the June primary to Eunisses Hernandez, a far-left unknown; Mitch O’Farrell’s seat is in jeopardy after he orchestrated the Echo Park Lake encampment removal, which generated 35 tons of debris, 723 pounds of biological waste, and 300 pounds of needles and other drug paraphernalia; Mike Bonin, of Venice, is leaving the council, facing constituents angry that he has, in their view, protected Venice encampments.
The cheap, potent meth flooding Skid Row is “a soul killer. With alcohol or crack, at least people had a will to fight.” Troy Vaughn, president of the Los Angeles Mission
As November’s election approaches, “it’s like it’s the fight for the soul of Los Angeles,” says Elizabeth Mitchell, an attorney who has sued the city on behalf of a group of Skid Row businesses and nonprofits known as L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, to force the city to regulate public spaces and enforce prohibitions on street camping.
Meanwhile, Skid Row has become a place of ironic outcomes: where you can buy almost any illegal drug but can’t fill a prescription; where owners of 1930s-era buildings are sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act yet tents block sidewalks, forcing those in wheelchairs into the street; where bike stores like Tony Ray’s can do business for years while tax-paying employers trim staff or abandon the area.
“I can’t even be in the same room with the people who lead this city because, to them, this is OK,” Lopez says. “They tell you it’s not, but actions speak louder than words.”
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Estela Lopez grew up in Los Angeles when Skid Row was something else. The down-and-outers were alcoholic men, sleeping in doorways. The cold-storage warehouses of seafood and produce coming from the port where the zone’s heart, along with print shops, plating companies, and shoe manufacturers. It was a workingman’s world, she tells me, occupied by warehousemen and truckers, most of them Latino immigrants. The Row, to Lopez, possessed a rugged beauty and optimism best expressed in the energy of those workers. They were strivers. The few hundred street alcoholics were part of the daily mix, but they hardly embodied the zone’s dominant ethos.
In the mid-1980s, Los Angeles, looking to redevelop downtown, moved the missions and services east of San Pedro Street to the industrial district, effectively reestablishing Skid Row’s boundaries. The idea was to contain people who had become homeless and the services they needed within the same area. “The city put the services there and walked away,” Lopez says. In Skid Row, “they concentrated a target-rich population for vendors of substances that were keeping people tied to the pavement.”
Crack moved in. Crips and Bloods found neglected Skid Row a place where they could more freely do business. The homeless population grew, pushing shopping carts of belongings and sleeping mostly in refrigerator boxes, their feet sticking out the ends that lined sidewalks at night.
Then, in 2007, Lopez says, began “the great decline.”
That year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which hears federal appellate cases from nine Western states, was about to rule against the city in a case regarding Section 41.18 of the L.A. Municipal Code, which prohibits sitting, lying, and sleeping on the street. The city decided to settle. Under the settlement’s terms, L.A. could no longer enforce the ordinance if there was not shelter available for people living on the street, and it prohibited police from moving people off the sidewalk between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Hailed as a landmark, the Jones case, as it’s known, meant that “in Los Angeles, it is no longer a crime to be homeless,” said an ACLU official at the time.
But soon, judges bridled at daytime-camping cases clogging their courts. “So 6 a.m. became 9, became 12 noon, became all day,” Lopez says. When she complained, “we were told ‘You’re just being reactionary. We’re just allowing people to sleep at night.’ But it had the slippery-slope effect.”
A series of homelessness-related court cases out of Los Angeles arrived at the Ninth Circuit over the next 15 years. These cases, which the city also often settled, determined first that a homeless person’s personal property on the sidewalk could not be seized and disposed of, even if abandoned there. Then bulky items like couches could not be confiscated, a ruling that first applied to Skid Row, then to the rest of the city.
As these cases effectively became law across the West Coast, “cities just gave up,” says the LAHR’s Mitchell. “They said, ‘We don’t know what we’re allowed to do constitutionally. We’re going to get sued no matter what we do, so we’re just not going to do anything.’ ”
From there, the idea “that you can’t touch anybody’s tent and you cannot go in a tent” took hold, says the Reverend Andy Bales, director of the Union Rescue Mission. “The police backed off.” (Carol Sobel, the Santa Monica attorney who brought several of these suits, did not respond to requests to discuss the cases.)
By 2013, tents, now deemed legal domiciles, were expanding into compounds containing sofas, beds, diesel generators, couches, shelves, and stereos. Everything was draped under the now-ubiquitous blue tarps that protected occupants from the elements—and from the prying eyes of cops looking for probable cause. Skid Row businesses soon had tents abutting their properties, sometimes for years.
One of those is Veteran Company, which employs 20 manufacturing fabrics for custom car reupholstery. In 2014, Harry Tashdjian and his family moved the business from Orange County to Skid Row, seeing a chance to combine service and storage in one building. In his part of Skid Row back then, Tashdjian says, people still slept on the sidewalk but were gone by daybreak. He quickly regretted the move. Within a couple of years, the tent compounds crowded the sidewalk in front of his building. Tashdjian’s forklift was stolen and later recovered blocks away; he’s counted five fires in tents abutting his business. Tashdjian figures he pays insurance premiums that are 30 percent to 50 percent higher than before he moved to Skid Row.
Gangs commuting to Skid Row used the coverage that stationary tents and tarps provided to pimp women and run dope. In one 2017 case, Derrick Turner and Bernard McAdoo, the former an alleged gang member, were convicted of running a Skid Row drug operation from Cerritos. In search warrants connected to their case, police seized $600,000 in one-dollar bills, a reflection of both the size of the Skid Row drug market and the vulnerability of its customers who paid for dope a dollar at a time.
Meanwhile, federal policy pulled back from funding treatment for drug addiction and mental illness with what’s known as Housing First/Harm Reduction. Homelessness, the policy held, was caused by high housing prices. All anyone on the street needed was a home, especially what became known as “permanent supportive housing.” Not temporary shelters, which were viewed as perpetuating homelessness. Rather, housing to which people had leases protected by the federal Fair Housing Act. Into which they were put regardless of their mental condition. There, they could be offered—though not forced to accept—job, addiction, mental health, and child-care services paired with “harm reduction” to limit the addicts’ drug use until they were “ready” for rehab. This included allowing them to use drugs in that housing; otherwise, it was feared they would return to the streets. Channeling these people into drug or mental health treatment was now viewed as old-school.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rewrote guidelines for funding. Money once dedicated to addiction and mental illness treatment shifted to housing. Los Angeles city and county voters approved $1.2 billion, via propositions HHH and H, for the creation of permanent supportive housing. “Housing, housing, housing,” as the mantra went, was all that was needed to solve homelessness. To suggest that drug addiction or mental illness play outsized roles was to stigmatize the unhoused. “No one wants to be burned at the stake,” says one drug-treatment provider. So as homelessness expanded, the debate over its causes and what to do about it did not.
Bales remembers meetings during these years to discuss the policy shift. At one, a woman rose to suggest that drug treatment run by Skid Row missions was archaic. With a Housing First approach, he remembers her saying, we’re going to solve homelessness. “They were full of hubris,” says Bales.
In 2009, traffickers in Mexico changed their meth production to a method that uses a wide variety of toxic industrial chemicals. By 2013, they had mastered the so-called P2P cook, which allowed them to make far more of the drug and make it more potent. The place it hit first and hardest was Los Angeles, and Skid Row, in particular, beginning in about 2013. Across the city, I found in my reporting, an eightball of meth—an eighth of an ounce—that once cost $150 dropped below $40. On Skid Row, P2P meth was typically sold in tiny amounts priced at a dollar or two that could keep a user high for a day or more. By 2015, it had dethroned crack cocaine from its 30-year reign as Skid Row’s dominant drug.
I was writing a book about, in part, these surging meth supplies when I discovered another thread to its story. P2P meth was not the euphoric, party drug that an earlier manufacturing method had produced. Instead, on P2P meth, users rapidly displayed symptoms of mental illness indistinguishable from schizophrenia. For the unhoused abusing the drug, the resulting paranoia and delusions made tents a welcome refuge. P2P meth arrived on Skid Row just as the tents were taking root, creating or worsening addiction and mental illness as federal dollars for treating both dwindled.
“It’s like a soul killer—it’s making people homeless,” says pastor Troy Vaughn, president of the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row and himself a recovering crack addict who has been sober since 1992. “With alcohol or crack, at least they had a will to fight. It seems like meth strips them of that.”
Gary Garcia, 48, a longtime meth user now in recovery, spent months in a tent on Skid Row and the San Gabriel Riverbed in Pico Rivera after he was released from prison without family to take him in. Meth addicts prefer tents to shelters, he says. On the street, “they can smoke wherever they want to smoke, do whatever they want to do–no restrictions,” he says. In a tent, “it’s like you have no mom and dad. But in a shelter, you can’t do this and can’t do that.”
Giti Mayton, a Columbus, Ohio drug counselor and recovering addict tells me that many of his clients were on meth and living in the encampments. Tents “provide a place that is safer to them than the rest of the world, a separation from a place they already feel separated from and afraid of,” he says.
P2P meth also produces intense impulses for hoarding the kinds of bulky items that the court settlements prohibit police from seizing: chairs, mirrors, pallets, office furniture, sofa cushions, and shelves. Bicycle parts seemed to be hoarded more than any other item. Bikes are Skid Row’s preferred mode of transportation and are easy to steal and dismantle to trade or sell for dope. They also grew to become an obsession by those trapped in the meth coming up from Mexico. On Skid Row, the first bike stores began to spring up with tents and P2P meth, run by folks like Tony Ray.
Meth entangled the issues of drug addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. People end up unhoused for all kinds of reasons: domestic abuse, aging out of foster care, medical bills, sex-offender registration, eviction. Once on the street, however, P2P meth masterfully separated users from their grim reality and kept them mired there, mentally out of reach of both reason and offers of help.
Throughout these years, housing prices were indeed skyrocketing to nauseating heights; it was doubtless a factor in many Southern California homelessness stories. But on Skid Row, “this is not about a housing crisis,” says Los Angeles police officer Deon Joseph, driving the district’s streets that he has patrolled for more than two decades. “The folks who want housing—who lost their housing to a rent increase—would their first inclination be to come to a urine-soaked sidewalk on Skid Row and pitch a tent? Absolutely not. For you to be driven to this, there has to be something wrong. Mental illness or drug addiction. If somebody wasn’t mentally ill before using meth, they will become mentally ill once they use it.”
To Lopez, P2P meth sank Skid Row to a new, dispiriting low. Soon, the district was consumed by people running naked and screaming in the streets, wandering lost and bleeding, and fighting off those who offered help. In 2013, as court cases, tents, and meth created increasingly perverse results on Skid Row, Lopez left the BID for a downtown lobbying job. For the next few years, she watched a few blocks to the east as tent fires grew so common that BID workers began carrying fire extinguishers.
As despair on Skid Row grew more visible, so did donations. Church groups regularly feed hundreds of people. (“You never go hungry on Skid Row,” says Garcia.) Piles of soup cups and plastic utensils litter the street for days after until BID workers pick them up. This firehose of donations peaks around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter; BID workers are put on overtime as the bags of refuse they collect double. These charities “feel like they’re helping, but in reality, they’re not,” James Blackwell, the BID’s maintenance supervisor, tells me, as we drove Skid Row early one morning. His 19 crew members collect the tons of trash that accumulate daily. “At least,” he says, “you got to be able to clean up [what you donate].”
“The folks who lost housing—would their first inclination be to pitch a tent on a urine-soaked sidewalk in Skid Row?” Officer Deon Joseph, Los Angeles Police Department
By 2017, Skid Row had never looked more desperate. Yet four years away from a job that had fulfilled her even as it devoured her also seemed to Lopez too long a time, and she returned as BID director. “We could all see these were going to be very troubling times . . . [but] they’re not giving up,” Lopez tells me. “Our security officers have been spit on, yet they come back every day.”
It did not surprise her when, to the extent that the lawsuits allowing people to live on the streets were taken as settled precedent, they influenced policy far beyond Skid Row. Around the country, “municipalities are getting advice from lawyers about what is legal” in their attempts to deal with homelessness, says Mitchell. “They’d be told, ‘We don’t have word on that, but here’s some “persuasive authority” in another circuit.’ So there’s a ripple effect. Then you have the narrative issue: This is criminalizing homelessness, criminalizing poverty; it’s the wrong thing to do. You enable a permissive atmosphere. It’s drug users and drug dealers as victims. A lot of that comes from the Ninth Circuit opinions.”
Thus were Skid Row-style tent encampments tolerated in other parts of the West and farther East: from Seattle and Portland to Boston and Austin, and to rural hamlets and Rust Belt towns. Boston’s housing prices had been rising for years, but the city had no tent encampments until Mexican P2P meth arrived in 2019. Before that, “most of the homeless people were in shelters at night and outside during the day,” says Michael Barillot, a longtime Boston heroin addict now in recovery whom I spoke to late last year. “But you can’t be inside a homeless shelter and be comfortable, given the places that meth will take you to, mentally. So now, it’s just tents. That never happened until the meth was a real thing up here.”
A public health crisis born of close quarters and poor sanitation rocked Skid Row when typhus, which dates to the eleventh century, broke out in October 2018. Public health officials said the disease was spread by flea-infested rats that fed on the district’s tons of daily trash and human waste. Then COVID-19 hit, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines that kept tent encampments in place out of fear that expelling the residents would spread the coronavirus. Since then, fentanyl out of Mexico has flooded the drug stream, mixed into almost every street drug, especially, on Skid Row, meth. Homeless overdose deaths in 2021 almost doubled over 2020.
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One of the ironies of Skid Row is that the lawsuits in the name of compassion and decriminalizing homelessness, coming around the time meth and fentanyl began to spread nationwide, had the effect of surrounding the homeless in criminality and predation, not to mention fires, filth, disease, and the two most dangerous drugs we’ve known. Vaughn, the Los Angeles Mission president, says Housing First was a philosophy “created in an environment that preceded meth, where you had drugs on a massive scale that you could recover from. Now you’re dealing with something that’s harder to recover from—without doing stabilization first.”
Housing First advocates point out the city hasn’t created the thousands of housing units necessary to solve homelessness. Indeed, “less than 1,200 units have been produced in five years, and estimated costs for several projects exceed $700,000 per unit,” wrote City Controller Ron Galperin, in a review this year of the use of HHH funds. Nor have the funds been used, Galperin wrote, to build much transitional housing aimed at stabilizing people coming off the street, detoxing them, and providing addiction and mental health treatment.
Voters, confronted with pop-up Skid Rows near where they work or live, seem fed up that their concerns are dismissed as evidence of their lack of compassion. “Not a day goes by,” read an online comment in the Los Angeles Times, “where my kids and I don’t see drug use, sex acts, a penis, someone taking a dump, lewd cat calls, or someone taking a swing at us. City council is woefully unaware of what constituents experience daily just trying to live and work in L.A.” Says Lopez: “Other neighborhoods never saw that this was going to be their reality. But you can’t give somebody constitutional rights on one side of the street and have that right taken away on the other side.”
The City Council is now regulating street camping in a way it could have before council members began to feel constituents’ ire about the tents. Echo Park Lake is again a quiet place where working-class families cooped up in small apartments can walk and exercise on a sunny afternoon. This summer, Los Angeles settled a lawsuit brought by Mitchell on behalf of LAHR. Under the settlement, the city promises to regulate public spaces and expand shelter beds; lawyers for activist groups are suing to block the settlement.
Perhaps the final irony of Skid Row is that just as conversations about homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness have grown more frank and the City Council is taking action it once shied away from, Lopez, after years of trying to nudge L.A.’s homelessness policies toward the center, is exhausted. “More people are aware of the gravity,” she says, but “we’re a long way from knowing what to do and how to get there.”
She feels some vindication for her years of vocal opposition to what Skid Row was becoming as its unique malaise spread across the country. But ultimately, “we waited too long,” she laments. “People died, a community died.”