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Paradise Lost: Homeless in Los Angeles

Skid Row in Los Angeles, California. June 2019 (KOMO News){ }
Skid Row in Los Angeles, California. June 2019 (KOMO News)
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LOS ANGELES (KOMO) - If you close your eyes and think of not just California, but the DREAM of California, the PROMISE of the place, a very specific series of images and sounds course through the mind.

Disneyland. Hollywood. The Dodgers. Suntans and beach volleyball and surfing safaris. Good Vibrations and California Dreamin.'

The same sun still shines on sunny Southern California. And for many, the dream is still golden, still very real. The state of California boasts one of the most robust economies in the world. The wealth in and around the City of Angels is jaw-dropping in places.

But there is a thing happening in LA, a vast failure that is making people afraid.

Welcome to the Hotel California in 2019. Brace yourself.

In John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, California was besieged by tenant farmers like Tom Joad, desperate for work.

In the modern version being played out today on the streets of Los Angeles and almost every other major city in the state, tens of thousands of the homeless are desperate for shelter, services and of course, drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.

And now, both predictably and shockingly, near-forgotten diseases are popping up on the streets that harken back beyond the Great Depression, back past Westward Expansion. We're talking about things that haven't flourished since the Middle Ages.

Dr. Drew Pinsky puts it this way. "We have not seen conditions for humans like this since medieval times. Period. And that's a fact."

He's largely speaking of LA's Skid Row area, a 53-square block stretch of hell on earth just a few stone-throws away from the glittering skyscrapers of downtown. Block after heart-breaking block of tents and piles of garbage punctuated by passed out, strung out, drugged out Americans, lost souls with dull eyes seemingly devoid of hope or dreams or purpose.

Filth is everywhere in Skid Row. Garbage piles up...discarded fruit, human feces, bags of who-knows-what, broken chairs, rotting clothes.

And where there is filth, there are rats. An army of rats has overthrown Los Angeles, millions strong. And where there are rats, there is disease.

There is an unmistakable intensity when Pinsky talks about the disease that is bubbling up to the surface in his city.

He is animated. He is exasperated.

"Tuberculosis is exploding," he says. "Non-tuberculosis acid-fast bacilli, exploding. And then the rat-borne illnesses, plague and typhus... and then we had typhoid fever last week. Even I missed that one... so typhoid fever means, 'Oh, now we have oral-fecal contamination,' and that's going to mean parasites and cholera. Here we go, everybody. Everything you found in your history books, we got it! It's coming."

He says he can't sleep at night. He believes that the bubonic plague is already present in Los Angeles. If not, he thinks it'll be there soon enough.

"We've allowed millions and millions of rats to overpopulate. I predicted the typhus outbreak last summer. It's going to be worse this summer and it's just a matter of time before plague gets onto those fleas and into our population. It's just inevitable!"

The bubonic plague wiped out 25 million people during a five-year stretch in the Middle Ages. It is caused by fleas biting rats and then humans.

And it's not just Skid Row. Rats have infested the beautiful City Hall building in downtown LA.

Same with the downtown police station, for which the city was fined thousands of dollars for not maintaining clean and safe facilities for police officers and other personnel.

Two employees were infected by typhus.

Other cops have been infected by typhoid fever, hepatitis A and staph.

Andy Bales, the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, looks out his window down into Skid Row. "There's over a thousand registered sex offenders on the streets of Skid Row," he says. "This place is like a Petri dish for disease."

He would know. A few years ago, he passed out bottles of water to the people he serves. In the process, he contracted three different kinds of deadly bacteria - E. coli, strep and staph. It cost him his leg.

He rolls up his pants to show us his prosthetic.

"Skid Row is the worst man-made disaster in the United States," he says. "By far."

At one point, he pauses during our interview, and from outside his window, we can hear yelling and sirens. He nods toward the window and says, "You can hear the violence out there right now. It's ready to blow at any time. People get beaten, women get raped. It's just a brutal environment."

Bales strongly believes that Los Angeles needs to immediately build shelters and housing for the majority of the city's homeless, and then let police enforce the rules against camping on city property.

He's furious at city government for losing control of the situation.

"We focus all the resources on a few, and we leave the many to suffer."

It's been easy enough for most people in and around Los Angeles to ignore the plight of Skid Row, which has been around for a long, long time.

But then it started to spread.

Homelessness is exploding all-around. The numbers are up 16% in one year.

There are an estimated 36,000 homeless people within the Los Angeles city limits. Fifty-nine thousand lost souls wander the streets of LA County. Compare that to the 12,500 here in King County. The numbers are staggering.

In the shadow of iconic buildings, there are now homeless camps. City hall has a camp right outside its front door.

The Capitol Records Tower on Hollywood Boulevard? There is a camp just across the street.

On Alvarado Street, the sidewalks are so full of trash and tents that a man we saw had to walk out into traffic to make his way past.

Venice Beach is called by some, the "New Skid Row." There are tents right next to the beach. And down the road, and across the way. They use police officers on horseback there to control the situation.

Jill Stewart, the head of the Coalition To Preserve LA, is seething mad at Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council.

"There's a lot of butt-covering going on. 'Oh, we did a great job last week!'" she mocks.

"I'm at the point," she continues, "where if the city council and the mayor don't do something innovative and dramatic pretty soon...we're going to spend every day putting out press releases about how incompetent they are."

We spoke to a number of the homeless themselves. Some, like Miranda, who lives on a sidewalk under an overpass on the 405, are aware of the health problems.

"Particularly hepatitis A is rampant out here." she says. "And there's scabies... just a plethora of health risks and problems out here."

But in the heart of Skid Row, we met Baby, a woman in her 40s who had Vicks VapoRub smeared all over her face.

I asked her if she was afraid of being infected by disease. "I mean, is it a life or death situation?" she asked. "No. I mean, it's just a part of life being sick."

Los Angeles spent $620 million to fight homelessness last year alone.

The successes have been dwarfed by the failures.

Many insist that city hall has been paralyzed by indecision, all the while assuring the public that things are under control.

If you live in Seattle, perhaps that sounds familiar.

Behind the veneer of the gorgeous sunsets, the vast wealth and the glimmering promise of Southern California, nobody talks about Good Vibrations anymore.

They talk about disease and despair and how the dream went so very wrong. For some.

"Skid Row is 53 blocks of abandoned people who are really left to die. You don't really live on Skid Row. You come here to die," Bales said.

Stewart said, "It was the place to go for your dreams. And now it's the place you go for your nightmares."

And Pinsky sums it up in stark terms.

"I am screaming into the wind," he says. "And I feel like this every day, like I'm standing on a railroad track and the train is coming and I know the bridge is out... and I'm like, 'Hey! Stop, stop, STOP!' and the engineers are looking at me, giving me the finger."

Remember that speech Tom Joad made at the end of the book? The one that made you believe there's an answer out there, as long as good people keep pushing? As long as the spirit of humanity keeps burning?

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I wonder about that. I think about Los Angeles and Seattle and Portland and San Francisco and this thing we have created, and allowed, and I wonder what ol' Tom would say now? What could he say?

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