11 July 2024

Los Angeles, United States – When Carlos Schmidt beds down on the hard streets of Los Angeles, he has nothing but a backpack and an old blanket, like thousands of other homeless people in one of the richest cities in the world’s richest country.

“At nighttime, I just find somewhere quiet like a park or a bus bench, where there’s not a lot of chaos,” the 37-year-old told AFP. “And I’ll try to rest up right there for as long as I can.”

Schmidt is one of some 75,500 people living on the streets of Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs, according to a January survey. The figure is up 70 percent since 2015, in a city where sometimes shocking levels of inequality are on daily display.

Impossibly glamorous people swan through the streets in top-of-the-range sports cars, hopping from a $1,000-a-head restaurant to an exclusive nightclub with an eye-watering price list.

On those same streets, men and women huddle against hunger, more than a few of them grappling with untreated addiction or mental health problems.

A homeless man sits on a luggage bag along a downtown Los Angeles street.//AFP

– Real estate – 

The City of Angels is not alone in California, a state that accounts for around a third of America’s known homeless, with significant populations  in places including San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego.

The reasons for homelessness are manifold and compound, and include illness, addiction, family breakdown and debt.

But a significant factor in the Golden State is its lopsided real estate market, where multi-million dollar homes are surprisingly common — and where median rent for a Los Angeles studio apartment is more than $1,700 a month.

This is what tipped Schmidt onto the streets two years ago. Unable to make his rent, he slept on a friend’s couch until that arrangement fell apart. The $400 a week he earned in a cleaning job was not enough to keep a roof over his head. After a few weeks in hotels, his savings were gone.

“I’ve tried it on my own. But everything was just so expensive. On top of that, you got to get food,” he said. The stress of the streets plunged him into depression, increasing his drug use, and he eventually lost his job.  “Sometimes it’s just easier to just give up… So that’s what I did.”

– State of emergency – 

The sight of scrappy tents cramming sidewalks is tragically common in Los Angeles, repeated on Hollywood’s boulevards, the streets of Venice Beach and beneath highway overpasses.

The issue loomed large in last year’s mayoral election; winner Karen Bass declared a state of emergency as one of her first acts in office.

The Democrat says she wants to put an end to stop-gap policies that just shift the problem — cleaning up one homeless encampment only to see it spring up a few streets away, like human Whack-a-Mole.

Over the past 12 months, the city says it has dismantled 32 camps, offering accommodation to their residents. It claims to have put 21,600 people in emergency facilities — hotels, so-called “tiny house” villages and other dedicated centers.

The mayor has also reduced the bureaucracy that slows construction of desperately needed housing.

But it’s all a long way from being fixed.

“Confronting this crisis is like peeling an onion,” Bass told reporters. “When you peel an onion, you cry. “Every time we’ve taken a step forward, we find a barrier and we have to knock that barrier down.”

On Wednesday, Bass toured a sidewalk in front of a Hollywood school where 40 people had been sleeping a year ago. That encampment was gone; but three blocks away, a dozen grubby tents scarred Sunset Boulevard.

– The bite of inflation –

The job facing Bass and her administration is huge and Sisyphean: dozens more people become homeless every day.

An already expensive city is getting more so, as the pressures of global inflation continue to bite; tens of thousands of tenants face losing their homes now that a moratorium on evictions imposed during the Covid pandemic has lapsed.

An initial mayoral pledge to provide long-term housing for everyone who has been in emergency accommodation for six months has been watered down. “The reality is… interim (housing) is really going to mean more like a year-and-a-half to two years,” Bass said.

In any case, it’s never simple when you’re dealing with human beings. After nine months in a hotel, Jacquies Manson chose to return to his tent on a sidewalk in Venice Beach.

Manson has been clean for five years after a number of drug-related stints in prison. But the hotel’s rules — including a ban on overnight visitors — were too much for him.

“I’m 52,” he said. “I don’t need someone knocking on my door at 6:00 am every morning to check that there’s nobody else in my room.”  Paralyzed on his left side after a stroke, he cannot find a job and receives a monthly disability allowance of $1,000.

But it’s not enough. “I could maybe find a crappy room for 900 bucks. But how do you want me to live off the remaining hundred dollars for a month?”

Agence France-Presse