While some are enjoying luxurious $20 avocado toasts, factory-district lofts, and other perks of the booming tech economy, California is now ranked as having the worst quality of life and the highest poverty rate in the entire United States
LOS ANGELES — California is a state with two faces. One face wears a beaming, optimistic smile — reflecting pride in its sprawling coastline, its natural beauty. Its entertainment industry makes the state a cultural superpower, while its tech sector attracts millennial entrepreneurs and talent from across the world. With its ethnic diversity, liberal urban elites and politicians, this isn’t Trumplandia, USA; this is the Golden State, filled with industrious and creative drivers of American success.
The other face wears a far more strained and weary look, the sign of a social reality rife with fatigue and anxiety rooted in poverty. This is a California that hovers close to ruin — where Silicon Valley isn’t associated with innovation but with eviction. Balanced precariously or living as transients, these residents are seen by the wealthy as an eyesore or as a burden that doesn’t deserve a social safety net.
In recent years, an increasing number of residents have been caught in the scissors of poverty and skyrocketing housing costs, displacing whole communities and plunging thousands into homelessness.
While some are enjoying luxurious $20 avocado toasts, factory-district lofts, and other perks of the booming tech economy, Californians are growing only too aware of the factors underlying the state’s ignominious new titles: California is now ranked as having the worst quality of life and the highest poverty rate in the entire United States.
Hepatitis A: an indicator of the crisis
A grim marker of the homelessness crisis arrived last October, when Governor Jerry Brown announced a state of emergency due to an outbreak of the Hepatitis A virus among homeless populations in downtown San Diego. Since then, outbreaks have been declared across the state, in the counties of Los Angeles, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Diego.
The virus is ugly: spread through fecal matter and human contact, Hepatitis A attacks the liver and results in inflammation, fever, abdominal pain, a loss of appetite, dehydration and death. The disease also leads to jaundice, yellowing the skin and eyes of those infected.
Health experts described the outbreak, the second-largest of its kind in over two decades, as a “surprising return” of the virus. While only 459 Hep-A cases were reported between 2005 and 2015, the California Department of Public Health has reported nearly 700 new cases as of February 9, 2018.
The virus, which is often transmitted in the developing world through contaminated foods, was largely thought of as under control following the introduction of effective vaccines. However, a massive increase in homelessness across the state led to its comeback.
“San Diego was hit as a whole,” Rafael Bautista, an organizer with San Diego Tenants United and city council candidate, told MintPress News. His group has organized protests, marches, and forums, and has published information to push for rent control in order to keep housing costs down for poor residents.
Continuing, he explained:
We have a general understanding that our political leaders were aware of the outbreak months before they took any type of action. Actually, they delayed opening the public bathrooms knowing that this virus was spreading and that the homeless community was the most vulnerable. But just like with all other issues regarding housing, tenants and homelessness; developer interests outweigh voter interests in San Diego and politicians only pretend to want to help after the tragedy is already advanced.”
The outbreak is only one symptom of the generalized impoverishment that’s hitting California’s communities.
Rising rents have proven to be major factors of the displacement disaster that we have on our hands. It is manifesting itself through a mix of mass gentrification and mass homelessness.”
LA’s Skid Row: Dignity in short supply
Last December, New York University law professor and U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston toured poor communities in the U.S. on a fact-finding mission into the state of human rights in the country, including the right to social protections and adequate living standards. Alston noted:
The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.
American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations. But instead of realizing its founders’ admirable commitments, today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in far more problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound.
Watch | United Nations Testimonials – General Dogon Takes UN Rapporteur on a tour through Skid Row
The U.N. monitor was shocked by conditions in Skid Row, described by the Los Angeles Times as a “teeming Dickensian dystopia in downtown Los Angeles where homeless and destitute people have been concentrated for more than a century.” Nearly 42 percent of the population in the area lives below the poverty line.
Alston was guided on his tour by General Dogon, a homeless rights activist and organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) who’s spent years fighting for the rights of Skid Row’s residents.
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“Alston felt every bit of anger at all the stories he heard. I could see the sorrow in his eyes as we walked through the streets, tent-by-tent lined up block after block,” Dogon told MintPress News.
“You don’t have to go to any third-world country to see extreme poverty! It’s just a stone’s throw from what I call ‘Heaven – the Land of Milk and Honey,’” he adds with sarcasm.
Downtown Los Angeles is in the throes of what its boosters call “revitalization,” fueled by investment capital from China, Japan, New York City and local developers. The construction boom is fast transforming downtown from an urban center of office complexes and struggling black, brown and immigrant families into an unaffordable metropolis filled with retail complexes, hipster cafes, art galleries and lofts.
Dogon can’t help but express his fury over how the poor have been forgotten amid the flood of money onto Downtown LA’s streets:
Walking through tent-infested Skid Row, just look up and there’s the Ritz Carlton Hotel where you can stay for $3,000 per night, surrounded by L.A. Live – the million-dollar penthouses with a helipad on the roof. You can see the café latte restaurants along the streets where rich folks are walking their $5,000 poodle as if Skid Row don’t exist … ‘Oh Skid Row, what’s that?’”
Dogon and LACAN have fought for the city’s attention, largely unsuccessfully. While only 12 Hepatitis A infections have been reported in Los Angeles county, Skid Row’s sanitation standards are far from ready to cope with an outbreak.
“We only have five 24-7 toilets for 5,000 or more homeless people living on the streets every night to share, which put us below refugee standards,” Dogon told MPN. “We need 380 toilets, and that don’t even include handwashing stations, trash cans, cleaning supplies, and the list goes on.”
When Mayor Eric Garcetti gave a commendation to Dogon last December during an unveiling ceremony for a handful of public toilets the city installed on Skid Row, Dogon tore the award apart, telling reporters:
This award is just like the mayor and his cronies: it’s worthless … You have directly criminalized Skid Row, and I cannot accept this.”
This morning General Dogon of @LACANetwork raised the bar on how 2 speak truth 2 power. He rejected an award, reminded @MayorOfLA that he has regularly harmed the residents of Skid Row, and reiterated the demands stated in The Dirty Divide. Solidarity & Power to Skid Row 🌹 pic.twitter.com/SlHuwpfkAP
— DSA Los Angeles 🌹 (@DSA_LosAngeles) December 4, 2017
Between 2011 and 2016, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 6,696 homeless people in Skid Row alone. Skid Row residents are penalized for panhandling, public intoxication, urinating in public (despite the dearth of public toilets), and simply living their lives.
“The city’s response has been to put the homeless crisis in the hands of LAPD,” Dogon said.
Attempts to sweep the homeless under the rug are a common occurrence across the state, as local officials respond to complaints and demands for action from those privileged with stable homes by conducting large-scale sweeps of homeless camps. It’s a process of evicting the evicted, leaving the homeless with nowhere else to go.
We continue to remind the city: the police aren’t social workers and the only housing they got is jail, which we don’t want!”
The past several years have witnessed a skyrocketing in California’s property values, in part due to Silicon Valley’s soaring tech stocks.
“Because of the tech bubble and rampant speculation, the value of property in the Bay Area has increased dramatically,” Sanyika Bryant, an organizer and counselor with Bay Area tenants rights group Causa Justa/Just Cause, told MintPress News. He continued:
Speculators are targeting low income and rent-controlled housing for their purchases and are flipping them for a quick profit. Often times, tenants are illegally evicted in an attempt to move in wealthier and whiter tenants, a lot of whom are people who work in the tech industry.”
Low-income communities have faced a wave of displacement as investors and the new wave of tech landlords launch mass evictions to clear the way for deep-pocketed “tech hipsters.”
“Over the last two years, the city has seen a 25 to 37 percent increase in its homeless population. There is a direct correlation between evictions and increases in homelessness,” Bryant noted. “Black and Latino and working class people and women have been incredibly impacted by this.”
A simple bike ride or trip on the BART train through Oakland makes clear the extent of poverty in the region, where every few blocks one sees dozens of tents, shopping carts and mattresses strewn between massive freeway pylons or near the prosperous Uptown area.
According to outreach assistance group Operation Dignity, about 200 homeless encampments exist throughout the city, ranging from small clusters of makeshift shelters to massive communities spanning entire blocks, sometimes dwarfing Skid Row.
The racial dynamic of mass displacement in the Bay Area is impossible to ignore.
Watch | Welcome to West Oakland: A Changing Neighborhood
According to local data, 70 percent of Oakland’s homeless are black, while only 28 percent of the city’s 2010 census population were counted as black. Fifty-eight percent cited money issues as the cause of their homelessness, while 48 percent said that housing assistance would have helped them remain in their homes. Thirty-six percent said that employment assistance would have served their needs. The ongoing crisis has resulted in communities of color with historic roots in the Bay Area being forced to seek their fortunes far from home, Bryant noted:
Families are leaving cities all around the Bay Area in search of housing. Many people are leaving the Bay area and moving to places like Stockton. A significant number of people are moving out of the state all together and are moving to the Southern states.”
The phenomenon of extreme housing cost increases has spread far from Silicon Valley to coastal and inland regions across the state, as communities in the Central Valley and Ventura, Orange and Riverside counties have witnessed the price of housing rise to around twice the U.S. national median.
In Los Angeles and the South Bay Area, many are simply giving up and living out of vans where makeshift kitchens have been installed. Last year, Los Angeles made sleeping overnight in cars or RVs on residential streets largely illegal, affecting over 7,000 people.
The metastasizing crisis has sparked a wave of anti-gentrification and anti-eviction organizing efforts in communities across the state, as tenants seek to remain in their homes and radicalized youth blast the trend of what they see as a new form of “colonialism” in their neighborhoods and hometowns.
Rent control or revolution?
For Rafael Bautista of San Diego Tenants United, change won’t come until the laws are changed so that they no longer favor profit-driven landlords and developers, and instead allow some breathing room for working families and poor residents to organize in their own defense.
One law targeted by advocates is the Costa–Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which restricts cities from expanding rent control. Bautista is among a growing number of community organizers who is raising awareness around the need to introduce a ballot measure repealing the law into the upcoming election so that rent control can expand. Only 15 out of 482 cities in California currently have rent control.
“At the state level, the repeal of Costa-Hawkins is on its way. Though it was killed in committee, the Housing Now! CA campaign has been working on getting Costa-Hawkins repealed through a ballot measure,” Bautista said. “We have gathered nearly 11,000 total signatures on a petition for rent control.” He concluded:
We are at a 13 year housing crisis and the homeless numbers have exploded in the last few years … People who have been historically kept out of home ownership [need] the ability to get a fair financing plan comparable to subsidized rents – then we can bear witness to the fruits of [our efforts]. Ownership in one’s community can reduce the oppression of perpetual poverty.”
Dogon is skeptical about elected officials’ ability, or inclination, to stand in the way of the state’s economic boom and provide a solution for poor communities. Past efforts to build affordable housing have failed in the face of opposition from local officials and “slow growth” or “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) groups such as environmentalists or homeowners’ associations. Dogon explained:
We see no political will, nobody wants to speak in support of or do the right thing that’s necessary to end homelessness [which is to] BUILD EXTREMELY LOW INCOME HOUSING as opposed to condos and lofts.
The rent is TOO damn high – slumlords are renting shacks for thousands of dollars! People on disability income, welfare, and minimum wage just can’t afford to live.”
For the homeless and those who are quickly slipping toward extreme poverty, the necessity is “housekeys, not handcuffs,” Dogon continues. For the 58,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County alone, or the growing number of homeless throughout the state, survival is the main necessity – and Dogon doesn’t think people will simply curl up and die without putting up a fight:
Until housing is built, the homeless crisis is only gonna get worse – to the point to where there’s a people’s war and class warfare for the basic right to survive. America is moving toward another civil war if homeless people continue to be denied!”
How many more homeless people will it take to start a revolution?”
Top Photo | Homeless tents are dwarfed by skyscrapers in Los Angeles. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.