Historical context is important to understand the homelessness crisis, and that history is well-documented in the UCLA Luskin Center report, which informs much of the reporting in this section. Skid Row, located downtown, has been around since the 1880s and is considered the epicenter of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.
Starting in the late 19th Century, white migrant laborers traveled to Los Angeles by railroad looking for seasonal work. Skid Row is located near a former Southern Pacific Railroad depot at Fourth and Alameda streets.
Skid Row was originally dominated by poor white men who were drawn to the cheap apartments and residential motels. People who were unhoused built makeshift homes on undeveloped land, which quickly led to transient laborers being called a “serious menace to public welfare” and a threat to the values of middle-class homes. These transient workers were often thrown in jail for vagrancy, a fancy word for being poor and without a home.
By 1905, 98% of the city’s jail inmates were white, which led to the expansion of infrastructure that birthed three local jails. The city used police to deal with the unhoused and “precariously housed,” both deemed a threat to social order. White transient workers not in jail found housing among the city’s racially and ethnically diverse poor, but their substandard housing was subject to citation or torn down by the city, which cited their popularity as a threat to public health. By 1910, housing demand, rising land prices, and race and building restrictions were blamed for high rents.
The Great Depression increased the size of the houseless population by expanding it from the working poor to skilled white-collar workers. Unemployment peaked at 25% for white people in 1933; the rate for Black unemployment was double that.
In 1931, there were roughly 26,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles. The city’s response was to establish the Municipal Service Bureau for Homeless Men in Skid Row in 1928, and for women in 1933. The bureau would refer people to other organizations such as the Midnight Mission, established in 1914 in Skid Row, because there were no public shelters.
There was segregation for people who were unhoused. Black people were referred by the Municipal Service Bureau to places such as the Sojourner Truth Home or what was known as the Colored YMCA, which were Black-operated and funded. The Luskin report found that there were no city policies — other than welfare or community chest funds — to address employment and housing issues that made Black people vulnerable to homelessness. The policies that did exist targeted unemployed or underemployed white men who were detached from their nuclear family. Those white men were the primary target of homeless policy during the 1970s.
By 1976, city officials decided to “contain” Skid Row to the roughly 50 blocks known today, and relocated all soup kitchens and missions to within that zone. The containment plan included the “selective policing” of the perimeter by the Los Angeles Police Department to discourage Skid Row residents from moving beyond the neighborhood.
Skid Row Today
Up until the 1980s, Skid Row’s population was mostly older, single, white men (many who suffered from alcoholism), according to the Luskin report. But those days are long gone. Of the nearly 4,700 people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row in 2020, 59% identified as Black and 23% as Latino, according to LAHSA.