Skid Row votes: renowned homeless community seeks voice in LA politics
A rare celebratory atmosphere reigned on Skid Row, the most famous homeless community in America, earlier this week as residents stepped out from tents and shelters to vote on whether they should organize and form their own neighborhood council.
“This is history in the making, whether we win or lose,” declared a formerly homeless man who goes by the name General Jeff Page, sometimes known as “the mayor of Skid Row” and the driving force behind the campaign.
The area is already represented by larger, existing councils covering downtown Los Angeles, but he pitched the vote as way to give residents their own voice in turbulent times.
While homelessness seems ever-more entrenched in Skid Row, the area is also threatened by gentrification.
Around 30,000 homeless people were tallied in the city of Los Angeles during a recent count, and a significant number live on several dozen dilapidated blocks just south of downtown.
But development – in the form of coffee shops serving $4 cappuccinos, a gay bar and condo projects – is pressing in from all sides.
It has been reported that downtown LA is in the midst of its biggest construction boom since the 1920s, and its skyscrapers are almost always visible from down among the tarps and sleeping bags.
Alice Callaghan, a former nun who came to Skid Row over 30 years ago and helped turn the area’s historic hotels into homeless housing, said Skid Row is shedding low-income accommodation as owners seek a more affluent clientele.
“The reality is, we are losing.”
It is a familiar refrain across Los Angeles. Bohemian Venice has become increasingly unaffordable amid an influx of Google and Snap employees.
Activists have protested the arrival of art galleries in the suburb of Boyle Heights – and one of the galleries recently left.
In Skid Row, hundreds of people flocked to the dusty, leafy San Julian Park to register to vote, in a moving show of street-level democracy.
The election was open all those who lived, worked, owned property or were involved in the downtown area.
Even though many lacked IDs or a fixed place of residence, they were allowed to “self affirm” their status as Skid Row residents.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, the line to vote at the local community center snaked around the block, tent-dwellers next to loft-dwellers from the nearby luxury apartments.
A 26-year-old homeless man who called himself “Nobody” clutched his voter registration form.
People emerged from the community center wearing “I voted” stickers and were handed hotdogs by Ann Maria McCall, a former elementary school teacher from Oregon who ended up on Skid Row several years ago after a breakdown.
Don Garza, 46, a veteran of the first Gulf war, complained of feeling invisible.
“I voted today because we need our voice heard.
The developers don’t want to see more structures for the homeless.
But where do they go?
This isn’t Beijing where you can bulldoze out thousands of people to make way for Olympic stadiums.”
General Jeff Page hails from south central Los Angeles and made a name in west coast hip-hop before ending up on Skid Row in the mid-2000s.
He has become one of the locale’s most visible activists, but grew disenchanted with its existing council, which covered the whole of downtown and did not, he believe, have the best interests of the area’s homeless population in mind.
A friend of his, the rapper Ice Cube, agreed.
“Whassup, this your homie Ice Cube,” he said in a video posted on Page’s Facebook profile.
“Do something for somebody that’s a little less fortunate than you – vote yes.”
Neighborhood councils in Los Angeles are considered influential voices in determining what gets built and the direction an area takes, though they do not possess legislative power.
Critics of Page’s plan thought that it could result in Skid Row becoming more isolated from the rest of the city and thwarting development projects, further accentuating its impoverishment.
Page’s gambit does not seem to have paid off – although it was close. Early results suggested that Page and his supporters lost by less than 100 votes, 826 to 764.
Announcing the results in San Julian Park, a downcast Page declared it “a victory of sorts”, perhaps because Skid Row residents had at least had their historic day at the ballot box.
Eric Ares, of the LA Community Action Network, said he was proud of the movement.
“This campaign has shown Skid Row as a real community, with real people, like any other, not just as a problem needing to be fixed.”