Skid Row isn’t one of the more glamorous spots in LA. The only way you’ll see it on national TV is for a 20/20 exclusive for maybe 2 minutes if you should be so lucky.
Lots of people sleeping in cars, trucks, tents, and other kind of makeshift shelters.
Armed with Jane Jacobs’ The Life and Death of Great American Cities and Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, I’ve wondered if there was a way to weave those ways of living into the urban fabric of LA.
Instead of pounding square pegs into round holes by forcing homeless people into houses, apartments, shelters, I usually prefer to work with what people do have. As George Carlin once said “a house is just a pile of stuff with a lid on it.” Basically, a house is just a storage space.
I tend to think that unless dealing with rain, snow, or otherwise harsh environmental conditions, sleeping outside without a house isn’t a societal problem in itself. Sleeping outside is only a sign.
A sign doesn’t have any meaning until people agree it does.
For example, a stop sign is just a red octagonal piece of cardboard with the word “stop” on it. For this sign to acquire its meaning, drivers have to agree that it means to pump your brakes and momentarily bring your vehicle to a complete stop. With enough people doing it, the sign has acquired the meaning of “stopping your vehicle.”
The act of sleeping outside is just a sign, it’s just an activity. But the activity means different things for different people even within LA.
To us majority middle-classer Angelenos, sleeping outside might mean that that an indivdual lacks money for a house or rent in an increasingly unaffordable city. For a conservative minded pessimistic Angeleno it might mean that an individual does drugs and drinks too much. For a progressive-minded Angeleno, it might mean an individual’s bad luck. For an anarchist or libertarian Angeleno it might mean a choice to live outside of society. In the LAPD context, it might mean trouble and opportunities for “law enforcement.” To the residents who live on Skid Row, perhaps it’s just the most convenient place to sleep and eat.
Sleeping outside has an infinitude of different meanings for different demographics. The meaning an individual uses depends largely on their context.
Context includes the physical environment, the people around (the milieu), formal and informal institutions and the knowledge imparted by them. The interpretations from a context predisposes but does not necessarily forces individuals to see things a certain way.
Since we leave a lot of Skid Row activities to the police, it’s the police’s definition that we take. As a consequence of taking the police definition, we perceive of sleeping outside as a problem that needs addressing.
We could change that meaning. We could change the meaning of “Skid Row” and people sleeping outside in that area, into something positive if we just create the proper context. We need to create the proper context for people to sleep in cars, trucks, tents, and cardboard boxes.
How do we do that?
In the urban context, it’s become almost normal for people to sleep outside in cars, trucks, tents as a way to get ahead on consumerism. This is a temporary activity when waiting in line to spend big money on big games, Christmas sales, releases of limited edition [object here], Star Wars conventions. No one stigmatizes people for waiting on the newest Jordans, Black Friday. Homeless people are not usually waiting in line and/or going to spend big money on anything, and their place remains outside.
Outside of the LA urban context, for middle-class individuals, the activities of sleeping in cars, trucks, tents, and other kind of makeshift shelter is really encouraged is when you’re out in a forest and facing anything nature has to offer.
That’s called “camping.”
Only difference is that the surroundings are full of trees, grass, and better air quality. I know were in quite the budget crunch, but I was thinking: we should turn LA’s skid row section into that kind of a park. Trees, grass, dirt, better air quality — a context that would make it appropriate to be “camping.”