The Moral Crisis of Skid Row

They call Los Angeles the City of Angels, but it seems that even here, within the five-by-ten-block area of Skid Row, the city contains an entire cosmology—angels and demons, sinners and saints, plagues and treatments.

Walking down San Pedro Street to the heart of Skid Row, I see men smoking methamphetamine in the open air and women selling bootleg cigarettes on top of cardboard boxes. Around the corner, a man makes a drug transaction from the window of a silver sedan, a woman in an American-flag bandana flashes her vagina to onlookers, and a shirtless man in a bleached-blond woman’s wig defecates behind a parked police car. Slumped across the entryway of an old garment business, a shoeless, middle-aged junkie injects heroin into his cracked, bare feet.

Skid Row is the epicenter of L.A.’s addiction crisis. More than 12,000 homeless meth and heroin addicts pass through here each year, with thousands living in the vast network of tent encampments that line the sidewalks. For decades, L.A. has centralized public services in this tiny city-within-a-city. The result: it’s become an iron cage of the social state, with the highest concentration of homelessness, addiction, and overdose deaths in Los Angeles County. Fire Station 9, which covers Skid Row, is now the busiest firehouse in America, responding to 35,518 calls for service last year, including a record-high number of overdoses and mental-health crises.

The scale of the crisis is astonishing: 40,000 homeless men and women in Los Angeles County suffer from addiction, mental illness, or both. More than 1,000 will die on the streets this year. As I survey the human wreckage along Skid Row, my fear is that the city government is creating a new class of “untouchables,” permanently disconnected from the institutions of society. For the past decade, political leaders have relied on two major policies to address the crisis—“harm reduction” and “housing first”—but despite $619 million in spending in 2018, more people are on the streets than ever. The reality is that Los Angeles has adopted a policy of containment: construct enough “supportive housing” to placate the appetites of the social-services bureaucracy, distribute enough needles to prevent an outbreak of plague, and herd enough men and women into places like Skid Row, where they will not disrupt the political fiction that everything is okay.

The LAPD’s Central Police Station is a windowless fortress, surrounded by a narrow strip of dirt and a sagging chain-link fence. Last year, after rats established a system of tunnels underneath the station, the department made plans to pave over the remaining landscape with concrete, but the project is on hold. I’m here to see Sergeant Pete Kouvelis, an LAPD veteran with a detailed, street-level understanding of life on Skid Row. I wait in line behind a polite and neatly dressed man filing a battery complaint against another resident in his SRO apartment complex, and then give my name to the tired-looking officer behind the glass.

After a moment, Sergeant Kouvelis, a broad-shouldered man with a military haircut, opens the security door and shakes my hand. As we pass through the back hallways and climb into his white patrol vehicle, Kouvelis, who earned a degree in architecture from USC and served as an officer in the Marine Corps, launches into a short discourse on the political economy of Skid Row. He says that the territory here is divided into sections by street gangs from South Los Angeles, who control the markets for meth, heroin, prostitution, cigarettes, and stolen goods. “This is pretty much the epicenter in L.A. for maintaining your addictions,” Kouvelis says. “You’ve got the gang element that markets their drugs, and it’s predatory. The more people addicted, the better.”

Indeed, addiction is a booming business here. Based on data from the Center for Harm Reduction and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, I estimate that the sales of meth, heroin, and cocaine on Skid Row add up to a $200 million annual enterprise, fueling a massive black market in everything from stolen bicycle parts to human organs. The LAPD, including its gang and narcotics task forces, has tried to disrupt the drug trade for decades, without much success. “We’ve tried different things, different data,” says Kouvelis. “But the population is very good at learning our tactics and then adapting their behaviors to counter our tactics. . . . It’s almost like a shell game, where we’re trying to do one thing today and then, three months from now, we’ll [need to] try a different tactic.”

Outside San Julian Park, which the Grape Street Crips use as a central distribution point for meth and heroin, Kouvelis stops the car in the middle of the street. He explains that we don’t want to be too close to the subsidized apartment buildings because residents on the upper floors will sometimes throw trash, urine, and feces at the cops below. While we wait for another officer to arrive, Kouvelis tells war stories from his time in the Central Division. He points to a tree around the corner that used to have 50 or so hypodermic needles stabbed into it; addicts would take one out, use it to shoot up, and then stick it back into the cracked bark. He tells me a particularly nightmarish story about a young bipolar woman, kidnapped and held in a subsidized apartment, and then plied with meth, tortured, and raped for more than two months; officers found her unconscious, with her hair ripped out and a half-dozen broken bones. A few years ago, Kouvelis says, officers even learned of a baby living in one of the tents—they cordoned off the entire street and went tent-to-tent until they rescued the child.

When the other officer, a thin, bald-headed man, arrives, we get out of the vehicle and walk through the park to the Green Apple Market on Fifth and Wall. Suddenly, we hear screaming and fighting around the corner. The officers run over and find a heavyset woman with a pit bull accusing a man in a bloody gray shirt of harassing her while she sleeps in her tent. Kouvelis, the bald-headed cop, and other officers from another patrol car break up the fight and scatter the crowd. As he crosses the street, the man in the gray shirt protests that I’m taking pictures, and another man in a black beanie points at me and threatens: “If [the police] wasn’t here, you woulda probably got jumped or knocked out.” The police recognize the man in the gray shirt from a few days earlier, when he was stabbed in the neck and nearly died in the hospital. “He’s not long for this world,” says one of the officers. “He’s going to get himself killed.”

Roughly a decade ago, Skid Row’s future looked more hopeful. In 2006, Police Chief William Bratton and Central Division Commander Andrew Smith implemented a strategy of Broken Windows policing for Skid Row, called the Safer Cities Initiative, which led to a 42 percent reduction in major felonies, 50 percent reduction in overdose and natural deaths, and 75 percent reduction in homicides. “We’ve broken the back of the problem,” said Chief Bratton then, reporting that the overall homeless population had been reduced from 1,876 people to 700 people—an astonishing success. (See “The Reclamation of Skid Row,” Autumn 2007.)

The progress proved short-lived. Arguing that Broken Windows policing “criminalizes homelessness,” activists slowly dismantled the Safer Cities Initiative through civil rights lawsuits and public pressure campaigns. Today, Skid Row’s homeless population is estimated to be at least 2,500 people, and crime has been rising for years.

At the Central Division, a consensus is emerging that it’s only a matter of time before the neighborhood explodes. “I was a Marine officer [and] served overseas,” says Sergeant Kouvelis. “Skid Row rivals anything that I have seen to date . . . in terms of the conditions that people live in.”

Over the past 30 years, activists and political leaders have successfully shifted public policy regarding addiction and disorder away from a so-called punitive model that relies on prohibition, incarceration, and abstinence toward a “harm-reduction” approach that takes widespread drug use as a given and attempts to reduce rates of infection and other negative effects. Mark Casanova, executive director of Homeless Healthcare Los Angeles, has been working with addicts on Skid Row since 1985. His Center for Harm Reduction distributes 2.4 million clean needles to more than 12,000 addicts each year. As I walk through the door to the waiting room, I see a gaunt young man waiting to collect needles, swabs, and fentanyl testing strips. A woman with floral tattoos covering her scabbed-over arms slides a tray of used needles into the metal sharps container. On the wall is a large map of the city, with hundreds of blue pushpins marking each spot where an overdose was reversed with a naloxone inhaler provided by the center. …

Click here to read the full article from City Journal Online.


  1. Anyone but me notice that the SLUMS OF AMERICA ARE RAN BY DEMOCRATES?? In California they encourage and give away FREE NEEDLES and they want to know why people are sleeping on the streets..The DEMOCRAPS are to blame for the mess in California PLAIN AND SIMPLE. The unions run California and give all their union dues to democrate’s who in turn after elected make sure the UNIONS HAVE THOSE SWEET DEALS…DEMOCRATES in this state are corrupt and need to be arrested..Gavin Newsom IS A fucking JOKE

    • David Daniels says

      This can only end bad for the homeless in LA, regardless if they are mental, alcoholic or drug addicts or all three. Those who fall outside those groups are at severe risk. Politically correct solutions have failed and will continue to fail. I don’t know the solution, but it probably will be humane authoritarian action that focuses on the best interests of all. The end game, not just social justice BS.


    This might sound oxymoron at first, but it would eradicate the problem one way or the other.

  3. Work for welfare, time limits on welfare, and now welfare for illegals.

    Watch the homeless issue shrink.

  4. TheRandyGuy says

    As long as the “civil rights advocates” are successful in preventing these mentally ill individuals from being institutionalized and receiving the treatment they need, as long as “the war on drugs” continues to fund gangs and dope smugglers, as long as politicians refuse to clamp down hard on the crime associated with drugs, stop complaining. Get used to it.

  5. The sad reality and truth is,the democrats could care less about the homeless. They are used to gain more power and control claiming it’s needed to “fix” a problem they created. Real and workable solutions are
    rejected by the democrats for the simple reason they need them.

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