In early December, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston landed in Los Angeles, the first stop in his tour of extreme poverty in the United States.
It was a Sunday, a day before he was scheduled to begin, but Alston said he had decided to get a head start on his mission. One of the first things he learned was that homeless people in the area have access to few public toilets.
“All of the streets smelled of urine,” Alston said. He soon discovered that “the homelessness situation in California is pretty shocking.”
Over the next two weeks, Alston also visited Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In his report, Alston said he witnessed homeless people who are “barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles”; heard about thousands of people saddled with “unpayable debt” after receiving minor infraction notices; met people who lost their teeth because they did not have access to dental care; and saw sewage-filled yards in states that “don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility.”
Alston also reported on the extraordinary efforts by municipal officials determined to help the poorest 20 percent of their communities; a church in San Francisco that offers services to the homeless seven days a week; and a community health initiative in Charleston, West Virginia, that offers medical services to 21,000 patients.
When asked why he was exploring extreme poverty in the United States when conditions in other parts of the world are far more dire, Alston said it is important to ensure the wealthiest country in the world is doing its part.
“Every country has human rights obligations, and every country should be doing the best it can,” Alston said. “So, if we had a system where the only human rights investigations focused on North Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a handful of other basket cases, it wouldn’t be a credible system.”
He also noted that while conditions might be worse in other countries, that doesn’t mean the United States doesn’t have its own impoverished populations, and it has a much harder time explaining why that poverty exists in the first place.
“Unlike the really poor countries who can with some legitimacy say, ‘Well we don’t have the money, we can’t afford it,’ the United States is in a position to say, ‘Well we do have the money, but that’s not how we want to spend it,’ ” Alston said. “And that raises pretty direct and obvious questions in terms of really respecting people’s basic human rights.”
In his report, Alston noted the pervasive contrast between private wealth and public squalor.
“American exceptionalism was a constant theme in my conversations,” he wrote. “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.”
There were 55,188 homeless individuals living in Los Angeles in 2017, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Only 25 percent of the city’s homeless population was living in a shelter.
In Skid Row alone, which comprises about 50 square blocks near downtown L.A., there were 4,633 homeless people, according to the city’s 2017 homeless census. Of that group, 2,669 were sheltered and 1,964 were living on the streets.
The U.N. special rapporteur compared the conditions of Skid Row to those in a Syrian refugee camp.
Officials in L.A. would describe how much they were doing and the grand plans they had for the years ahead, according to Alston. But when asked whether their efforts would provide reasonable housing for all of the homeless population, those same officials admitted it wouldn’t even come close.
“Even though some money has been mobilized, and there are lots of policies and so on, the basic policy is missing,” Alston said. “And that is to eliminate all but the most hardcore homelessness.”
But it was not just conditions in Skid Row that Alston found alarming.
In Alabama, he investigated cases of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that experts believed had been eradicated from the U.S. in the 1980s. Alston said he was shocked by the lack of urgency from public health officials.
“This is not a problem that is yet affecting the elites, or the well-off,” Alston said, implying that neither the super-rich nor the government that represents them is motivated to consider radical changes to the country’s economic system. “It’s a shame.”
Kelly Miller, an activist who has been homeless for about six years and lives in Washington, D.C., recently traveled to Atlanta to share her personal experiences with Alston at a human-rights conference. Because of scheduling issues, she and 19 others recounted their stories to him by phone. “Basically, I just told [Alston] that I’m a victim of sex-trafficking,” Miller said. “And I told a little bit about the struggles of when I was outside in Kentucky, homeless and fighting, I even had to take a shower in the rain because I didn’t have anywhere to access water.”
Experiencing homelessness in a rural area is more difficult than being homeless in a big city, according to Miller. She contrasted her time in Kentucky with her time in the nation’s capital. “In the rural areas, number one, we don’t have a bus system, we don’t have churches that assist like they do here in D.C.,” Miller said. “We don’t have organizations that assist. You’re just out of luck. You’re actually living in the woods.”
She said that while being an activist is harder when you are homeless, it is still possible to make an impact.
Nonetheless, Alston was not optimistic by the end of his tour.
“In a lot of countries that I go to, one gets a sense that there are a number of policies that, if implemented, would really make a difference — and that governments might be prepared to look at those policies,” Alston said. “But in the U.S., the problem is much deeper.”
In the nation’s capital, Alston said he devoted much of his time to meeting with officials from the White House and Congress. He said that the Trump administration’s approach to fighting poverty is to move people from welfare to work.
“It’s based on the assumption that most people who are on welfare could work if they wanted to, and it’s only laziness, or whatever, that prevents them from doing so,” Alston said.
He said that along with members of the Trump administration, he encountered many state governments and politicians who believe deeply that people’s needing government assistance to survive is an aberrational situation and that many who receive benefits are simply scamming the system.
“The reality is that poverty, as I said, I think, in the report, [is] a political decision,” Alston said. “A government can either decide to address it and eliminate it, or can decide that they don’t give a damn.”
This article has been republished courtesy of Real Change and the International Network of Street Papers.