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CNN Special Reports

CNN Special Report: United Shades of America: The Homeless Crisis in LA. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired August 30, 2020 - 22:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to tell to our kids, don't forget it. Try to keep it alive. But you pass that, we are America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't have to be in a certain box. We have a choice.

J REZAIAN: My dad would say by birth I'm Iranian, but by choice I'm American and I'm proud of both.

W. KAMAU BELL, CNN HOST, UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA: I'm W. Kamau Bell. And on this episode of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, we look at the homeless crisis in the United States.

Los Angeles has one of the largest and most visible homeless communities in the country. We filmed this episode there in late August 2019, well before the coronavirus pandemic hit. When the country started talking about practicing social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands frequently and quarantining at home homeless communities didn't always have those options.

Now, there are no concrete numbers on how many homeless folks have been affected by COVID-19, but in this community, basic resources like food and hygiene items are already scarce. So the pandemic only magnifies their struggles. The United States has neglected our responsibility to these Americans for far too long.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In 2018, California went from the sixth largest economy in the world to the fifth largest economy in the world, yet we have a homeless pandemic. I did not say state of emergency, I did not say we have an epidemic, I said we've got a pandemic, a homeless pandemic, because of income inequality.

Do you want to know what the income inequality looks like in California? It's the widest income inequality in the country. If I was imitating Jesus, let me go through the Scriptures, right there, Jesus would say to the rich young ruler, California and America, take everything you got, sell it and give the money to the poor.

BELL(off camera): Let the church say, amen.

BELL: So tell me what's the - what do you love about L.A. since you've been here all your life?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love that I haven't seen everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. First of all the weather, obviously.

BELL: So where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm from Atlanta and I'm in town for a - it's a whistling festival.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's where you make your dreams come true.

BELL: What do you think L.A. can do better?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, god, public transportation.

BELL: They think they have it.


BELL: All right.

I don't want you to be a hater, but what do you think L.A. can do better?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I always think of the homeless problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The homeless situation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The homelessness.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The homeless problem is getting worse.

BELL(off camera): Capitalism is a mother (inaudible). America loves talking about how rich it is, but America's riches aren't spread around equally like orange slices after a kids soccer game. Nope, the money is hoarded like kids' Halloween candy. And one of the biggest buckets of money is in my state, California.

And a big part of California's wealth is located right here in Los Angeles. L.A. is among the world leaders in money, red carpets, limos, cold pressed juices and one more thing, homelessness. If you've been to any major city lately, then you know this crisis is exploding.

Los Angeles County has 60,000 people without homes. That's up 12 percent from last year. Some stay at shelters, but 73 percent live on the streets in the shadow of all this wealth. And thousands of them are right here on Skid Row. Even the way you say it, you live in Beverly Hills, but brother you live on Skid Row.

GENERAL DOGAN (PH): Welcome to Skid Row, my brother.

BELL: Thank you. Nice to meet you, brother.

DOGAN (PH): My name is General Dogan (ph). I'm born and raised right here on Skid Row.

BELL: Born and raised down here.

DOGAN (PH): Born and raised right now here on Skid Row.

BELL: I don't think people know that people grow up in Downtown L.A.

DOGAN (PH): Well, you're looking at one right here.

BELL(off camera): General Dogan (ph) describes himself as being among the first wave of crack users. That addiction landed him in prison for 11 years, but he turned his life around and now he serves the community and a self-appointed field commander for Skid Row. He makes sure his community is safe, respected and taken care of, which basically means he's 5-0-5-0.


DOGAN (PH): Skid Row is the community. It's the community of about 13,000 to 15,000 people, 80 percent black folks, about 40 percent to 60 percent of the folks have some form of disability. About 90 percent of the folks on Skid Row here are - we're all living under the poverty level, meaning we (inaudible) folks in the city.

The only thing we need is the right resources, bring us some bathrooms. Give folks resources. They can put resources in other districts. They didn't want to do it, they want to give us police. They patrol our communities like it's Vietnam.

BELL(off camera): Let me be clear, while General Dogan (ph) and I are walking around having a nice conversation on a beautiful day, it's tense. Being on Skid Row is overwhelming all of my senses. Everything I see, everything I smell, it's a lot.

DOGAN (PH): Believe or not, man, I have met some of the most amazing people on Skid Row.

BELL: Yes.

DOGAN (PH): Skid Row is really truly that community that I'm gonna live in.

BELL: I don't think people would imagine that people that are a community and are taking care of each other.

DOGAN (PH): Yes, a lot of people don't think that because (inaudible) ...

BELL: People see it as individual tents, they don't see it as community.

DOGAN (PH): ... because the city and the business folks paint us all off as transient.

BELL(off camera): In the 1870s, a spur of the Transcontinental Railroad lay its final spike in Downtown L.A. The line brought with it seasonal workers, immigrants, wanderers and emancipated Africans alike. Some prospered, but many fell into the margins right here in what over time became L.A. Skid Row. And Skid Row, it ain't a row, it's a 50 block area between third and seventh Alameda and Main. The largest permanent population of the homeless in the entire country.

Even though L.A. is basically written off as part of the city, Skid Row has been here in one form or another for over a hundred years. So these people aren't transients, they're residents. But if L.A.'s movers and shakers get their way, these people won't be residents for much longer. The movers and shakers don't see a neighborhood, they see prime real estate.

PETE WHITE, FOUNDER, LA CAN: And from Jump Street, Kamau, we knew, our organization knew if they ever got us out of Skid Row, we were never coming back. We said look at the Native Americans, look at Africans, if they ever move you off the land, you ain't never coming back.

BELL: You ain't going back.

WHITE: And so all of the policies, all of the community organizing and the policies that we went after were land policies, how do we stay here.

BELL(off camera): Pete White is the Founder and Executive Director of LA CAN, a grassroots human and civil rights organization. Pete is loved by the people and hated by the people in power, which probably means he's doing a good job.

BELL: A lot of people who don't come down here, who just know about Skid Row as a name or drive through it have a lot of misconceptions about who's down here and what's going on down here.

WHITE: Right. They think right off top we have to do what I call or what I consider mythbusting.

BELL: Yes.

WHITE: Now, the dominant narrative that people have been sold have one (inaudible) followed. One, people are at houses because they want to be. These people just want to be on the streets, right?

BELL: Yes. Yes. Yes.

WHITE: The second one is people are houseless because of mental illness or substance abuse.

BELL: Yes.

WHITE: The other thing that they've said to us is it's meritocracy. If you try hard enough, you won't be houseless. If you just take five jobs instead of four jobs, maybe you would be OK.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority finally said and wrote empirically that the three causes of houselessness in Los Angeles is housing affordability, housing availability and poverty. They said 71 percent of those that are houseless in Los Angeles are houseless because they can't afford housing. Only 29 percent is houseless as a result of their addiction or mental illness.

BELL(off camera): Although we're hanging out on Skid Row, this is a national crisis. Over the last 10 years, while the nation's numbers on house folk have gone down slightly, those numbers have skyrocketed in the least affordable places like Seattle, where I live in the Bay Area, Denver, Chicago, D.C., New York, Boston, and many other cities across the country.

This surge is economic and in many cities, these tents are the new normal. So when you go up and ask it or when you see these tents, these tents are legally allowed to be on the sidewalk.

DOGAN (PH): Yes. This sign right here is what started the whole thing on Skid Row around tents, the right to be in public space. We've sued and we've been victorious. One of those cases, the Jones versus the City of Los Angeles, we show that all admissions were full, all of the shelters were all full. You didn't have no housing for nobody to go to, so people had no other choice but to sit on the sidewalk.

WHITE: Part of the settlement agreement was that houseless people in the city of Los Angeles were able to camp on the sidewalks from 9 pm to 6 am every day.


And they would be able to do that until the City of Los Angeles built 1,200 units of housing, right?

BELL: Yes, which isn't enough, obviously.

WHITE: Obviously. That was 14 years ago.

DOGAN (PH): And the city is yet to build 1,200 units apartment support house, but yet look up there, they're building housing ...

BELL: They definitely know how to build housing ...

DOGAN (PH): ... they're building a whole new city of nothing but just condos and lofts. They're building so much and so fast that, in fact, they got a vacancy rate right now.

BELL(off camera): It's easy as you roll by on your car to assume you know all about the people in these tents and it's easy to create a story in your head about how they're lazy and they didn't read the secret. But the real secret is we don't all start in the same place when we're born. Well, obviously anyone can become homeless. Black people end up homeless at a rate that is four times higher than white Americans.

And look at L.A. County overall, it's around 9 percent black, but the county's homeless population is 34 percent black. I can do that math, it adds up to racism.

WHITE: You can't talk about homelessness without talking about deindustrialization. If we're in South Central Los Angeles, you're going to see Bethlehem Steel, you're gonna see the rubber plant, you're gonna see all of these factories that used to be sort of the places where black folks made their mind.

BELL: Good factory jobs and pay good factory wages and had benefits.

WHITE: Good factory jobs, that's right.

BELL: And you didn't have to have a college degree necessarily to get those jobs.

WHITE: We had Boeing, we had Hues (ph), we had McDonnell Douglas. Now, think about what happens when all of those places shut down. And so you go from a manufacturing base and now you have a service industry and the service industry, that really wasn't kind quite frankly to black folks.

BELL: We're going from McDonnell Douglas to McDonald's ...

WHITE: That's right.

BELL(off camera): And look, we've talked about this before on the show. There's a boatload of historical economic factors that lead to this starting with the votes. What started with deindustrialization in the 50s and 60s, continued into the late 70s and early 80s with the war on drugs, and then we're off to the races.

Hillary Clinton calls it super predators, her husband signs Omnibus Crime Bill, (inaudible) Ice T gets in trouble with the president, evangelical Christian and Ted Cruz (inaudible) ...

WHITE: It's a confluence of all of these things together, that just hit the black community like a ton of bricks.

BELL: We've heard this narrative all over the country that the factory shut down, people don't have access to the same types of jobs, so the middle class collapses. So does that mean you're excited about Trump bringing all of the jobs back?

WHITE: I'm still trying to track when America was great for black people (inaudible) ...

BELL: Oh, yes, yes, yes, they're still working on that.



BELL: Uh-oh, what's happening down here?

DOGAN (PH): I have no idea.

BELL: What's happening?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why are you putting handcuffs on me? So why are you putting handcuffs on me? Why are you putting handcuffs on me for? BELL: What are they doing?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, it's not explaining anything everything, I didn't do (inaudible) ...

DOGAN (PH): So, Sergeant, what's the reason why she's been arrested?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a personal matter between the two of them (inaudible) we're going to go back to the station and (inaudible) ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I'm going to go to jail again, this is not fair.

DOGAN (PH): They're supposed to have what they call smart teams. It was supposed to be a specially trained cop, say, who's actually a doctor, right? They're supposed to come and talk to people and help people out.

BELL: I mean, we don't know what exactly happened, but she's clearly in crisis right now.

DOGAN (PH): Exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, (inaudible) ...

DOGAN (PH): Hey, why don't you call a smart team if you don't know what you're doing?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want to go to jail.

DOGAN (PH): Yes, you didn't have to hog-tie - you ain't got to hog- tie a woman. Come on, man, you ain't got to hog-tie (inaudible) man, you're hog-tying her. Good.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stop hurting me. Stop hurting me.

BELL: I think you stopped them from hog-tying her.

DOGAN (PH): Oh, hell, yes, most definitely.

BELL: Because they had it all out ready to go ...

DOGAN (PH): Yes, they (inaudible) strap up.

BELL: ... and they tried to take her around the side and you went around the side.

DOGAN (PH): Damn right.

BELL: Yes.

DOGAN (PH): Oh, man, we go to be our brothers and sisters keeper.

BELL(off camera): On Skid Row, the good and the bad happen back to back and often all at the same time. And the people who are down here work hard to make sure that the good shines through. SOMA SNAKEOIL: I need a picture of you with this. (Inaudible) ...

BELL(off camera): The point is, despite what you might see in the news, there is joy on Skid Row too.

BELL: What do you think it's important for art to be down here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It changes the look, it's like beautification. Art for one, music, food, creativity has always been something that help surpass like a therapy.

SNAKEOIL: That's what's so amazing about the community here is they're overcoming so many obstacles and it's like it's really beautiful, vibrant community.

BELL(off camera): Cruz Shaw (ph) is an artist, activist and a dad who has lived on Skid Row for 20 years. Soma used to be homeless and now she helps Skid Row's most at risk through her organization, The Sidewalk Project.

SNAKEOIL: Hey, lady.


SNAKEOIL: Want some hygiene kit?


BELL(off camera): Obviously, this is an especially difficult place for women.

SNAKEOIL: Women have so much of a harder time on the street because women are more vulnerable than men and stronger.

FREDERICA (PH): These women take ass whooping from these men like football players take a tackle. I'm talking about (inaudible) beat up, beat, they're huring.

BELL(off camera): Frederica (ph) and Natasha are mother and daughter who both live on the road.


Even though Natasha (ph) is Frederica's (ph) only child, around here, everybody calls her mama.

BELL: So what's it like to be down here with family, because everybody calls you mama, but this is your actual daughter? What is it like here to be down here with your (inaudible) ...

FREDERICA (PH): (Inaudible) I don't know.

BELL: Yes.

FREDERICA (PH): Because I'm going to tell you, I will do anything for that one. I will die for her. That's my baby. BELL: You just live on the same tent?

NATASHA (PH): Oh, we're too adult.

FREDERICA (PH): (Inaudible) where she's sleeping, because it's nerve racking. You got men, these men, I love your daughter, I'm going to marry her. They say this over and over and so that brags me (inaudible) ...

NATASHA (PH): It's kind of serious too because not too long ago, a guy he came in my tent on me, on top of me. Like I was sleeping and he like gotten on top of me and was in my ear like telling me how he loved me like I love you so much, I just want to be with you. I just got this 20 bucks, just let me have (inaudible).

But after that it made me very nervous like I don't mess around (inaudible) ...

BELL: So when something like that happens, do you go to police?

NATASHA (PH): I mean, what do I tell them that he just came to my tent and was laying on top of me, I don't know.

BELL: Because I can't imagine it would be sympathetic to ...

FREDERICA (PH): No, they (inaudible) ...

BELL(off camera): As we all know, cities are not generally sympathetic to homeless communities. Take cleaning day, for example. Of course, we all want clean streets. But L.A. has inscrutable rules about homeless people not having to bulky items. In fact, all of their belongings are supposed to fit in a 60-gallon container, the size of a medium trashcan. And if they don't, then it'll all go straight in that trash can, everything.

I mean, look around your home now. You're surrounded by bulky items. If you want to know what the criminalization of poverty looks like, here it is.

NATASHA (PH): Usually after cleaning day, like tomorrow, none of this will be here. Like nobody can live here. But when will you move, you have to move everything so people will set up around the block and then afterwards you have to move all your things back.

BELL: So do you have to move this soon?

FREDERICA (PH): Yes, she does.

NATASHA (PH): Yes, I have to move this tonight.

FREDERICA (PH): Actually, I'm trying to be comfortable in my space, I'm trying to be back home.

You're more than welcome.

BELL: I can go and (inaudible)? FREDERICA (PH): Yes, go ahead.

BELL: OK. All right.

FREDERICA (PH): It might be a mess, but like I said (inaudible) ...

BELL: So as my house.

FREDERICA (PH): ... but for a tent, I think it's quite comfortable. Right now you are in my home. You are sitting on my bed.

BELL: Wait a second. Hold on a second.

FREDERICA (PH): How dare you?

BELL: I'm a married man.

FREDERICA (PH): I'm a married woman, but you're sitting on my bed.

BELL: All right. So you'll have to move this for tomorrow?

FREDERICA (PH): No, I have to move this tonight. That's why it's like this ...

BELL: And that's got to be stressful.

FREDERICA (PH): ... and in the process that I'm moving everything, I'm moving stuff, I mean, really it's not fair and it's really sad. It's sad. It's sad. The only thing separating me from the world outside is this tent.

BELL: This tent.

FREDERICA (PH): So you have to be weary, because I don't know who's going to cut it open and cut me up. It's scary.

BELL(off camera): In 2018, over 900 homeless people died in L.A. County for many different reasons. But L.A.'s homeless are 7.5 times more likely to be murdered than people who are housed.

The thing that makes people who live indoors comfortable is that they can lock the door, some have alarm, some of them have gates. Part of being comforted when you go to bed is the feeling of safety and being able to relax when you close your eyes, because nobody can get to you and I'm thinking about like as the sun is starting to go down, what is it like going to bed out here?



BELL(off camera): Ah, a white picket fence, a manageable commute, a cozy lot with your own perfectly mortgaged slice of the American dream. While other cities build up, L.A. build out. As a result, L.A. has some of the most inefficient land usage on some of the most expensive real estate in the entire country. And this is just a part of the complex factors that affect housing affordability across the nation.

Let's be clear, yes, drugs exist. Yes, mental illness exists. What primarily drives people to the streets is math. Enter Zillow and the almighty algorithm, meet the nerds.

BELL: It's all about the algorithm.


BELL: I didn't know that word until the 21st century.

GLYNN: Right. So we built a statistical model to understand this relationship between the percentage of one's paycheck that goes towards their rent.

BELL(off camera): Chris Glynn is an Assistant Professor and Statistician at the University of New Hampshire. And Alexander Casey is a Senior Policy Analyst and Advisor for Zillow, a real estate website that can tell you how much your neighbor paid for their house, giving you another reason to hate thy neighbor.

Zillow has information on housing all over the country. With all this information, they decided to commission a study on the U.S. housing crisis.

ALEXANDER CASEY, SENIOR POLICY ANALYST AND ADVISOR FOR ZILLOW: We fundamentally believe that good data is going to help craft good policy. And good policies just going to make for good well-functioning markets.

GLENN: The goal of research is to predict when and by how much the homeless population in this city will increase based on housing affordability at the community level, at the aggregate level. If you think about the measure of housing affordability as the percentage of a paycheck that goes towards housing costs as that increases and specifically as it increases towards 32 percent or about a third of income.

So once communities exceed that 32, 33 percent threshold, we expect that the homeless rate is going to significantly increase in that community. If you're a city like Chicago or Dallas or Houston where currently the housing affordability numbers are approaching 30 percent, you should be prepared for a significant increase in the homeless population as that housing affordability metric grows.


CASEY: Start implementing policies are going to stab the tide of this (inaudible) as well.


BELL: It seems like the wrong move is probably like, well, we'll just wait till it hits 33 percent and then we'll have a plan for what to do with all these people on the street. GLYNN: Currently, housing affordability in the Los Angeles metro area

is about 46 percent. So if it were to deteriorate to 48 percent, we predict that an additional about 4,200 people, 4,200 people would experience homelessness.

BELL(off camera): Look, I know these guys are throwing a bunch of numbers at you. So let me bottom line this for you. It's bad and it will continue to get worse.

But in Los Angeles, we're talking about 60,000 people. You can fit 60,000 people on the new $4.9 billion stadium they're building and still have room for the L.A. Chargers fans or that $4.9 billion could help place people in the more than 110,000 empty housing units in L.A. L.A., you can fix this if you want to.

WHITE: For us as housing organizers, our strategy was rooted in the old paradigm that, well, somebody owns it. If you can't fill it up, you're going to have to bring the rates down and then maybe one day those buildings will be for us, right?

Housing is no longer built for people to live in. Housing is now a commodity. It is traded on the stock market. It's a place to park capital.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seventy percent of the people who are houseless are here because of housing inaffordability and housing availability. California is 500,000 units short.

BELL: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As it relates to affordable housing. This is the microcosm of what's going on around the nation.

BELL(off camera): Pastor (inaudible) biblical scripture with a mix of hip hop and social justice activism, just like Jesus would do.

And every Friday he's right here at The Church Without Walls on Fifth between Wall (ph) and Maple (ph). So not only is he speaking truth to power, he's dealing with the PA system so power can hear him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thirteen years ago came here to Skid Row and we started doing this thing called The Church Without Walls. We want it to be here. A lot of times people say, well, let's get people out of Skid Row.

Well, when we get people out of Skid Row, what are they going to do with Skid Row? They're going to gentrify it, so we don't want to get the people out of Skid Row. We want to empower the people and elevate the people.

BELL(off camera): Theo (ph) is musician and a resident of Skid Row. After growing up in Detroit, he came to L.A. to pursue his dreams.

THEO (PH): I came to L.A., I started working in the industry and doing great stuff.

BELL: And music.

THEO (PH): Music and also in casting in other areas. And I got ill and I was in the hospital and when I came out, I had no jobs. People don't realize that when you're a contract worker, you don't get health insurancea and so what ended up happening I was mounted in medical bills, I'll never forget walking out of my hospital room and going back to my house and seeing all my stuff on the grass and I was baffled at what to do.

Eventually, my 2012 car got towed so not only was I now homeless, I also had no vehicle and I was othered, completely other for the first time in my life.

BELL: They see you as someone who is your circumstance.

THEO (PH): That's exactly right, man. At what point was your dirty clothes or the fact that you haven't had a shower makes you lesser than a human being? At what point in our society did we say that was OK? This system is not just not built for us, but it's built to take us out in ways.

BELL: It's built against us.

THEO (PH): That's right, man.

BELL: Yes. Yes. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it's not broken.

THEO (PH): That's right. It's not broken.

BELL: That's what I hear (inaudible) system is not broken, it works exactly the way it was designed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right. That's the way it was designed.

BELL: How do I explain to people who aren't driving through Skid Row, who are only thinking of it negatively that it's part of our duty as a community to help everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that in order to deal with poverty, we're going to need to deal with poverty with public policy and folks think that you can inherit wealth but you can't inherit poverty because of those policies that this nation inflicted on black folks, building freeways and through eminent domain displacing folks, creating ghettos intentionally.

Because of that, we need to dismantle the system, work outside of the system.

THEO (PH): I think we're still trying to get a seat at the table when we need to be making the tables.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on now. Come on now. Come on now.

THEO (PH): Because like that's the thing, like we have to stop the mindset that somebody is coming to say save us. We are all we got.


BELL(off camera): Damn straight, we're all we got. But sometimes that ain't enough. Even though the people of L.A. voted to raise their own taxes by passing measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to build 10,000 units of affordable housing in the three years since not only have no units been built, but L.A. has cut the promise delivery to 5,800 units and in that time, the homeless population has grown 30 percent.

People want to help, but politicians, what are you doing? I'm looking at you, Mayor.



JOSEPH (PH): There's this saying that I hate with all my heart, perception is reality. That's not true. Most people's perceptions are laced with their biases towards one group or another and that's wrong. We have to look at things from a non-emotional place so we can actually see what's really happening.

BELL(off camera): Officer Joseph's (ph) presence on Skid Row is as big as his chest. He's worked the Row for the last 20 years. He sees something and he has his own views on the issue.

JOSEPH (PH): Because of systemic failures way, way above our head, we're the last or now the first resort in dealing with this issue. And I, a police officer, 100 percent agree that we should shouldn't be. Hear the systemic failures, the American system.


I'm trying to help the mentally ill to pull down the facilities. So now the answer is sprinkle pills on them in the name of civil liberties, kicked them out into the street to say, yay, you're free. Now, here's what happens to them, they get their prescribed medication and then they sell their prescribed medication because it makes them feel down and lethargic, so they want to feel up.

So they start taking the illegal stuff like cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs which exacerbates their condition when they're in crisis, 100-fold. Hey, brother, good to see you. Being bipolar, being paranoid, schizophrenic, these are not police problem.

BELL(off camera): How the hell did our country's mental health issues become the responsibility of law enforcement? As much as many of us like to blame this on Reagan, the unraveling really started in the 60s with President Kennedy. He shut down the asylums, which made sense because apparently one flew over the cuckoo's nest wasn't far from the truth.

But decades passed without a real replacement for those facility and that led to huge numbers of people dealing with profound mental illness being turned out onto the streets throughout the 1980s. So today, when someone has been picked up off the street, they usually go straight to the L.A. County Jail. And the L.A. County Jail is massive, there are about 17,000 inmates on any given night with about a third of those dealing with mental illness.

Not only is this the largest jail in the country, by default, it's also the largest mental health institution. Most folks end up back on the street without getting any treatment and the cycle repeats.

JOSEPH (PH): The reality is if you really care about fixing them, here's what you do ...

BELL: Yes.

JOSEPH (PH): ... it's got to be six weeks, six to eight weeks. Why? It takes about six to eight - how are you doing? It takes about six to eight weeks for their medication to actually take effect and stabilize them.

BELL: And I appreciate that. I think that the thing that people who are not police officers have issues with ...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing, man.

BELL: Walking around with the mayor. Anyway, how come you cops are so unpopular. Oh, OK.

BELL(off camera): Whether perception is reality or not and I tend to think it is, Officer Joseph (ph) has very different opinions from what I've learned so far. Homelessness is a complex issue. The people living it are complex and the views of those in the fight to fix it are equally complex.

JOSEPH (PH): Right now, the narrative is, oh, everybody is in the streets of Skid Row because of high rent. That is a lie. Most people you see on the street aren't here because of a housing crisis. I've been in Skid Row since 1997 and I've been seeing some of the same faces since 1997 because of drug addiction, alcohol addiction and mental illness.

BELL: There's a lot of drug problems in that part of L.A. too, do you know what I mean?

JOSEPH (PH): Yes. I know there's probably more drugs in Beverly Hills than in Skid Row put together.

BELL: Yes.

JOSEPH (PH): The difference is mode of operation. In Beverly Hills, they keep everything on the outside.

BELL: And they also have enough money that the drug problem can't necessarily destroy their finances.

JOSEPH (PH): Yes. Yes, they have buffers. BELL: Yes.

JOSEPH (PH): Where over here, the criminal element does everything in broad daylight which draws the police, OK. That's what draws the statistics, not the race of the people draws us to the community. So it's not the skin (ph) that's the problem. So, yes, nine times of 10, the person we (inaudible) are going to mirror that community. It's not saying we're targeting black kids. Listen, disparity doesn't equal bias all of the time. It doesn't.

BELL: I can't separate the race from this stuff out here. The history of racism in America ...

JOSEPH (PH): Absolutely.

BELL: ... you can trace it from the time the slave ship landed.

JOSEPH (PH): Absolutely.

BELL: To us stayed in here right now, do you know what I mean?


BELL: And so the economic forces, the law enforcement, the institutional forces on black people in this country helps to pull us down so that we have a bad day. It just ends up being worse than a white bad day, do you know what I'm saying?

JOSEPH (PH): I know systemically racism exist. So don't believe that I don't think it exists, I've been a victim of racism and when I see a crime and I'm not saying, oh, look at all of these black people doing this and this and that. All I see is one person stabbing another.

For me, I can't live in historical context. I have to fix what's happening now.



SHIRLEY RAINES, BEAUTY 2 THE STREETZ: Thank you all so much for waiting. We got the tickets. We're going to sign you guys up for the haircuts and stuff. Do not worry, we have enough food for over 700 people, OK? Yes, sir.

BELL: Hi. How are you doing?

RAINES: Hey, how are you? I'm so sorry.

BELL: No. Don't be sorry. Don't be sorry. You got stuffs to do.

RAINES: Oh, my god, there's a lot going on.

BELL: I'm going to follow you.

RAINES: OK. BELL(off camera): This is Shirley Raines.

RAINES: You want a haircut? Come on.

BELL(off camera): And this is her creation, Beauty 2 The Streetz. While L.A.'s leaders squabble over bureaucracy, Shirley Raines and an army of her volunteers built a 100 percent free salon/chicken and waffles joy, it is L.A. after all.

RAINES: Come on, Randy (ph). Let's get your haircut.

BELL(off camera): It's an opportunity for people to get a new cut, a bite to eat and maybe equally important some TLC. Over 500 people are expected to turn out today, so needless to say, Shirley is busy.

RAINES: These are all the clipper, so that's your barber stuff.

BELL(off camera): Not too busy give out some hugs.

RAINES: Hey, mama. How are you doing, love?


BELL: And so just to be clear, this is all independent. This is all came from you.

RAINES: This is all me. I was cooking for all of these people before at my tiny home for everybody on top of doing the ...

BELL: And doing all of this.

RAINES: ... and doing all of this. All right, you all, the food is coming out now, OK. We have to open up the line, OK.

It's important to let people know they're not standing in line in vain. Like, you would never want to stand in line and you're like, I wonder if they have enough, I wonder. So I think it's important just to let them know that their time is valuable. They may be homeless, but their time is valuable.

BELL: How do you know how to do this?

RAINES: I learned. I've been out here for three years.

BELL: OK. Because I thought you're trained for this.

RAINES: No. Well, I'm a mother, I kind of train for it, right?


RAINES: I have six kids.

BELL: Making it work. Making it happen.


BELL: Oh, six kids.


BELL: This is only slightly more work than six kids.


I'm actually going to have Kamau wash you, OK? So I'm going to have Kamau wash you.

BELL: That's me, right?

RAINES: Tha's you.



RAINES: OK. We're going to go to this rinse station over here. Let me show you where you'll go.

BELL: Because you looked at me and said expert in hair, right?

RAINES: Yes. I thought Afro expert in hair.

BELL: Yes.

RAINES: You got the (inaudible) going. There you go. Lean back Ms. Darlyn (ph), stop eating.


BELL: I got it. All right.

RAINES: You're doing good.

BELL: I got three girls.

RAINES: Oh, look at you. I just - he's doing a great job, he hasn't got any water in her eye. There you go. You like that, Darlyn (ph)? Better than my hands, huh?


BELL(off camera): For many of these folks, this may be the only day of the week that they can actually seat back, close their eyes and relax. Momentarily letting go of the stress and trauma that they experienced out here every single day.

BELL: You didn't live on these streets down here.

RAINES: No, I didn't. I was fortunate enough not to live on the streets, I buried one of my children and just trying to heal from that pain for numerous years, I was just like, oh, my god, what do I do with this pain. And then I was like, you know what, I have so much pain, I can help other people with pain. So I just decided to come down here and help people.

BELL: People understand the idea of people needing food, but why do they need makeup and haircuts?

RAINES: I think it boils down to self-esteem. And hopefully they look in the mirror and they see something of value and this makes them feel better about themselves. This is not going to get them off the streets, a lot of criticism is there are more important things than makeup and hair. There probably are, but this is all I have to offer. This is what I can provide.


RAINES: I'm not sure if it's the hair, I'm not sure it's the makeup or I don't know if it's the physical touch in the conversation.

BELL: Yes.

RAINES: Who's to say what it is, but something we're doing worse.

BELL: Something is happening.


BELL: And thank you for everything you taught me today, because apparently I got skills as like a hair shampooer.

RAINES: (Inaudible) you get no water in the eyes.

BELL: Got no water in the eyes.

RAINES: You know why?

BELL: I have three daughters, so I've learned, I've trained for them.

RAINES: You're doing good. (inaudible) you have too much, because if you make a mistake that's not gonna be on me ...


RAINES: ... but I think you're doing pretty good.

BELL: Pretty good.

RAINES: You did.

BELL: I was trying to give myself an A, you said like a C.

RAINES: Well, A minus.


RAINES: You're still in the As, it's just a minus.


RAINES: But you still did good.

BELL: Thank you.

RAINES: You did real good (inaudible) I'm very proud of you, love muffin.

BELL: Thank you.

RAINES: You did so good, love muffin. I'm very proud of your hair skills. You did an amazing job. You're welcome back anytime.




RAINES: OK, baby.

BELL: Thank you.



BELL(off camera): After everything Shirley has done, her day is still not over. She has one more thing to do. She got to take care of her oldest and dearest friend down here.

RAINES: Hey, (inaudible) ...

Q (PH): Hello.

RAINES: How are you, baby?

Q (PH): (Inaudible) ...

RAINES: OK, so we got some food for you. So I want to introduce you to my friend, fist bump it out.


Q (PH): Hi. How are you doing?

BELL: Good. How are you doing?

Q (PH): I'm good.

BELL(off camera): Q (ph) has lived on the fringes of Skid Row for 22 years to do the same hateful shit that some people deal with all over this country.

BELL: I noticed that you're over here away from some of the other parts of Skid Row.

Q (PH): Yes, this zone is, to me, is much more nicer. RAINES: Safer for you.

Q (PH): It is less safer.

RAINES: Where we were in Skid Row, there's not a lot of trans or gay down there. It's very territorial and so for Q (ph) and her protection, all of the trans pretty much our gays live back here. A lot of the vets stay back here, older people who can't defend themselves.

So if you can't protect and defend yourself, you don't go to the Row, you stay back here.

BELL: Back over here.

RAINES: I started with the gay and transgender community. That's how I actually started.

Q (PH): Shirley is my best friend. She's my angel.


Q (PH): I think god points angels to each one of us in some type of way and he point Shirley.

RAINES: Oh, I love you. You know I love you.

BELL: So Shirley, make sure you take care of yourself.

Q (PH): Shirley, make sure I take care of myself. She stays on top of ...

RAINES: Like a mother.

Q (PH): Like a mother.

RAINES: She's positive. There's a lot of positive people back here and you've been positive for long Q (ph).

Q (PH): Almost 20 years.

RAINES: Twenty years.

BELL: So you were positive when you move down here?

Q (PH): Yes. I caught HIV down here.


RAINES: I always hear that HIV is - you can live with it today. Not if you're homeless, but your life is not replaceable.

Q (PH): And he knows how I love life. I love life.

BELL: You love life.

Q (PH): I love life.

BELL: I think that's probably hard for maybe people who don't live down here to understand that the people who live down here love life.

Q (PH): I love the smell of nature, first the flowers, plants, I just (inaudible) my spirit.

BELL: What do you wish people who didn't live down here, who weren't down here knew about this life?

Q (PH): This is a world too. We may not have the luxury things that they have down there, but we're human just like they are. We bleed the same blood and we love, we cry the same as you, because we're all the same. We're all the same.

RAINES: I think that people are so disconnected. They feel like this can only happen to a drug addict or an alcoholic.

THEO (PH): Most of the people actually don't have a substance abuse problem, mental health issue, but when you come down here you can get one quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This happens to battered women, this happens to our vets, this happens to single mothers, this happens to people who get laid off. At any time, this can be our story.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's about putting some light and learning how to fix the situation instead of just covering it up.

BELL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because you can cover it up, but then it builds up more of an infection and then it spreads, because you never found out the solution to actually fix your sore.

BELL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because this is a sore for America.

BELL(off camera): This is not just an L.A. story. We think of houseless people is living outside of American society.


We think of them as not our responsibility anymore. But last time I checked society extended outside of our home and into our streets. It's like General Dogan (ph) said. We are each other's keeper. But in L.A. by GDP, the third most powerful city in the world, there are definitely resources available to address this problem. We just don't got the political will for now.