In early December, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston landed in Los Angeles, the first stop on 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 decided to get a head start on his mission. One of the first things he learned was that homeless people in the area don’t have access to 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.”
He also reported on the extraordinary efforts 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 that it is still important to ensure that the wealthiest country in the world is fulfilling its human rights obligations.
“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.”
Alston was shocked by the things he saw.
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 shelters.
In Skid Row alone, which is comprised of about 50 square blocks near downtown LA, 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 LA would describe how much they were doing and grand plans they have for the years ahead, according to Alston. But when asked if their efforts would provide reasonable housing for all of the homeless, 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. “If it’s only people who are living in poverty then they’ve made their own bed, let them lie in it ... It’s a shame.”
In Washington, D.C., 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 mantra for fighting poverty is moving 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 added that he 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.”
He said that along with members of the Trump administration, he also encountered many state governments and politicians who believe deeply that people needing government assistance to survive is an aberrational situation and that many people receiving 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 deicide to address it and eliminate it, or can decide that they don’t give a damn.”
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