The Dirty Divide in Downtown Los Angeles: A Call for Public Health Equity and Human Rights in Skid Row

As a new father, I’m dealing with a lot of crap on a daily basis, literally. When I go out, I always have to think about bringing along a diaper bag, just in case our daughter decides it’s time to go. For myself, in my house I have no worries, and when I’m out, usually there’s a relatively decent restroom in some restaurant or other facility I’ll have access to. But for many living on the streets, where they can safely and cleanly go to the bathroom is a daily concern.

Credit: KCRW

Building on a visit last year from the top UN expert on the right to water and sanitation, which focused attention on the cruel and degrading conditions faced by homeless persons without access to adequate sanitation, our partners at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) are launching their new report, The Dirty Divide, which highlights the continued lack of public health infrastructure for poor residents residing in Downtown Los Angeles, with a particular focus on trash services and restrooms.

This report shows how Los Angeles is violating not just with its own health department’s recommendations but international human rights norms. The report’s concerns about lack of trash and restroom services are connected to three key issues: 1) the public health of Skid Row residents should be protected; 2) equity in services between the “New Downtown” and Skid Row should be upheld; and 3) without access to trash cans and restrooms, Skid Row residents are at risk of criminalization under the Safer Cities Initiative which focuses on low-level offenses such as littering or public urination.

Having been part of numerous trainings with LA CAN on human rights – first as trainer, now learning from them more than I share – and having helped organize for the U.N. visit, I’m so happy to see these tools being put to use in The Dirty Divide, which utilizes a human rights framework to examine what the dire shortcomings in Skid Row mean from a rights-based lens.

In order to respond to the human rights violations outlined in this report and begin to ensure public health equity, The Dirty Divide’s recommendations include:  1) Shift current political and governmental priorities and resources from criminalization to housing; 2) Place adequate numbers of trash receptacles in Skid Row and establish frequent trash collection; 3) Increase access to restrooms; and 4) Develop a community health council to address issues for the long-term.

Last year California led the country in adopting a law declaring that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. This year, California is considering AB5, a Homeless Bill of Rights. L.A. should step up and start leading on these issues, rather than avoiding necessary improvements for the most vulnerable living on the streets in Skid Row.

We at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty are proud to support LA CAN in this call for L.A. to live up to its human rights obligations, stop treating its citizens like trash, and start treating them like human beings deserving of their basic human dignity. I don’t want my daughter growing up in an America that can’t provide that minimum to its most vulnerable citizens.

-Eric Tars

Director of Human Rights and Children’s Rights Programs

Credit: KCRW

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