The City. The Home of the Homeless

Posted: May 4, 2011 by aguilford in David Harvey

By: Aaron Guilford

In the city of Los Angeles we find that there is a system of divisions by classes which stipulates where we may live. The rich or “upper class” sometimes live in suburbs outside of the city while others have beautiful homes in the city in the more maintained areas. On the other extreme are the city’s homeless, who experience a very different living situation. While there is no physical wall confining them to any one area, there is an area where they are known to primarily inhabit and that is called Skid Row. In this area, the homeless are able to find food and occasional places to sleep and can sometimes avoid being harassed by police.

David Harvey wrote about these class divisions in his essay, “The Right To The City” in which he explained that with money comes power and with power comes the right to physical space. As people with financial power continue to own and control the more desirable areas, they prefer to keep the less desirable homeless people out of these spaces.  The solution was to set aside an area for the homeless which is defined by Third and Seventh Streets to the north

and south and Alameda and Main Streets to the east and west.  In this space, the homeless people do not own any particular piece of property but they are given an area that they can call their own.  Though this space is now referred to as Skid Row with an understanding of a place meant for the homeless, it was once a part of the city just like any other.  It was a place where seasonal migrant workers would spend their time and money.  Over time work became scarce and it became an area for cheap housing, prostitution and drug use. Over time this area took on the name Skid Row because of the skids of lumber that used to come down the streets, but most importantly the city proclaimed it as a space where the homeless were free to stay.

Though Skid Row’s homeless are not imprisoned in this area, we can look at where else they can go. They can physically walk anywhere they want and find themselves in places like Glendale or Burbank, but in these areas homeless are seen as eyesores and are told to keep moving or they are escorted to Skid Row by the police. What we find in this scenario is that the people’s right to an area is dependent on one’s spending power. Whether it’s buying goods or owning property, it is this financial power that enables you with the right to be there. Since the city officials know of this fairly large group of homeless, they set aside this area so that they most likely will stay here and not bother those that do spend money.

Harvey explains this power in the context of “surplus”. Surplus is anything above and beyond what it takes to survive, otherwise known as profit. The people of this city that have money to spend put it into the system in terms of goods and labor at businesses. Through this surplus in labor, workers receive wages and in return gain rights to be in the areas that they choose because they themselves have power in their spending capabilities. What Harvey points out in his critique of surplus value and gentrification, however, is that people with a lot of spending power may choose to benefit from the potential surplus value of the property in which “lower income” or even homeless people live. This area is generally less desirable, and thus property values are depressed. As investors purchase and redevelop that properly, it gains surplus profit therefore providing them with more money and power. In turn, lower income people that originally inhabited this area have less economic power, and thus are often forced out or can no longer afford to occupy the area where they once lived.

This is the case that I found at the north corner of Skid Row on 3rd and Main St. This area likely had low property values and was purchased by a developer in the past few years.  The buildings were then demolished, flattened, and turned into a large paid parking lot and a new mixed use upper class residential building. Although this area was recently inhabited by the homeless, the people with financial power were able to take away the rights of the homeless and push them out. Being that the homeless are displaced from an area in which they were welcome to stay for many years, we see that they really find themselves with no real right to the city in the eyes of the people with surplus control.


Harvey, David. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review Sept (2008): 23-40.

“History of Downtown Los Angeles “Skid Row”” Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Web.



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