From the Front Lines: South Los Angeles, California

Conceived and supported by The Kresge Foundation and launched in 2009 to address health issues that deriving from in-home environmental hazards, the Advancing Safe and Healthy Homes Initiative (ASHHI) was a national program that grew from a Kresge Health Program initiative to reduce childhood lead poisoning into a comprehensive effort to address home dangers such as asthma-triggering allergens, fire hazards, substandard insulation, and weatherization; repair problems, like broken steps and railings; and neighborhood nuisances, like abandoned buildings that invite crime. The six ASHHI community sites focused their efforts on local housing units in which they intended to reduce childhood lead poisoning, asthma-related medical events, and home safety hazards through policy making, advocacy/community organizing, and legal enforcement.

The Regent Hotel

The Regent Hotel is a slum building comprised of 200 units that provide a window into the association between multiple health and slum housing conditions in a single building, as well as the oppressive tactics that slumlords employ, such as illegal evictions and lockouts, that produce a constant atmosphere of stress.

Through the years, residents in the complex have faced rat and cockroach infestations, mold and mildew, missing screens and windows, peeling and chipping paint, nonworking elevators, inadequate heat and hot water, and ongoing construction work with few protections for tenants from the hazards of disturbed lead paint or construction debris. Associated sicknesses include asthma, mental illness, including depression, rashes, rat bites, Staph infections, respiratory problems, colds and coughs, throat and ear infections, and eye irritations and infections.

Fortunately, the hotel is currently being rehabilitated as a requirement of the City of Los AngelesRent Escrow Account Program (REAP), and a majority of the illegal lockouts were overturned through the intervention of the City’s housing department or the Los Angeles Police Department.

Although the Regent’s residents are receiving some relief, many other slum hotels continue to traumatize residents with inhumane living conditions, leaving much more work to be done.

The Smith Hotel: A Tale of Two Tenants

Joe Miller, 28, an African-American paraplegic, lived in the Smith Hotel for eight years. During the course of his residency, he lost his left leg to an infection, which he attributes to the unhealthy conditions of his building. During the last three years of residency, his private bathroom was out of order despite his continued complaints and requests for repairs. In addition, the shared bathroom down the hall had a raised entryway, preventing wheelchair access, so that in order to use the bathroom, Mr. Miller either needed to crawl in or use diapers and then clean himself afterwards. Without running water, Mr. Miller would wake up in the middle of the night to find cockroaches crawling and nibbling on his legs and groin area. The elevator in the Smith Hotel was frequently out of order or intentionally shut down by the building’s thug-style managers in retaliation for housing complaints. As a result, Mr. Miller was literally trapped in his room for days at a time.

The Smith Hotel had every other slum housing condition that could possibly exacerbate an infection: leaking pipes, mold, mildew, roaches, and vermin, not to mention chipping and peeling paint containing lead dust.

Mr. Miller’s neighbors, Maria Gonzalez and her two sons, lived in the Smith Hotel for two years without heat or hot water. Twice, a broken sink on the floor above leaked raw sewage for several days, ruining their belongings. “I would have to leave the apartment to eat somewhere else because of the stench,” said Gonzalez, a downtown garment worker. “And I had to sleep somewhere else because the carpeting stank.” Her sons suffer from asthma, and all three of them had fungus growing on their feet and on their scalps.

With the help of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center and other community organizations, the building owners were convicted of 21 criminal counts and tenants who had not been illegally evicted, like Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Miller, won monetary damages. Ms. Gonzalez was able to use her settlement to start her own seamstress business and move into a better and safer apartment with her sons. For Mr. Miller, the cost of slum housing was the loss of his leg, the loss of his dignity, and, despite recovering damages in the lawsuit settlement, ultimately, the loss of his home. He is currently homeless.

The owner of the building, while convicted as a criminal slumlord, never fixed Mr. Miller’s bathroom nor repaired the building and is still trying to benefit financially by selling the property.

South L.A. Clinic Takes Medicine to the Streets

Health is on the move in South Central – quite literally. In 2012, St. John’s Well Child and Family Center launched a mobile medical unit that began serving the Southside and downtown Los Angeles with outreach, insurance enrollment, health education, and medical services. The unit offers its services at different locations throughout South L.A., including Homeboy Industries, a Chinatown-based organization that provides services to former gang members and the recently incarcerated.

There, the unit serves Homeboy’s employees and clients like 43-year-old Boris Jimenez, who works in the company’s merchandise department and is five months out of prison – and uninsured. “I want to see where I stand on my health,” Jimenez said, who added that this was the first time he’s had an opportunity to get checked out by a health provider since being released. He said he was there to get medication for his high blood pressure. “It’s an opportunity for a lot of us that don’t have insurance,” Jimenez said. “It’s quite a blessing.”

Jimenez is just one of thousands of South L.A. residents and workers who have been helped since the mobile unit began serving the area. Many more will be assisted in the future.

Remote Patient-Doctor Interactions in the Heart of South L.A.

Ivory Corothers is a diabetic patient who gets retinal scans taken at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles and has them evaluated by a specialist in northern California who determines whether he will need further treatment.

Decades ago, doctors needed a way to bring medical care to folks who lived in isolated rural communities, miles away from the nearest doctor. Thus telemedicine was born: a way for patient information to be relayed electronically to doctors, so that they don’t have to meet face to face. Neither the technology nor the idea is anything new, but where it’s being used is. Telemedicine is seeing a rapid growth within urban communities like South Los Angeles, where medical facilities and personnel are scarce. Since there aren’t enough specialists who are willing to come to South Los Angeles to provide for the needs of the community, telemedicine is an effective way for residents like Corothers to receive evaluations that otherwise may not be available.

Telemedicine has skyrocketed in popularity. In 2005, around one million patients nationwide had used telemedicine. Today, that number is up to 10 million – and within the next two years that number is expected to double, providing medical attention to many more South Los Angeles residents and others who live in inner cities across the country.

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) recently developed and launched the Tenants in Action (TIA) mobile device application that facilitates the submission of housing violation complaints by tenants and housing rights advocates. Complaints filed with the mobile phone application are submitted directly to the Los Angeles housing department using conversational language, in English or Spanish. This alone provides an added accessibility advantage, as the L.A. housing department computer-based complaint system is only in English. TIA is a collaboration between various South L.A. community members, SAJE, and the USC Cinematic Arts. In addition, the application will be able to collect data  because TIA sends a copy of the complaint directly to SAJE. Because of this work, the ability to file habitability complaints is now easily accessible through a smartphone to all residents of the city of Los Angeles.