Documentary filmmaker Paul Freedman has produced and directed over a dozen films on global human-rights abuses in Darfur, Eastern Congo, Rwanda, and elsewhere. In The Dirty Divide, he turns his camera on what former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called “the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our time”: houselessness. L.A.’s Main Street, the “dirty divide,” separates the increasingly gentrified section of downtown—land of lattes and lofts—from the fifty-two square blocks that have become home to between approximately thirteen and fifteen thousand unhoused Angelinos. The Dirty Divide is a stunning indictment of Los Angeles’s local government for its ineffectiveness as well as its corruption. In 2016, our city’s residents voted overwhelmingly in support of $1.2 billion in bonds for permanent housing, with a promise of over ten thousand units of permanent housing for the houseless. A few years later, the government’s target fell to six thousand units, and by 2019, an audit was conducted, the FBI had investigated, one council member was indicted, and only sixty units had been built—with studio apartments costing an estimated $700,000 each. During Garcetti’s nine years in office (2013–2022), the city’s unhoused population soared by 50 percent. La La Land is in crisis.
A United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights toured L.A.’s Skid Row in December 2017, and his subsequent report condemned the United States for being alone among big industrial nations in consistently refusing to recognize access to housing and sanitation as essential human rights. (There are nine public toilets on Skid Row, which means that—when they work—there’s approximately one toilet for every 1,444 people.)
The Dirty Divide catalogs the neglect, contempt for, and vicious abuse of Skid Row residents, both past and present. It presents portraits of about a dozen of its residents and highlights the work of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), which advocates for fair housing and employment and fights against police brutality. Freedman holds up LACAN as a model of engagement with the dispossessed, one that allows the creativity and courage of the unhoused to flourish. Those unfamiliar with the area may be bowled over by the film’s footage: sidewalks thick with tents and cardboard dwellings, shelters whose inhabitants regularly move in an unsuccessful attempt to outrun a rat infestation; the absence of privacy in which to eat, shit, shower, shave; dining-room tables, beds, and barbeques fighting for room on block after block.
Small and large acts of domesticity reveal residents’ yearning for homeyness: Stephanie, a victim of police brutality (cops broke her legs, precipitating a downward spiral) sweeps and mops the sidewalk and street in front of her tent, which has been tagged with righteous rage and pleas for compassion: “Watch Cops”; “Join the Fight”; “Help My People.” Or she lounges on her couch against a throw blanket and sham or sits at her portable sewing machine mending her neighbors’ clothes. No longer ashamed as she once was to live on the street, she strives to make house, now and then taking plunges into her sidewalk blow-up pool to beat the heat. Among The Dirty Divide’s finest accomplishments is its depiction of both the beauty and the hell of Skid Row, where arson, beatings, robberies, and rapes are common fare, and where friendships flourish and children are raised. Twenty percent of the population are veterans, and, although African Americans make up only about 8 percent of L.A.’s population, about 40 percent of those on Skid Row are black. The Dirty Divide documents and decries the war against poor people and African Americans in one of America’s richest and most supposedly liberal cities.
The film aims to disabuse the viewer of the tired belief that the majority of its residents landed on Skid Row through alcoholism or drug abuse, or that the houseless are opportunistic sunseekers mooching on longtime locals. As Pete White, executive director of LACAN—who is something like the film’s lodestar—puts it, the Skid Row population is in recovery, largely from economic devastation. California has the least affordable housing in America, and Los Angeles is second to San Diego as the least affordable housing market in the Golden State. Our Skid Row, like others across the country, is a direct consequence of economic policy choices, the criminalization of the poor, the war on drugs, and other manifestations of structural racism and hatred of poor people.
Freedman tells us that what he witnesses in LA’s Skid Row is commensurate with what he has seen “in some of the most grim and desperate places on the planet,” and he includes visuals from his earlier documentaries for comparison. He emphasizes the extreme violence of Skid Row: private security contracted by surrounding Business Improvement Districts and the local government’s Safer Cities Initiative regularly harm residents. The documentary shows security forces and police dragging people out of their makeshift homes, tossing out their food and possessions, beating them with feet and fists, and threatening them with guns. In recent years, they issued some thirty-six thousand citations for sleeping, lying down, and sitting on the sidewalk. There were twenty-seven thousand arrests of those who could not pay their fines. In March 2015, cops shot dead “Africa” Keunang as they held him to the ground. In response, LACAN set up a “cop watch” to protect residents in what has been called the densest militarization anywhere in the world outside of the Baghdad Green Zone.
Thirty-year skid row resident Anne Moody was arrested about 108 times for the crime of living in a sidewalk tent. When released, she always returns to her street corner, and she considers these repeated homecomings acts of political defiance: “I knew the bigger picture,” Moody tells General Dogan, a Skid Row resident who serves as one of Freedman’s guides. The criminalization of the poor is an attempt to disappear them, and Moody refuses to disappear. Indeed, it would benefit some if she did; bounded on the west by the financial district and on east by the Arts District, there are fortunes to be made in this part of town.
But daily life on Skid Row is more than this misery. The Dirty Divide documents acts of neighborliness among its residents, and we get a glimpse of its bustling entrepreneurship. Terry the Cakeman lived in Skid Row for seven years and now makes a buck hawking cookies and cake from an upright shopping cart; Charlene shares recipes on camera and guarantees that her portable stovetop’s flavor-popping meals will make her customers “fat and full.” Her desire and determination are fierce: “I’m going to have a house for my children, where they never have to be homeless again.” The documentary highlights the plight and power of women, focusing on the economic realities that got them to Skid Row, the harsh punishments they endure on its streets, and their astonishing resistance. The film is punctuated by bursts of joy: LACAN provides space and equipment to create and record music, and The Dirty Divide spotlights the vocal talent and musicianship among the dispossessed. Darrell Fields, who made it in L.A. as the guitarist for rock group Purple Haze Experience, and Janice, a singer and songwriter, find a musical community that includes amateur and professional composers, performers, and producers. The Dirty Divide’s wordless refrain is the love of neighbor expressed through solidarity—struggling and celebrating arm-in-arm. Love abounds in Freedman’s confidence in the worth and (largely) unrecognized capabilities of L.A.’s thousands of discarded houseless. The film has the feel of prayer.
The film’s origin story is also part of its message. Freedman explains that after years of documenting human-rights abuses in distant lands, his shell of indifference to his neighbors’ suffering was cracked when tents started popping up in his own neighborhood. The result is a film that not only seeks to raise the consciousness of viewers but to speed them into immediate action.
Freedman layers his film with a grim local tale of political corruption and indifference. He recounts a shell game in which bond money allotted for permanent housing was funneled into shelters, which were then vigorously opposed by angry (housed) Los Angeles. But the film offers no simple accounting of our hatred of the houseless or the economic cruelty that has been decades in the making and, with 1.4 million Angelinos living in poverty as housing costs continue to soar, shows no signs of abating. Those of us who have become accustomed to railing against Republican-driven cuts to social services or caterwauling about inter-party gridlock will find little comfort in The Dirty Divide: racism, criminalization of the poor, and houselessness take place in a city and state that are overwhelmingly Democratic. And, however much Freedman has chronicled the courage, fellow-feeling, community, and creativity abounding on Skid Row, the pain of the place is piercing and unremitting.
But The Dirty Divide offers us hope in a surprising way: by making a bold claim on the viewer to recognize the unhoused as her neighbor. Charlene, Stephanie, Pete, and even the filmmaker himself are models for this personal transformation. Such a transformation requires a willingness to act together, housed and unhoused, rejoicing and mourning together, singing together, protesting and advocating side-by-side. As one resident points out, “If Christ Jesus was here on this earth in the flesh, he’d be on Skid Row.”