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A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America

The UNs Philip Alston is an expert on deprivation and he wants to know why 41m Americans are living in poverty. The Guardian joined him on a special two-week mission into the dark heart of the worlds richest nation

Los Angeles, California, 5 December

You got a choice to make, man. You could go straight on to heaven. Or you could turn right, into that.

We are in Los Angeles, in the heart of one of Americas wealthiest cities, and General Dogon, dressed in black, is our tour guide. Alongside him strolls another tall man, grey-haired and sprucely decked out in jeans and suit jacket. Professor Philip Alston is an Australian academic with a formal title: UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

General Dogon, himself a veteran of these Skid Row streets, strides along, stepping over a dead rat without comment and skirting round a body wrapped in a worn orange blanket lying on the sidewalk.

The two men carry on for block after block after block of tatty tents and improvised tarpaulin shelters. Men and women are gathered outside the structures, squatting or sleeping, some in groups, most alone like extras in a low-budget dystopian movie.

We come to an intersection, which is when General Dogon stops and presents his guest with the choice. He points straight ahead to the end of the street, where the glistening skyscrapers of downtown LA rise up in a promise of divine riches.

Heaven.

Then he turns to the right, revealing the black power tattoo on his neck, and leads our gaze back into Skid Row bang in the center of LAs downtown. That way lies 50 blocks of concentrated human humiliation. A nightmare in plain view, in the city of dreams.

Alston turns right.

Philip
Philip Alston in downtown LA. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

So begins a two-week journey into the dark side of the American Dream. The spotlight of the UN monitor, an independent arbiter of human rights standards across the globe, has fallen on this occasion on the US, culminating on Friday with the release of his initial report in Washington.

His fact-finding mission into the richest nation the world has ever known has led him to investigate the tragedy at its core: the 41 million people who officially live in poverty.

Of those, nine million have zero cash income they do not receive a cent in sustenance.

Alstons epic journey has taken him from coast to coast, deprivation to deprivation. Starting in LA and San Francisco, sweeping through the Deep South, traveling on to the colonial stain of Puerto Rico then back to the stricken coal country of West Virginia, he has explored the collateral damage of Americas reliance on private enterprise to the exclusion of public help.

The Guardian had unprecedented access to the UN envoy, following him as he crossed the country, attending all his main stops and witnessing the extreme poverty he is investigating firsthand.

Think of it as payback time. As the UN special rapporteur himself put it: Washington is very keen for me to point out the poverty and human rights failings in other countries. This time Im in the US.

David
David Busch, who is currently homeless on Venice beach, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian


The tour comes at a critical moment for America and the world. It began on the day that Republicans in the US Senate voted for sweeping tax cuts that will deliver a bonanza for the super wealthy while in time raising taxes on many lower-income families. The changes will exacerbate wealth inequality that is already the most extreme in any industrialized nation, with three men Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet owning as much as half of the entire American people.

A few days into the UN visit, Republican leaders took a giant leap further. They announced plans to slash key social programs in what amounts to an assault on the already threadbare welfare state.

Look up! Look at those banks, the cranes, the luxury condos going up, exclaimed General Dogon, who used to be homeless on Skid Row and now works as a local activist with Lacan. Down here, theres nothing. You see the tents back to back, theres no place for folks to go.

California made a suitable starting point for the UN visit. It epitomizes both the vast wealth generated in the tech boom for the 0.001%, and the resulting surge in housing costs that has sent homelessness soaring. Los Angeles, the city with by far the largest population of street dwellers in the country, is grappling with crisis numbers that increased 25% this past year to 55,000.

Ressy Finley, 41, was busy sterilizing the white bucket she uses to slop out in her tent in which she has lived on and off for more than a decade. She keeps her living area, a mass of worn mattresses and blankets and a few motley possessions, as clean as she can in a losing battle against rats and cockroaches. She also endures waves of bed bugs, and has large welts on her shoulder to prove it.

She receives no formal income, and what she makes on recycling bottles and cans is no way enough to afford the average rents of $1,400 a month for a tiny one-bedroom. A friend brings her food every couple of days, the rest of the time she relies on nearby missions.

She cried twice in the course of our short conversation, once when she recalled how her infant son was taken from her arms by social workers because of her drug habit (he is now 14; she has never seen him again). The second time was when she alluded to the sexual abuse that set her as a child on the path towards drugs and homelessness.

Given all that, its remarkable how positive Finley remains. What does she think of the American Dream, the idea that everyone can make it if they try hard enough? She replies instantly: I know Im going to make it.

A 41-year-old woman living on the sidewalk in Skid Row going to make it?

Sure I will, so long as I keep the faith.

What does making it mean to her?

I want to be a writer, a poet, an entrepreneur, a therapist.

Ressy
Ressy Finley, who lives in a tent on 6th Street in Downtown LA. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Robert Chambers occupies the next patch of sidewalk along from Finleys. Hes created an area around his tent out of wooden pallets, what passes in Skid Row for a cottage garden.

He has a sign up saying Homeless Writers Coalition, the name of a group he runs to give homeless people dignity against what he calls the animalistic aspects of their lives. Hes referring not least to the lack of public bathrooms that forces people to relieve themselves on the streets.

LA authorities have promised to provide more access to toilets, a critical issue given the deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A that began in San Diego and is spreading on the west coast claiming 21 lives mainly through lack of sanitation in homeless encampments. At night local parks and amenities are closed specifically to keep homeless people out.

Skid Row has had the use of nine toilets at night for 1,800 street-faring people. Thats a ratio well below that mandated by the UN in its camps for Syrian refugees.

Its inhuman actually, and eventually in the end you will acquire animalistic psychology, Chambers said.

He has been living on the streets for almost a year, having violated his parole terms for drug possession and in turn being turfed out of his low-cost apartment. Theres no help for him now, he said, no question of making it.

The safety net? It has too many holes in it for me.

Of all the people who crossed paths with the UN monitor, Chambers was the most dismissive of the American Dream. People dont realize its never getting better, theres no recovery for people like us. Im 67, I have a heart condition, I shouldnt be out here. I might not be too much longer.

That was a lot of bad karma to absorb on day one, and it rattled even as seasoned a student of hardship as Alston. As UN special rapporteur, hes reported on dire poverty and its impact on human rights in Saudi Arabia and China among other places. But Skid Row?

I was feeling pretty depressed, he told the Guardian later. The endless drumbeat of horror stories. At a certain point you do wonder what can anyone do about this, let alone me.

And then he took a flight up to San Francisco, to the Tenderloin district where homeless people congregate, and walked into St Boniface church.

What he saw there was an analgesic for his soul.

San Francisco, California, 6 December

The
The Gubbio project at St Boniface in San Francisco. The church opens its doors every weekday at 6am to allow homeless people to rest until 3pm. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian


About 70 homeless people were quietly sleeping in pews at the back of the church, as they are allowed to do every weekday morning, with worshippers praying harmoniously in front of them. The church welcomes them in as part of the Catholic concept of extending the helping hand.

I found the church surprisingly uplifting, Alston said. It was such a simple scene and such an obvious idea. It struck me Christianity, what the hell is it about if its not this?

It was a rare drop of altruism on the west coast, competing against a sea of hostility. More than 500 anti-homeless laws have been passed in Californian cities in recent years. At a federal level, Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who Donald Trump appointed US housing secretary, is decimating government spending on affordable housing.

Perhaps the most telling detail: apart from St Boniface and its sister church, no other place of worship in San Francisco welcomes homeless people. In fact, many have begun, even at this season of goodwill, to lock their doors to all comers simply so as to exclude homeless people.

As Tiny Gray-Garcia, herself on the streets, described it to Alston, there is a prevailing attitude that she and her peers have to contend with every day. She called it the violence of looking away.

Coy
Coy Catley, 63, in her homeless box made of cardboard sheets on a sidewalk of Tenderloin, San Francisco. Photograph: Ed Pilkington for the Guardian


That cruel streak the violence of looking away has been a feature of American life since the nations founding. The casting off the yoke of overweening government (the British monarchy) came to be equated in the minds of many Americans with states rights and the individualistic idea of making it on your own a view that is fine for those fortunate enough to do so, less happy if youre born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Countering that has been the conviction that society must protect its own against the vagaries of hunger or unemployment that informed Franklin Roosevelts New Deal and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. But in recent times the prevailing winds have blown strongly in the youre on your own, buddy direction. Ronald Reagan set the trend with his 1980s tax cuts, followed by Bill Clinton, whose 1996 decision to scrap welfare payments for low-income families is still punishing millions of Americans.

The cumulative attack has left struggling families, including the 15 million children who are officially in poverty, with dramatically less support than in any other industrialized economy. Now they face perhaps the greatest threat of all.

As Alston himself has written in an essay on Trumps populism and the aggressive challenge it poses to human rights: These are extraordinarily dangerous times. Almost anything seems possible.

Lowndes County, Alabama, 9 December

Aaron
Aaron Thigpen discusses the poor sewage conditions in Butler County. Improper treatment has put the population at risk of diseases long believed to be extinct in the US. Photograph: Bob Miller for the Guardian


Trumps undermining of human rights, combined with the Republican threat to pare back welfare programs next year in order to pay for some of the tax cuts for the rich they are rushing through Congress, will hurt African Americans disproportionately.

Black people are 13% of the US population, but 23% of those officially in poverty and 39% of the homeless.

The racial element of Americas poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the Black Belt, the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.

The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.

You can trace the history of Americas shame, from slave times to the present day, in a set of simple graphs. The first shows the cotton-friendly soil of the Black Belt, then the slave population, followed by modern black residence and todays extreme poverty they all occupy the exact same half-moon across Alabama.

There are numerous ways you could parse the present parlous state of Alabamas black community. Perhaps the starkest is the fact that in the Black Belt so many families still have no access to sanitation. Thousands of people continue to live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world.

The crisis was revealed by the Guardian earlier this year to have led to an ongoing endemic of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that is transmitted through human waste. It is found in Africa and South Asia, but had been assumed eradicated in the US years ago.

Yet here the worm still is, sucking the blood of poor people, in the home state of Trumps US attorney general Jeff Sessions.

A disease of the developing world thriving in the worlds richest country.

The open sewerage problem is especially acute in Lowndes County, a majority black community that was an epicenter of the civil rights movement having been the setting of Martin Luther Kings Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.

Philp
Philp Alston talks to a resident. Many families in Butler and Lowndes counties choose to live with open sewer systems made from PVC pipe. Photograph: Bob Miller for the Guardian

Despite its proud history, Catherine Flowers estimates that 70% of households in the area either straight pipe their waste directly onto open ground, or have defective septic tanks incapable of dealing with heavy rains.

When her group, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (Acre), pressed local authorities to do something about it, officials invested $6m in extending waste treatment systems to primarily white-owned businesses while bypassing overwhelmingly black households.

Thats a glaring example of injustice, Flowers said. People who cannot afford their own systems are left to their own devices while businesses who do have the money are given public services.

Walter, a Lowndes County resident who asked not to give his last name for fear that his water supply would be cut off as a reprisal for speaking out, lives with the daily consequences of such public neglect. You get a good hard rain and it backs up into the house.

Thats a polite way of saying that sewage gurgles up into his kitchen sink, hand basin and bath, filling the house with a sickly-sweet stench.

Given these circumstances, what does he think of the ideology that anyone can make it if they try?

I suppose they could if they had the chance, Walter said. He paused, then added: Folks arent given the chance.

Had he been born white, would his sewerage problems have been fixed by now?

After another pause, he said: Not being racist, but yeah, they would.

Round the back of Walters house the true iniquity of the situation reveals itself. The yard is laced with small channels running from neighboring houses along which dark liquid flows. It congregates in viscous pools directly underneath the mobile home in which Walters son, daughter-in-law and 16-year-old granddaughter live.

It is the ultimate image of the lot of Alabamas impoverished rural black community. As American citizens they are as fully entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Its just that they are surrounded by pools of excrement.

This week, the Black Belt bit back. On Tuesday a new line was added to that simple graphic, showing exactly the same half-moon across Alabama except this time it was not black but blue.

blue belt south

It depicted the army of African American voters who turned out against the odds to send Doug Jones to the US Senate, the first Democrat from Alabama to do so in a generation. It delivered a bloody nose to his opponent, the alleged child molester Roy Moore, and his puppetmasters Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.

It was arguably the most important expression of black political muscle in the region since Kings 1965 march. If the previous entries in the graphic could be labeled soil, slavery and poverty, this one should be captioned empowerment.

Guayama, Puerto Rico, 10 December

So how does Alston view the role of UN rapporteur and his visit? His full report on the US will be released next May before being presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva.

Nobody expects much to come of that: the world body has no teeth with which to enforce good behavior on recalcitrant governments. But Alston hopes that his visit will have an impact by shaming the US into reflecting on its values.

My role is to hold governments to account, he said. If the US administration doesnt want to talk about the right to housing, healthcare or food, then there are still basic human rights standards that have to be met. Its my job to point that out.

Alstons previous investigations into extreme poverty in places like Mauritania pulled no punches. We can expect the same tough love when it comes to his analysis of Puerto Rico, the next stop on his journey into Americas dark side.

Three months after Maria, the devastation wrought by the hurricane has been well documented. It tore 70,000 homes to shreds, brought industry to a standstill and caused a total blackout of the island that continues to cause havoc.

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