When I saw that artist Barry Boen was using Airbnb to rent out a tent in LA's homeless-dominated Skid Row district for $10 a night, I knew it was a stunt. I just wanted to know what kind.
The listing promised guests their own "private tent near the corner of Sixth and San Pedro," which would "give you the experience of what life is like living on Skid Row." Check-in time was 5 PM; checkout was promptly at 8 AM, when you'd have to dismantle your tent, per city regulations. The listing also mentioned a "concierge" named Dice, who would be there "to help you settle into to this new way of living and be able to answer any questions you may have."
It seemed like a dick thing to do. Skid Row has the largest concentration of mentally ill and homeless people in America, and it can resemble Third World–esque refugee camp 1.5 miles from where the Lakers play. Boen's listing took poverty tourism to its logical extreme: Spend a night in Skid Row and sleep on the ground with real-life junkies! Eat the authentic garbage food! But when I met with Boen to see the tent for myself, he didn't think of it in that way at all.
Boen, who is 37 years old, lives with his girlfriend, Brittney, and an aging greyhound in a tall apartment building in the heart of Skid Row. The area in the Airbnb listing, around the corner at Sixth and San Pedro, is bustling on account of the neighboring Midnight Mission, one of three in the immediate area. When I met Boen and Brittney at the tent site, a woman behind me began puking more than seemed humanly possible.
After a good minute she was empty, and walked off, smiling dreamily. "There's a lot of vomiting here," Boen explained. "If there's good drugs there's vomiting; if there's no drugs there's vomiting."
We turned down San Julian Street, where drug use is a little more tolerated than it is elsewhere. The neighborhood is still in flux, with people seemingly settling back into their digs. "They just bleached the streets," Boen told me.
He was referring to Operation Healthy Streets: Four times a year, the city gets everyone to temporarily pack up their belongings so they can give the sidewalks a hosing down. In Skid Row, it's a constant battle against the trash and bodily fluids. "There's one public bathroom on San Pedro, but there need to be more," Brittney said.
I asked Boen about the Airbnb listing. Was he trying to make light of the squalor here?
"I don't think this is a joke," he said defensively. "I live right here"—albeit not on the literal street.
The Airbnb listing came about after Boen noticed that a homeless man who lived on the street near him, 20-year Skid Row resident Dice, was advertising tent rentals on a chalkboard for $10 a night. Boen partnered up with Dice and offered to put the scheme online.
Dice is, of course, the aforementioned "concierge." He also acts as security (he sleeps in the next tent), and his wife is the cook. Dice is also there to make sure guests have their tents promptly dismantled by 8 AM, which is a city requirement.
He's adamant that guests eat his Southern cooking, because "the Mission's food is terrible." As for security, he said San Pedro Street is safe because drug use is kept to the adjacent blocks, "and I know when something is jumping off." He splits the $10-a-night fee with Boen.
Although Boen's had seven or eight people book the tent since he put up the listing in November, nearly all of them have backed out, some at the moment they saw the tent. So far only one woman, a sociology student, actually stuck it out for the night.
When I asked Boen and Dice to name the biggest issue on Skid Row, it wasn't lack of food or services or blankets or safety or even access to drugs or drug treatment. It was housing.
The shuttering of many mental health institutions in the 80s created "an open asylum for the mentally ill" in Skid Row, as Lamp Community outreach founder Mollie Lowery pointed out in the documentary Lost Angels. But the area's problems stretch back farther than that—Skid Row has a 100-year history of being LA's home base for low-income and transient populations on account of its proximity to factories and Union Station. Residents used to rely on cheap single-unit housing in the neighborhood, but during LA's downtown revitalization have been put on the streets as more and more of that potential housing is either left undeveloped or converted to lofts like the one Boen lives in.
Boen wants people to view the tent-rental project as a comment on gentrification and not a gross form of poverty tourism. At least he's publicizing the issue instead of quietly squeezing out the locals, as the city and county have by acquiescing to real estate developers. In 1985 Skid Row had approximately 6,000 units of low-income housing; now that number is around 3,400, according to a 2014 LA Weekly story.
When we'd finished touring the street, Boen took me upstairs to his loft, six stories above the Skid Row tents. The space was clean and industrial and bleak, save for his art decorating the walls. We talked about the people below, and they told me that except for the "interesting nudity," Skid Row's residents aren't confrontational or violent. If people could get past their own deep aversion to the area, they could see it safely for themselves, they told me.
I asked to go back down to the street to see the Airbnb tent, which Dice had been keeping inside his own tent. When we got there, Dice was gone—his gift-shop table overturned, the food splattered, and his belongings strewn out onto Sixth Street. Dice's wife was crying. They'd had a fight, things had gone wrong. The police were there. That night when I got home, I saw the listing for the tent was gone.
Before I left, I brought up how easy it was to view this sort of stunt as a crass form of slumming. Boen understood, and said he'd been inundated with messages accusing him of that sort of thing since he had put up the listing.
"Getting people to talk about it is all I'm shooting for," Boen said. "Skid Row's not as scary as it is sad."
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