The unaddressed issues of the Elisa Lam case

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a street view of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles wikipedia commons

History will repeat itself if we don’t address glaring problems now

The Elisa Lam case has fascinated me for years. Ever since I first watched that grainy elevator footage years ago, I was entranced by what could have potentially happened to the young Canadian tourist, found dead in a hotel water tank in downtown Los Angeles.

People close to me know that I adore true crime documentaries. For me, the fascination derives from both wanting to understand how tragedies occur, and in analyzing and hypothesizing what we can do to prevent them from occurring again in the future. With this in mind, me and my roommates sat down to watch The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

A brief summary for those who don’t know: Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian student who went missing during a trip she had taken to Los Angeles. The last footage seen of her was grainy elevator surveillance footage taken from the hotel she was staying in – the infamous Cecil Hotel. Lam was reported missing for 17 days before her body was discovered in one of the water tanks on the hotel’s roof; the same tanks that supply drinking and showering water to the entire hotel.

Elisa Lam was an explorer. She was a lover of literature, including Harry Potter and the Great Gatsby, she loved photography, and was a frequent poster on her Tumblr blog under the username nouvelle-nouveau. Her blog is still up to this day. However, what her social media presence highlighted the most was both her adoration for travel, and her struggles with mental health issues.

Lam was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, reportedly took four different types of medications, and struggled with suicidal thoughts. The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel docuseries implies that Lam’s love of travel stemmed from wanting to prove her mental illness wrong; that no matter what the mental obstacles she faced, she could still explore the world.

While the documentary was phenomenal, and I would recommend the series to any true crime fan, the conclusion it draws is purely speculation. Unfortunately, there is no real way of knowing exactly what happened to Elisa Lam. Suspicion and deduction are all anyone can rely on when it comes to unsolved cases. The documentary proposed that Lam died in an accidental drowning caused, in part, by her not taking her prescribed medications.

But the conclusion the documentary draws isn’t what I want to discuss. Instead, I wanted to draw attention to the glossed over, underlying problem the docuseries acknowledges but fails to properly address: the homeless, drug addiction, and crime in that neighbourhood of Los Angeles is a recipe for disaster.

The Cecil Hotels lies in the middle of “skid row”, an impoverished community in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Tents that house the homeless line the sidewalks, drugs are widely available for purchase, and crime is rampant. The hotel itself is also unfortunately known for a slew of suicides, murders, and crimes prior to Lam’s disappearance, marking her death as merely one in an unknown number of those who lost their lives in the Cecil Hotel’s walls.

The Cecil Hotel was partially rebranded to “Stay on Main” in 2011, hoping to draw in new crowds of tourists with flashy modern marketing. However, the Cecil Hotel was partially a hostel, and partially a section for low-income housing, which generated problems for many guests that weren’t aware of this prior to booking their stays.

In the days leading up to her body being discovered, police and the public alike wondered if foul play was involved, and almost immediately the drug-ridden and crime-rampant community of skid row had a flashlight pointed directly at them. This was what I found to be one of the most glaring, undiscussed aspects of the Elisa Lam case: that a society that allows a neighbourhood like skid row is not a society that is functional.

After the coroner’s report ruled that Lam’s death was an ‘accidental drowning’ (whether you agree with such a ruling or not), I don’t understand why no one offered a solution to a neighbourhood that was cause for such strife. Skid rows are everywhere. Saskatchewan itself has a glaring poverty problem, with the Star Phoenix reporting a year ago that “one in four Saskatchewan children lives in poverty”, meaning that the child poverty rate in our province is the “third highest in Canada”.

I’m not implying that the homeless, impoverished, drug-addicted, or struggling in any way caused or assisted in Lam’s death. What I am saying is that the fear of what that community could do – or has done – causes such stress in the community, so why isn’t something done about it?

Why are the homeless not offered appropriate housing so they don’t need to camp out on tents in the sidewalk? Why do we not offer the drug-addicted safe consumption sites for their habits so they can not only consume drugs safely without risk of overdose, but can also receive proper supports that may be needed to separate themselves from their addiction? Why do we not offer proper programs for ex-convicts who have just been released from prison? People who have no money to their name and have no qualifications to work? Why do we not help people get back on their feet?

Why do we blame these people when it’s our system that has been created to force them to reoffend for basic survival? Instead, we look to them every time a crime is committed. The public is distrusting of the neighbourhood, police are regularly patrolling the area, and nothing ever changes. No one ever wins.

Additionally, Lam herself clearly struggled with mental health problems. Her Tumblr blog is only one glimpse into the internal life she lived. If proper mental health support had been more widely available and affordable, people struggling in the same ways Lam was may have received medication, counselling, and treatment.

What needs to be done is plain to see. Now, it’s up to us to make it happen.

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