In Los Angeles, civic leaders and business interests decided to employ a policy previously applied in New York — using police sweeps to great effect in cleanup, but with poor regard for rights protection — to remove an unwanted population from a now desirable “Nebo”hood.
Their plan for cleaning up Skid Row involved little input from housing and mental health services, homeless advocate agencies or other outreach programs, but does involve removal of homeless people using harassment, intimidation, probably illegal searches and petty arrests for little more than standing around. Where would you have homeless people be without housing, other than the inadequate “reservation” they have been assigned to as an “out of sight out of mind” accommodation to the business district?
This “clean it up, get them out” strategy is used anytime developers want to reclaim once unwanted and abandoned communities. For those having few options, nowhere to go, no place to sit, stand or lie down, it means loss of their shreds of personal property and their personhood.
City leaders say the city must reduce crime on Skid Row before it can tackle the underlying social and medical causes of homelessness.
But without housing options, substance and alcohol abuse services, veterans’ services and outreach teams, the city’s program is nothing more than aggressive police action.
The argument about cleaning up crime first is only a cover for expediency, further isolating the homeless, rather than addressing homelessness in any real manner. Such an effort would take planning, community input and partnership with helping services, to deal with the ignored underlying issue: poverty.
Under the latest city plan, dozens of additional police officers would be assigned to patrol the roughly 50-block Skid Row area, with an emphasis on experienced beat officers who know how best to avoid lawsuits when breaking homeless people’s civil rights.
We are now told the area’s estimated 8,000 to 10,000 homeless would be allowed to remain. How is that going to work when the only place you thought of as a safe zone is turned into a police state? Where do you go — the next block?
Aggressive removal of homeless persons to other neighborhoods takes them further away from shelters, eating locations, health care and other services, making it difficult for case mangers to follow up with clients.
Central City Association President Carol Schatz told the Los Angeles Times, “You may be getting a huge number of people off the street by simply enforcing the law.” But at what cost and with what outcome? Ms. Schatz forgets that shuffling the homeless from one community to another and locking them up is not a sustainable plan. Homeless persons will return and others will get out of jail, with the process repeating itself over and over.
Without a plan to address the poverty, housing and job issues, nothing will change except homeless people moving into your neighborhood.
Homeless activists say the city and business community have falsely labeled homelessness a drug problem rather than a poverty issue, although study after study has shown homelessness and many of its consequences are poverty related, perpetuated by the lack of opportunity for jobs and job training and lack of access to public transportation. Addressing homelessness requires a package of simultaneous solutions.
The Southern California ACLU and others have been critical of these aggressive police sweeps. But the ACLU’s executive director, Ramona Ripston, was not helpful when she said, “Sometimes you reach a moment where we have to do something. … One of the steps we need to take is to try to purge that neighborhood of the criminal element.”
This kind of statement scares a lot of service providers, professionals and families. It does nothing to point to the underlying causes of homelessness, but only supports the old “out of sight, out of mind” strategy that costs the taxpayer more and leaves our communities and homeless persons in worse shape than before.
If we really want a public safety strategy, we have to look at homelessness from a public health, economic and education point of view. Programs like Housing First and assertive community treatment are working and are beginning to function more as community partners rather than acting on their own.
Around the country, communities are starting to listen to the findings of many studies that helping, not expulsion, works best.
Resources are needed, but the cost to taxpayers is less than lockups, “problem shoveling” sweeps and exile of those experiencing homelessness. Too bad Los Angeles city leaders have not yet learned from the experiences of other cities. Maybe they will see it differently when the people’s tax money and not developer profits becomes a priority.
Maurice Martin (email@example.com), an African American veteran, is an organizer/mediator with the Homeless Advocacy Coalition and ADAPT in Albuquerque, N.M.