Sunday, March 04, 2007

Housing the Homeless... Behind Bars

Los Angeles' Skid row, also known as "the nickel" because of its 5th street centrality, has become a hotbed of one sided class warfare in recent months. Los Angeles has taken a cue from other major cities like New York to gentrify the area under the guise of its latest Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) announced in September 2006. Like all such efforts, SCI is intended to reduce the visibility of homeless people, not address the root causes of homelessness.

SCI followed the Los Angeles City Council's rejection of a settlement between the ACLU with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton to stop enforcing a ban on the homeless sleeping on sidewalks between 9 at night and 6 in the morning. The ACLU offer stemmed from their lawsuit victory in the U.S. Appeals court. The court's decision was arresting homeless for sleeping on the sidewalks in a city with such a low shelter bed to homeless ratio constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

While waiting the outcome of higher court decisions, the City has gone on an all out offensive. Although some funds for increasing services are allocated in the SCI package, they don't come close to addressing the homeless population's needs, nor offset massive cuts in Federal spending on local services. Instead, the majority of the program focuses on law enforcement with LAPD adding 50 officers to its Central Division to target skid row.

The new "enforcement focus" has drastically increased the number of arrests on skid row. A recent police commission report on SCI announced by Central Bureau Chief Cayler Lee Carter cited 5,067 arrests in the Skid Row area, 3,486 of which have felony charges, with about one-third of those arrests for "possession for sales."

Charging people with possession for sales rather than simple possession disqualifies them for consideration under California's Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000 (Proposition 36). Prop. 36 provides certain non-violent adult offenders who use or possess illegal drugs up to one year of drug treatment and six months of after care. Homeless offenders are housed and may receive transitional housing at the completion of their Prop. 36 program. Conviction of possession for sales also means state prison time for the vast majority of skid row residents, most of whom have prior convictions. Several sources indicate the District Attorney's office is no longer negotiating with public defenders on skid row cases, and they are pursuing aggressive strategies to achieve longer sentences.

The vast majority of these sales cases are simply addicts supporting their own habit. When asked by undercover police where to score, they will break off a piece of their own rock. In a street existence dominated by crack cocaine addiction, such behavior is considered a survival tactic rather than drug dealing. Many possession cases of less than $20 worth of drugs have been filed as possession for sales when defendants don't have a pipe for crack or a kit for heroin on them when arrested.

Another part of the enforcement focus is the City's new "stay away plan" which bans drug offense convicts from skid row while on parole or probation. The District Attorney's logic is that this prevents crime. It also prevents these people from obtaining services at the various shelters and NGOs in the vicinity unless they live, work, or are in treatment within the targeted areas. Since the bulk of emergency services serving meals for the homeless are located on skid row, "stay away" is essentially telling these homeless to remain homeless and hungry somewhere else.

Taken together these enforcement policies have had an obvious effect of depleting the skid row homeless population through attrition. Many of those not imprisoned just grow tired of police harassment and move off skid row. A recent Los Angeles Times article outlines the fact that surrounding areas and shelters are noticeably overflowing with homeless populations displaced from downtown. LAPD Central Division's count of homeless camping on skid row for January 15, 2007 was down to 875 persons. Last year at this time the number was 1,345 and in September before the current incarnation of SCI the count was 1,876.

Meanwhile in the midst of SCI enforcement there is little to no evidence of its supposed "enhancement and outreach" components. Jose Egurbide of the City Attorney's Office recently stated at a press conference "officials are currently waiting on funding that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he has earmarked to expand the outreach program as well as additional emergency shelter beds and wrap around services." At the rate the city is cleansing skid row's street population through imprisonment or displacement, one might wonder if the delay in those funds is intentional. There are still only 3,400 emergency and transitional beds for between 6,000 to 8,000 estimated downtown area homeless.

These recent attacks on skid row and the homeless follows right on the heels of the recent "patient dumping" scandal in which several health care facilities and hospitals have dropped patients without consent addresses on skid row to fend for themselves.(1) Patient dumping has become so widespread that there is a bill (SB275) in the California State Senate to criminalize the practice.

Not surprisingly downtown business associations and large real estate developers are lauding SCI as a glowing success. With median loft and condominium prices in downtown Los Angeles at $739,000, and a raft new development slated for the city's ninth district, it's no wonder that Councilwoman Jan Perry led the fight against the ACLU settlement and for the enforcement laden Safer Cities Initiative. Many "Socialist Worker" readers will remember Councilwoman Perry, who's district contains most of skid row, as leading efforts to sell developers the South Central Farm.(2)

According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 80,000 people are homeless each night in Los Angeles county alone. Within that staggering figure is a disproportionate amount of African Americans and a growing number of single mothers with their children. Also disproportionately represented are veterans. "As many as 27,000 homeless veterans reside in Los Angeles, County" states a 2002 report by State of California Department of Veterans Affairs. The situation is so dire that the report also stated "California should commit to a plan, similar to our nation's Marshall Plan following World War II." If something akin to the Marshall Plan is indicated just for California's homeless veterans, it follows that necessary programs for all the homeless are woefully inadequate and severely underfunded.

Lack of funding is the common theme among all the downtown missions, shelters and other facilities. SRO (Single Room Occupancy Housing Corporation) buys old hotels and apartment buildings to create emergency, transitional, and permanent housing for homeless, formerly homeless and low-income persons. "Socialist Worker" spoke briefly with SRO Executive Director Anita Nelson regarding the conditions on skid row. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the conversation steered toward lack of funding. She said "We just lost 1.5 million in Federal grants, and I may have to lay off over 20 employees--many formerly homeless, as well as reduce the amount of available beds." She mentioned SRO currently has a 700 person waiting list, but unless they secure funding for beds, they can't accommodate the demand. When asked about the impact of Safer Cities Initiative she responded "We are much happier about the increased cleanliness of the area," and that "our residents feel much safer with the increased police presence."

"Socialist Worker" obtained a different view on SCI when interviewing an actual skid row resident in SRO housing. "I became homeless two years ago due to alcohol and drugs. Since then I have seen a lot of changes in the downtown area as large corporations have bought most of the buildings to build lofts," said James Maingot. When asked about the recent increase in police James replied "I've seen more police on the street and they've begun stopping people on the sidewalk handcuffing them. They will search you and if you are clean they will tell you don't return or you will be arrested. It has happened to me and I see this all the time. The police drive by two or three cars at a time. They shine their search lights in your face, they intimidate you, and place fear in the community. I thought the police were to protect and serve the community, not big business. The homeless have been herded like sheep placed in a box."

Widespread homelessness in the world's richest country is a shameful indictment of a system that places profit before human need. That Los Angeles' best response to its homeless crisis is to criminalize, intimidate, and incarcerate its most vulnerable shows why we need to organize and fight for a world with different priorities. We say money for homes, not for war.


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