Apr. 13, 2007 – Hundreds of homeless people, activists and affordable-housing advocates gathered Thursday at Los Angeles City Hall to insist that politicians work to solve the cityâ€™s homelessness problem.
Although homeless people, community organizers and academics say the best way to end homelessness is to increase affordable housing, Los Angeles politiciansâ€™ most visible response to the cityâ€™s crisis has been a police crackdown on homeless people living on Skid Row, a fifty-block downtown neighborhood that has, for decades, been a hub of shelters and social services for homeless and very-low-income people.
"They have created a separate and unequal criminal injustice system in downtown Los Angeles," said Skid Row resident and organizer Veronica Doleman at a press conference during Tent City, an all-day event organized by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness (LACEH&H). Speaking to a crowd of people who had brought their tents from Skid Row to the City Hall lawn, she continued, "The cityâ€™s racist policies will result in thousands of poor people of color in prison."
Approximately 4,000 homeless people live in the neighborhood, about half of them sleeping in shelters and half sleeping on the streets, on any given night. According to a report by the Inter-University Consortium Against Homelessness, four out of five of the homeless people in Skid Row are men and two out of three are black. Another estimated 10,000 low-income people live in single-room-occupancy hotels and other transitional housing in the neighborhood.
Community organizers say city leaders are making the area safe for gentrification by making it unsafe for the thousands of homeless people who currently live there.
But as luxury-loft developments move ever closer to Skid Row, upscale business owners, developers and residents want to see the area "cleaned up." Community organizers say city leaders are making the area safe for gentrification by making it unsafe for the thousands of homeless people who currently live there.
As previously reported by The NewStandard, last summer, 50 new Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers were assigned to Skid Row as part of the so-called Safer Cities Initiative, which is based on the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement credited to LA police chief William Bratton, formerly employed in New York City in the 1990s.
[Skid Row resident and organizer Veronica Doleman speaks during the Tent City rally.]
The "broken windows" theory holds that small signs of supposed disorder in a community â€“ litter, graffiti, shattered glass â€“ make neighborhoods appealing locations for criminal activity. Hence, the theory goes, addressing these signs of "blight" should make neighborhoods less likely to invite serious crime. LAPD officers insist that their intention is to deter crime and make Skid Row safer for everyone.
Several blocks that six months ago were full of encampments are empty today.
But critics say that "broken windows" policing leads to law-enforcement crackdowns on members of marginalized communities, who are disproportionately targeted for petty crimes.
Skid Row resident Joseph Thomas, who is black, told TNS that he has experienced this targeting first hand. In front of the neighborhoodâ€™s new upscale lofts and art galleries, he said, "people walk down on Thursday nights drinking wine, lattes, whatever they want to drink, and nothing is ever saidâ€¦ I can go out and get one beer, and cover it up, and four police gets out the car and jumps on me, and I get two tickets and I gotta go to court."
Thomas continued: "And these higher-up people â€“ those that stay in the lofts, those that have money, itâ€™s fine. And us thatâ€™s poor, us thatâ€™s homeless, for us that have nowhere to go and we donâ€™t fit into the neighborhood that they want to establish, anything is fair game, and they want us to go."
In addition to the Safer Cities officers, about 60 new undercover narcotics officers have been assigned to the Skid Row area in the past year, bringing the total to more than 100 new officers in the neighborhood.
"Itâ€™s overwhelming and stifling," said Becky Dennison, co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), a grassroots organization through which Skid Row residents work together to address the problems affecting their community. Dennison calls the situation in the neighborhood a "police state."
LAPD Captain Andrew Smith told TNS that Safer Cities policing in Skid Row has resulted in more than 6,000 arrests since August. Further, the LAPD reports 6,744 citations for offenses such as traffic violations, littering and jaywalking.
Michael McLaughlin, a white man who spoke to TNS while waiting in Skid Row for a bus to take him to a shelter in another neighborhood, said the policing was "ridiculous." "If you even step off the sidewalk ahead of the light an instant, theyâ€™ll give you a ticket."
While certain streets in downtown Los Angeles have been cleared of homeless people and their encampments, homelessness persists.
When TNS asked the LAPDâ€™s Smith about allegations of discriminatory treatment of homeless and low-income people in the neighborhood, he replied, "Everybody whose behavior is being changed feels theyâ€™re being harassed."
On a recent weekday walk through Skid Row, TNS observed four police cars stopped in the middle of a street amidst sidewalks full of people waiting to enter evening shelters. Several officers walked up and down the block. At one end of the block, four white and Latino male officers harassed a black woman. They called her "sweetheart" and urged her to "hurry up," laughing as she walked quickly away from them. Two officers on horseback patrolled another nearby street.
In February, the ACLU of Southern California asked a federal court to extend a 36-month injunction against police making stops, searches and seizures without reasonable suspicion or probable cause in Skid Row. The injunction was first entered in a settlement agreement three years ago, and the ACLU sought an extension this year in light of community membersâ€™ recent allegations of unconstitutional searches.
In a statement delivered to the Los Angeles Police Commission on February 27, the ACLU cited "instances in which Skid Row residents who were simply walking along the street doing nothing wrong were accosted by police, ordered against a wall, handcuffed, searched without reason, and detained in handcuffs on the street for fifteen or twenty minutes while police ran their names, only to be released without arrest or citation." The judge has temporarily extended the injunction pending review of the matter.
At the same time, the inspector general of the Los Angeles Police Commission is monitoring and tracking numerous complaints lodged against the LAPD for its conduct on Skid Row. Inspector General AndrÃ© Birotte told TNS that because there are "so many different complaints," it is "too early to tell" whether there are overall patterns that need to be addressed.
When TNS visited the area six months ago, the pervasive feeling on the streets was fear and uncertainty about the then-new police crackdown. Today, months into Safer Cities, the pervasive feeling is closer to exhaustion. Deborah Burton, a Skid Row resident and organizer with LA CAN, told TNS: "Itâ€™s something you have to get accustomed to for survival purposes. Either you deal with the way youâ€™re being treated, or you move on. Some of us have stayed to deal with the issues, and some of us just got tired and moved on."
Several blocks that six months ago were full of encampments are empty today. When asked where the people who once lived there are now, residents and organizers told TNS they canâ€™t be sure, but they suspect people have moved to other parts of the city. "Or," said Dennison, "theyâ€™re caught up in the courts or in jail."
Millard Walton, program director at the House of Hope shelter in Hollywood, a neighborhood about five miles from Skid Row, told TNS: "Weâ€™re seeing more and more people that normally would be downtown coming in for shelterâ€¦ We have approximately 130 beds, and weâ€™re filled upâ€¦ Usually at this time of year, we have more bed space."
In Venice, about fifteen miles from Skid Row, the St. Roberts Center, which provides shelter referrals and food to homeless people, has also seen a change since the start of the LAPD crackdown downtown. "This year is completely different," said the Centerâ€™s Program Director Tina Lee. "Usually the numbers are always around the same, [but this year] my increase of people I donâ€™t know is probably about 3 percent."
James Hundley of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles said Thursday that he has seen a 30 percent drop in the number of people accessing harm-reduction services at his Skid Row needle exchange since Safer Cities started, noting a particularly large drop in the number of black people seeking services. "At what cost does a safer city come?" he asked the crowd at Tent City, noting that decreased access to Skid Row needle exchanges will likely mean increased rates of HIV and hepatitis among the predominantly black male population that has been "targetedâ€¦ arrested and relocated." He continued: "A safer city is not one that punishes its most vulnerable members."
No End to the Problem
While certain streets in downtown Los Angeles have been cleared of homeless people and their encampments, homelessness persists. In early April, just after the March 15 close of the winter-shelter program, which includes about 1,700 beds countywide, the LAPDâ€™s own count of people living on the streets in Skid Row increased for the first time since Safer Cities was stepped up in the fall.
Lack of affordable housing remains a problem in the area, and community organizers donâ€™t think politicians have done enough to address this cause of homelessness. LA CANâ€™s Dennison told TNS: "The city and county are far behind in terms of real political will. [Thereâ€™s been] showmanship by the business community and politicians, but little change. What did change is the police environment."
Over the past two years, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has committed $100 million to create permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people. This year, the first $54.1 million of that funding, which is to be combined with other funding sources to develop 274 units, was finally set to be awarded to developers.
Yet Los Angeles also suffered a setback this year when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) denied the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, a state-chartered public agency, more than $15 million in funding for 279 shelter-plus-care units, where housing would have been combined with social services. HUDâ€™s Brian Sullivan told TNS, "There were some real questions as to whether these projects could accomplish what they had intended to accomplish."
Francesca de la Rosa of Housing LA, a citywide coalition working to preserve and increase affordable-housing stock, told TNS at the rally that the city needs to commit more financial resources to solve the housing crisis. "No more hearings, no more strategic plans â€“ we have the answer: fund housing."
De la Rosa was one of several dozen residents and organizers who attempted to meet with Los Angeles political leaders during Tent City. After being denied immediate entrance to City Hall by security officers who stated that no group larger than 10 would be admitted to the building, a small group was permitted to approach the offices of local city councilor Jan Perry and Mayor Villaraigosa with a police escort. No one from Perryâ€™s office would meet with the group, which TNS accompanied; three members of Villaraigosaâ€™s staff, including homelessness policy coordinator Leslie Wise, listened to community membersâ€™ demands in a hall outside the mayorâ€™s office.
Community members say theyâ€™ve had enough "lip service" from politicians and demand an immediate end to Safer Cities and the creation of thousands of new affordable-housing units throughout Los Angeles.
"Simply moving homeless people around does not solve homelessness," said Paul Tepper of the nonprofit Weingart Center Association, in an interview last week. Tepperâ€™s organization offers services, including housing and job training, to people on Skid Row.
"It is unfortunate that the police are being asked to solve homelessness," he continued. "Itâ€™s not what we hire them to do. The police are not meant to be social architects... I question whether it is the right way to address a larger problem. Yes, it moves people around. Yes, it may move people out of Skid Row. It doesnâ€™t appear to be moving people into housing."