Yesterday’s LA Times has an article about the effects of police efforts to curb crime in the part of downtown known as skid row. The claim is that since last fall when LAPD increased the number of officers in the area and put an effort into reducing crime downtown the homeless in skid row have migrated to other areas of the city, particularly those accessible by bus. This apparently is putting a large strain on the service providers to the west and south of downtown. Arguably, “cleaning up” downtown is a positive thing. A close friend used to live in the loft building on the corner of 4th and Main, which borders on skid row. It was a scary neighborhood. And I say that as someone with a pretty high neighborhood tolerance. Nonetheless, despite thinking that downtown could benefit a lot by a reduction in crime, I’m not at all heartened by the LAPD strategy. Nor do I find the dispersing effect it seems to have surprising.
I do find this story amusing in a sort of tragically ironic sort of way. I haven’t been in LA long enough to make claims with any certainty about the reasons for the existence of skid row. However, from what I have seen, it seems that part of the process has involved “cleaning up” other areas of the city and pushing the most vulnerable towards downtown. It appears to me that many homeless have migrated downtown as they have been pushed out of places like the part of Hollywood near the Hollywood & Highland complex (home to the kodak theatre). Hand in hand with the cleaning up of other neighborhoods comes the dumping, done by hospitals, service organizations, and LAPD itself, of homeless individuals into skid row. The friend who used to live in the area was pretty convinced that the city was happy to just shove all the problems into skid row and forget about them.
Needless to say, this is not an effective way to address the problem of homelessness. One service provider characterizes the strategy as “the leaf-blower mentality” asserting that increasing police activity without increasing housing and other services is just going to move the population around without changing anything. Enforcing laws against sleeping on the street in an area that is essentially a city of tents and cardboard boxes at night is a laughably simplistic way of dealing with the problem. The same can be said for increasing the number of drug-related arrests. Both possibilities are simply bandaids over gaping wounds.
That said I do feel a bit of sympathy for those in the police force having to make decisions about how to deal with skid row. No matter what LAPD chooses to do, they aren’t actually going to have much effect on the very serious problem of homelessness in this city. There is nothing, really, that LAPD can do aside from trying to deal with the crime in the area. Though I will note that the logic of this quote threw me: “Officials said they expected the police presence would lead to more arrests but not reduce the overall homeless population, which they said is benefiting from safer streets.”
In the end this isn’t a problem that’s going to go away until we a) have sufficient affordable housing and b) deal with the systematic factors that are associated with the particular challenges (such as substance abuse) that homeless individuals are so likely to be dealing with. We do an extremely lousy job in this country of dealing with mental health issues (not to mention a lousy job of dealing with physical health issues for the poor). And we do a lousy job of providing services for veterans. And honestly, though I don’t have citations on hand to back me up, I think these two factors are a huge part of the trends in homelessness. In the meantime I don’t much like the idea of a homeless ghetto (which is really what skid row is/was) but I don’t think that dispersing people away from the biggest concentration of homeless services in the city is a dramatically better idea.