Homelessness In The City Of Angels

Christian Madera's picture
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It should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited Downtown L.A.'s Skid Row that the city has a serious homelessness problem -- with more people living on the street than any other city in the nation. A recent article in the Economist focused on the recent crackdown by the city's police on the homeless population of skid row. With more and more residents moving into the area, and city officials keen to clean up downtown's streets, police chief William Bratton committed additional police officers to patrol the area to round up criminals (and presumably break up the population of street dwellers).

The renewed effort has indeed produced a decline in the number of people sleeping in tents. But as the article points out, most of Skid Row's former residents have just moved to other parts of the city. Predictably, residents and businesses in the newly effected communities aren't happy about the influx of homeless people in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, there is little talk (and even less action) of actually dealing with the problem of homelessness -- by providing needed housing (and then in turn, services to get people on their feet). Clearly this is a difficult and expensive thing to do, but as other cities have learned (and the Economist article points out), the cost of the status quo -- in terms of emergency room visits, jail stays, and lost economic opportunity -- are equal to (if not larger than) the cost of providing affordable housing.

Of course, even if you got everyone onboard with the idea of actually building housing for the homeless, then you face the problem of where to site it. Pretty much every community that is approached with a proposal for supportive housing feels like its "getting dumped on", and complains to politicians to take it someplace else (hint to politicians: offer the community something in return -- like a new community center or library on the ground floor).

The whole story also got me thinking about where homeless people congregate,, and why. In Skid Row's case, it's clear the area was actually targeted by public policy to be a home to the homeless -- with numerous shelters and service centers built in the vicinity to manage the population (urban gentrification was not on the horizon when this decision was made). Nowadays, most people think this was a bad idea -- though some advocates still believe that it's the best way to deal with delivering services to a large number of people.

Other areas, like Santa Monica and Westwood, seem to attract a fair number of homeless persons due to a greater level of tolerance (which has steadily declining), and what one might assume as a decent market for collecting handouts (i.e. lots of foot traffic).

Interestingly, in my former Koreatown neighborhood (only a short bus ride from downtown), I don't think I ever saw a homeless person. The community isn't heavily policed, so I wonder if the reason for the lack of homeless is that the Latin American and Asian immigrants who live there aren't very generous with their handouts.

Christian Madera was managing editor of Planetizen from 2006 to 2008.

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