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Crackdown on Skid Row

On the morning of February 8, a white hospital van stopped a few feet from a curb in Los Angeles’ skid row area. According to witnesses, a man wearing a soiled hospital gown fell through the doors, and the van, later connected with Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, drove away.

The man, a paraplegic, began crawling down the street, a bag of his belongings clutched in his teeth and a colostomy bag dragging behind him. Other homeless people helped the disoriented man into a nearby park, just before police called an ambulance.

This horrible scene came just three months after the city attorney’s office filed an indictment against Kaiser Permanente for dumping a 63-year-old patient on the streets of skid row in her socks and a hospital gown last year, an incident that was captured on videotape.

Patient dumping has become so widespread there’s a bill in the California State Senate to criminalize the practice.

But these practices go deeper than a few isolated incidents. They are part of a system of abuse against LA’s poor and homeless population.

* * *

LA’s SKID row–known as “the nickel” because it’s centered on Fifth Street–has become ground zero in a war on the homeless.

Taking its cue from other major cities like New York, LA is using what it calls the “Safer Cities Initiative” (SCI) as a cover to gentrify skid row. SCI, announced in September 2006, is intended to reduce the visibility of homeless people, not address the root causes of homelessness.

Implementation of SCI followed the Los Angeles City Council’s rejection of a settlement between the ACLU and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton, which stopped the enforcement of a ban on the homeless sleeping on sidewalks between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Last April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that arresting the homeless for sleeping on sidewalks in a city with such a low shelter-bed-to-homeless ratio constituted cruel and unusual punishment. While awaiting the outcome of an appeal, 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 do they offset massive cuts in federal spending for local services. Instead, most of the program focuses on law enforcement, with the 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.

“I became homeless two years ago due to alcohol and drugs,” James Maingot, who lives on skid row, told Socialist Worker. “Since then, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the downtown area as large corporations have bought most of the buildings to build lofts.

“I’ve seen more police on the street, and they’ve begun stopping people on the sidewalk, handcuffing them. They’ll search you, and if you’re clean, they’ll tell you not to return, or you’ll be arrested. It’s happened to me, and I see this all the time. The police drive by two or three cars at a time. They shine their searchlights in your face, intimidate you, and put fear in the community. I thought the police were there to protect and serve the community, not big business. The homeless have been herded like sheep.”

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 were on felony charges, and about a third of these were drug “possession for sales.” Charging people with possession for sales rather than simple possession disqualifies them from consideration under California’s Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, or Proposition 36.

Proposition 36 provides certain nonviolent 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 can 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 that the district attorney’s office is no longer negotiating with public defenders on skid row cases, and instead is pursuing aggressive strategies to get longer sentences.

The vast majority of these “drug sales” cases are simply addicts supporting their own habits. When asked by undercover police where to score, they will break off a piece of their own supply.

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 people from obtaining services at the various shelters and nongovernmental organizations 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 the homeless to remain homeless and hungry somewhere else.

* * *

Taken together, these enforcement policies have had the obvious effect of depleting the skid row homeless population through attrition.

Those who aren’t imprisoned grow tired of police harassment and leave skid row. A recent Los Angeles Times article reported that surrounding areas and shelters are overflowing with homeless people displaced from downtown. LAPD Central Division’s count of homeless camping on skid row for January 15, 2007, was 875 persons–down from 1,876 in September 2005, before SCI.

Meanwhile, there is little to no evidence of SCI’s supposed “enhancement and outreach” components. Jose Egurbide of the city attorney’s office recently stated at a press conference that officials are currently waiting on funding that Mayor 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 6,000 to 8,000 estimated downtown area homeless.

Not surprisingly, downtown business associations and large real-estate developers are lauding SCI as a success. With median loft and condominium prices in downtown Los Angeles at $739,000 and a raft of new development slated for the city’s Ninth District, it’s no wonder City Council member Jan Perry led the fight against the ACLU settlement and for SCI.

Perry, whose district contains most of skid row, also led efforts in 2005 to sell off South Central Farm–public land that low-income residents have been farming for supplemental food for more than a decade–to developers.

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 statistic is a disproportionate number of African Americans and a growing number of single mothers with their children.

Veterans are also disproportionately represented. “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 recommended the sate “commit to a plan similar to our nation’s Marshall Plan following World War II.”

Lack of funding is the common theme among all the downtown missions, shelters and other facilities. SRO Housing Corporation buys old hotels and apartment buildings to create emergency, transitional and permanent housing for homeless, formerly homeless and low-income persons.

In a recent interview with SRO Housing Corporation Executive Director Anita Nelson regarding the conditions on skid row, the bulk of the conversation steered toward lack of funding.

“We just lost $1.5 million in federal grants,” Nelson said, “and I may have to lay off over 20 employees–many formerly homeless, as well as reduce the amount of available beds.” She said that SRO currently has a 700-person waiting list, but unless they secure funding for beds, they can’t accommodate the demand.

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.

Robert Skeels lives in LA and writes for the Socialist Worker.

 

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