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Why Ending Homelessness Is Political Poison

Posted on Sep 3, 2015

By Bill Boyarsky

Bill Boyarsky

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This is the first installment in a three-part series that Truthdig columnist Bill Boyarsky is writing on homelessness.

Part 2: Go Directly to Jail: Punishing the Homeless for Being Homeless

Part 3: Helping the Homeless in the Face of GOP’s Brutal Funding Cuts

On a hot, sultry day in July, I walked through Los Angeles’ Skid Row, the largest and most infamous of the city’s numerous homeless encampments. It is a little-visited part of a city better known for its celebrities and showy materialism—a city where the very rich build mansions with a dozen or more bedrooms while the poorest of the poor live on sidewalks, under freeways or in parks.

Buildings trapped the street’s heat. Some residents sat in tents or under tarps in stifling conditions. Others were standing or sitting on the sidewalk, with their backs against the buildings. So packed were the sidewalks with people, tents and possessions that sometimes I had to walk in the street. I was so intent on observing the scene that at one point I stumbled and almost fell. A homeless man asked if I was OK. I assured him I was. He patted me on the back and told me to be careful.

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Skid Row is a very “California” scene—one from the underside of the mythic state of sunshine and dreams of wealth. The down and out, as well as many other types of outsiders, have always had a rough time in this lush land. Decades ago, immigrants who had moved westward—the Okies, Arkies and others—were pushed into farm labor camps or were blocked at the California border. Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in camps during World War II. An alien land law banned Asians from owning farmland, and in the state’s early days, invading Anglos and their heirs persecuted Mexicans and Native Americans. Remnants of that attitude linger.

What those oppressed groups all had in common was being treated as an under class by the governing majority. The people in the homeless encampments have now inherited this unfortunate status.

Today, the problem of homelessness is immense. The National Center on Homelessness & Poverty estimates that in the United States, 2.5 million to 3.5 million people sleep in shelters, in temporary transitional housing, on sidewalks, in parks, underneath freeways and on buses and trains. An additional 7.4 million, the center says, are living with relatives or friends after having lost their own homes. These figures “are far from exact,” because they come from several different sources, each with their own way of counting the homeless. But they reflect the depth of the problem.

There are 25,686 homeless in the city of Los Angeles, the largest city in Los Angeles County, where the homeless number 44,359, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. There is definitely a racial component. African-Americans are the hardest-hit, composing 47 percent of the homeless population, although only about 9 percent of Los Angeles residents are black.

Mollie Lowery, a consultant at Housing Works—which finds housing and care for the homeless—has worked with the homeless on Skid Row for decades. She told me that Los Angeles is “a city of abundance, but the abundance is not shared.” Steve Clare, the executive director of Venice Community Housing Corp., which also helps people find housing, shared a similar view. “Los Angeles is known as the meanest big city in America,” he said.

While the popular idea is that most of the homeless are addicted or mentally ill, experts say the reality is much more complicated. A more common story goes like this: A single parent loses a job, can’t pay the rent and moves in with friends or family. Next, the streets.

“We have single mothers with limited job skills, couldn’t pay their rent, were evicted,” Rabbi Marvin Gross told me. “Most of the people we work with are born into poverty.”

Gross, who leads Union Station Homeless Services—an organization that serves a wide area of Los Angeles County reaching into the San Gabriel Valley suburbs—was referring to victims of an economy that is brutal to the poor. When moving in with friends and relatives doesn’t work out, he said, parents and kids may end up living in their cars, with Mom or Dad always on the lookout for welfare workers who might take the children away. From there, the next move is downward to the streets and the parks, a process that would drive anyone to the edge of sanity.

Homelessness has always been with us. The hobo is a familiar figure in American history and culture, and so is the term “skid row,” which came into common use in the U.S. in the 19th century, first as a timber-industry reference. In a social context, it took on greater resonance during the Great Depression.

In 2007, the Great Recession put many women and men on the streets as it wiped out jobs and savings. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress, particularly the House, cruelly slashed federal funds for the subsidies that help pay for housing for the poor.

“The House’s … proposal severely limits our ability to end homelessness, invest in distressed communities, and provide housing support for very low income households,” Secretary Julián Castro of the Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a statement last May. “In a nation founded on the principle of equality of opportunity, it’s unacceptable to support anything less than an expansion of opportunity for all.”

I have visited Los Angeles’ Skid Row for years while reporting for the Los Angeles Times and now for Truthdig, but I have never seen it so bad. It is now smaller and much more crowded than it once was. Gentrification has come to once sleazy parts of downtown, squeezing Skid Row into fewer blocks. Old hotels, which once offered low-cost housing, and office buildings have become expensive lofts, and tattered saloons have become fashionable purveyors of craft beer.

I finally arrived at my destination, the headquarters of Los Angeles Community Action Network, which organizes the impoverished residents of Skid Row and South L.A. to fight for decent housing. It also vigorously opposes punitive city laws aimed at criminalizing homelessness.

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