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Terence M. Green

Peace on Earth . . . Get Out, You Bum!

January 13, 1985|TERENCE M. GREEN

Over about a dozen years, I've written about alternative forms of shelter, beginning with mobile homes and going on to manufactured housing, domes, log houses, underground houses and (I seem to remember) houses built in artificial trees.

To date I don't remember writing about tents in this context, yet the Yuletide experience of a tent city in the Los Angeles Civic Center was certainly an exercise in alternative shelter. Alternative Shelter I never actually entered the tent-city compound, I only saw it morning and evening as I drove along Spring Street between the freeway and my office. I read the stories and saw the pictures in the newspapers, I saw the live scenes and heard the television reporters, and I listened to the reports of the radio newscasters.

A couple of thoughts that may be worth sharing have occurred to me in connection with its closure and the ouster of the refugees.

One aspect of the event came through strongly--primarily in the pictures, but it was mentioned verbally a time or two: the type of "Skid Row bum" that was being housed. Not the stereotype--by far. Not the bleary-eyed, ragged, bearded, filthy derelict with his bottle of cheap wine in a paper sack.

There may have been (as an old reporter I'm sure there must have been) some of those. But primarily what we saw were young and middle-aged people, mostly men but some women; I even seem to remember some parents with children. They were ragged and ungroomed perhaps but not filthy derelicts.

They spoke comprehensible English--sometimes with an accent, true--and most said they were working people who had been thrown out of work for reasons beyond their control but who wanted, first and above everything else, a job so they could care for themselves. And said it believably.

They said they had come to the tent city because they had no way to house themselves and saw it as a life jacket to keep them from drowning until they could swim for themselves.

This didn't have to be true, of course. In some cases it undoubtedly wasn't. But in other, many, cases it probably was.

Are these the people we pushed back onto park benches and into doorways on cold, rainy nights? We always thought it was the rheumy-eyed panhandler with the alcoholic breath. . . .

Second thought: How good an idea was it to put up such a well-publicized shelter for about 300 of the 30,000 to 50,000 of the city's homeless during the time that we hard-working, substantial citizens are filled with "peace on earth, good will toward men"--and then throw them back out into the alleys and the doorways as soon as the season of good cheer and universal love is officially over?

To put it bluntly, was it good politics?

To put it morally, was it right?

To take a starving, cold and despairing person off the street in a burst of publicity and give him food, shelter and a glimmer of hope during the national festival, and then throw him back into the outer darkness. . . .

You tell me.

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