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Homeless 'Camp'--a Negative Innovation

July 19, 1987|GARY BLASI and MARK ROSENBAUM | Gary Blasi, a lawyer in Los Angeles, is vice president of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Mark Rosenbaum is general counsel of ACLU of Southern California.

The dirt and the dust are everywhere. No breeze is ever gentle. When there is wind, it brings not relief from the sun but more dust, along with the stench from the plywood latrines. Set out on the dirt are rows of cots, barely shaded by incongruous blue and white canopies. It is cold at night, and the people on the cots wake wet with dew. Others sleep in the limited number of tents, each 4 feet tall, for which there is a long waiting list. Fifty yards away a high steel fence surrounds it all, the closest thing anyone here has to four walls.

Just beyond the fence sit grimy factories and railroad tracks. On the horizon are skyscrapers marking Los Angeles' place as a world-class financial center. Here in the dust is the mayor's latest achievement, his "urban campground." The residents call it simply "the camp."

Many children are spending a good part of their summer in this camp. They do not look at all well. There is one meal a day here--if Salvation Army supplies do not run out first. According to city documents, 20% of the residents are mentally disabled. There are no social or other services provided here for them or anyone else. Medical workers who have surveyed the camp have publicly despaired at just the needs that are physically evident.

This was the city's response to what is called "the homeless problem." In talking to the people here, however, you quickly recognize that they are not simply "the homeless," but individual men, women and children who have come to this place by different routes. What they have in common is knowing what it means to be poor in Los Angeles, scarcely hanging on but maintaining hopes for a job, real meals and a real place to live. Many were recently laid off and are without work for the first time.

Some of the people in the camp, including the most vocal, have essentially given up on mainstream society; they advocate communal living and other innovations. But the dreams of the great majority of people one talks to at the camp are much more conventional: a job, a room or apartment, the basics of existence. The people on the cots in the camp simply do not conform to the stereotypes too frequently assigned to them.

The camp was born out of police raids against the encampments of homeless people on Skid Row that had swollen in numbers rapidly after the city closed down 800 of the 1,000 emergency beds it had opened during the winter. Once the missions and shelters are full, the police present a choice to people settling down on the sidewalks: Go to camp or go to jail.

While some have touted its "success," no one responsible for the camp states that it is housing--only a temporary alternative to sleeping on the street. The danger is that others may see in this innovation the prototype solution to homelessness elsewhere in Los Angeles and in other communities.

From the perspective of the residents of the camp, the solution to homelessness has never been all that complicated--individuals who can work need jobs; those who cannot work need enough from disability or General Relief to exist; and everyone needs affordable housing.

In Los Angeles, the housing handouts from government go to the upper middle class and the wealthy. With hundreds in the camp and thousands more on the streets, tens of millions of federal dollars subsidize home remodeling for the upwardly mobile. While the Community Redevelopment Agency distributes glossy photos hailing the newest downtown skyscrapers, hundreds of hotel rooms bought by the CRA sit empty within blocks of the camp. As Mayor Tom Bradley and Supervisor Mike Antonovich announce a city/county partnership purportedly to aid the homeless, the county continues to penalize people--as many as 2,000 a month--for frequent technical infractions of General Relief rules, the penalty being a denial of even emergency shelter for 60 days. In the meantime, the homeless poor sleep on outdoor cots on the dirt behind fences in the industrial bowels of the city.

In a few weeks, this will end; the camp was temporary, and it must close. The city has bought 67 trailer-homes for families to use. The others will be on their own.

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