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Homeless: Los Angeles' Own Living Room War

August 16, 1987|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky is the chief of The Times' City-County Bureau

Every level of government has to have "can do" people who cut through red tape, push aside the bureaucracy and get things done.

Until recently, President Reagan had his team in the National Security Council; then their conduct gave a bad name to the concept of can do. The most famous example on the municipal level was Robert Moses, once called the development czar of New York City; he built bridges, expressways, parks and many other public works with a success rate--and an arrogance--considerably higher than President Reagan's now-notorious warriors.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's team has been the Community Redevelopment Agency, a huge government body created in 1948 to demolish old downtown neighborhoods and replace them with high- rises. So successful was the agency that Bradley has been asking for help with tough jobs outside the original CRA mandate. That is why an agency conceived as a city builder was called on for solutions to a difficult social problem, the homeless on Skid Row.

But this problem is so resistant to solution that CRA, for the first time, finds itself in a can't do situation. The difficulties of the agency point up failures of all levels of government to deal with the growing number of men, women and children--ranging from pathetic cases of unemployed and ill to frightening examples of street-tough criminals--who have been lumped together by politicians, sociologists and journalists under the imprecise heading of "homeless."

The civic malaise spreads in all directions from downtown, wherever there are people without shelter. Just this month, for example, 1,000 residents and merchants signed petitions objecting to what they consider the city's failure to prevent growing numbers of homeless from settling on Venice Beach.

One reason CRA got the homeless assignment was proximity; its redevelopment jurisdiction includes Little Tokyo and adjacent Skid Row on the eastern fringe of downtown. Another reason, said a mayoral aide, was that CRA has one of the most competent staffs in city government, trained by years of experience in property dealings to move quickly and decisively. When something has to be done, the aide said, "you tend to turn to the CRA because they're good." For that reason, the aide said, Bradley has also given the CRA main responsibility over two other prime administration projects, restoration of the downtown Central Library and expansion of the Convention Center.

The homeless assignment, however, was not clear cut and was compounded by conflicts of interest. On one hand, the CRA board was encouraged by the mayor and the City Council to promote the commercial rebirth of Little Tokyo, to push along the growth of now-thriving fish processing plants and toy wholesalers on Skid Row, all of whom employ large numbers of the unskilled. The increase in jobs pleased the mayor.

But Little Tokyo merchants, the fish processors and the toy wholesalers wanted the Skid Row poor population reduced or eliminated. They also complained that many of the homeless were criminals--drug dealers, muggers and prostitutes who made the streets dangerous for everyone. Earlier in the year, those commercial interests were particularly offended by encampments of homeless on Skid Row streets.

So was the mayor. With Bradley's approval, police swept them from the streets. In letters to the mayor, merchants asked why the poor could not be dispersed to other areas of the city. Some CRA board members asked the same question, wondering how a prospering commercial and light manufacturing district could go about its business with clusters of people living along the sidewalks.

At the same time, the CRA was getting other signals from the mayor's office. Bradley was under pressure from those who provide shelter, medical care, food and other support to the Skid Row poor. The service-providers wanted CRA to use its legal and financial power to save single room occupancy hotels on Skid Row. Those SROs are inexpensive shelters for the row's growing population of jobless, many of whom are also afflicted with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. Each time an SRO closed, more people were thrown out on the street, becoming homeless.

The providers--the Women's Center, Para Los Ninos, the Weingart Center and others--enjoy substantial financial support from members of the city's business and social elite. They also have considerable influence at City Hall. Under Bradley's direction, the CRA has set aside money for rehabilitating Skid Row hotels and for providing additional shelter to the homeless.

The service-providers and other supporters of Skid Row's poor said the CRA was obligated under the downtown redevelopment plan, enacted by the council and signed by the mayor in the mid-1970s, to provide for the poor on Skid Row and assure them housing.

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