It was one year ago that Los Angeles' urban campground for the homeless was closed and hundreds of itinerant street people wandered back into the alleys, empty lots and abandoned buildings of Skid Row.
What one camp official described as a "desperate attempt to help very desperate people" ended Sept. 25, 1987, and no one involved in the experiment--not the city that sponsored it, the Salvation Army that supervised it or the homeless activists that sought its creation--called it a success.
But despite the dust, noxious odors and petty crime they found at the camp, many of those street people who once called it home now speak of the four-month tent city as the good old days.
The fond rememberances, unfortunately, are more of a comment on Skid Row conditions today than the rose-colored view of hindsight.
City officials, service providers, homeless activists and men and women who live on the street generally agree that the ranks of the homeless have continued to rise in the past year, with the numbers being swelled by illegal aliens who are getting caught in the Skid Row cycle of drugs and alcohol.
Growing Cocaine Use
Cheap and available crack cocaine is superseding even alcohol as the drug of choice on the Row, and desperate young addicts are preying on other homeless men and women for their few dollars, food and even clothing.
And any sense of community and camaraderie that the homeless say they once enjoyed on the street has all but vanished under a strict Los Angeles Police Department policy that bars organized street encampments and forces the homeless to be mobile on a moment's notice.
Despite these deteriorating conditions since the camp's closure, city officials say there are some encouraging developments. These officials say new ideas and techniques on how to deal with homelessness were born out of the camp.
Although city officials acknowledge that they are far from solving the problems of homelessness, they feel that they have at least identified some of the tools necessary for working on the problem, and some are already being put to use.
The city's Mobile Ombudsman Project houses city, county, state and federal social service agencies in a trailer that is trucked to locations throughout the city. It has already helped hundreds of homeless in the San Fernando Valley find jobs, housing and benefits under general relief and other programs, according to Robert Vilmur, homeless projects coordinator for the city.
The project will next be taken to South-Central Los Angeles for four weeks weeks and then to East Los Angeles and then the Los Angeles Harbor area.
Other programs, such as permanent multi-service centers that would provide emergency housing, are in the proposal stage--with one plan to establish such a program at Skid Row's Weingart Center awaiting approval from Mayor Tom Bradley.
Still other solutions are years away, including resolution of the city's lawsuit against the county of Los Angeles.
The city is attempting to force the county to make its general relief program more accessible to the needy. The county has countered that if housing is the root of the homeless problem, it is the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency that have failed.
Some homeless advocates say the ultimate solution is many years off and is pushed farther back every day by government officials who continue to take a "Band-Aid" approach to solving homelessness and who ignore the need to build more truly low-cost housing.
"There is less housing, so fewer people have housing," said Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a downtown center for poor and homeless families.
Until more permanent affordable housing is available, people will continue to drift into the ranks of the homeless, she said.
"Let's face it," said David Bryant, a former organizer in the camp and now a consultant to the city's homeless project, "everything that is being done is a Band-Aid. There are no meaningful solutions" being offered.
Permanent low-cost housing is the primary solution, he said. Another important need is programs that give the homeless more time to stay in one place so that they can stabilize their lives, he said. Programs should also provide more follow-up and support to make sure that the homeless not only find jobs but keep them, Bryant said.
For all the debate and controversy it caused, the urban campground was never proposed as a permanent solution, but rather as a stop-gap measure.
The tent city, as many called it, was established in response a growing number of "cardboard condo" encampments on Skid Row, which were getting bigger, more populous and permanent. Business leaders in Skid Row--or Central City East, as civic leaders prefer to call it--demanded that police enforce laws that prohibit sleeping on streets and sidewalks.