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The Skid-Row Poor Are Still Being Sacrificed to the Ritual of Progress : Homeless: Despite all their efforts, it remains questionable whether advocates of low-cost housing can resist the press of downtown development.

May 26, 1991|Jeff Dietrich | Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community, which operates a skid-row kitchen and other services

Numb hands work feverishly in the cold, stringing up sheets of crumpled plastic over thin walls of soiled cardboard. In the morning, the black and whites will drive by, unceremoniously rousting the sleeping residents, while city work crews haul their sodden shelters off as garbage.

In vain, it seems, policy-makers search for solutions to these Skid Row encampments. Yet, as far back as 1729, a well-known British writer offered an unusual option to similar problems his government was having in Ireland. Jonathan Swift suggested "a fair cheap and easy way of making these (people) useful members of the community . . . " His Modest Proposal was to "eat them"!

Of course, we are appalled, as Swift's contemporaries were, at his glib, satirical use of cannibalism. But despite our pretentions of moral progress, we are as blind to the ways in which our barbaric economic policies create these problematic social conditions.

Like the 18th-Century British imperialists who forced the Irish peasants off the common lands that had sustained them for centuries, we have, since World War II, under the rubric of redevelopment, systematically invaded the last enclaves and refuges of the poor in this nation. Here, in Los Angeles, it is estimated that as many as 20,000 units of low-cost downtown housing have been eliminated since the late '60s in the name of redevelopment.

This model of development, though profitable for some, is highly detrimental to those marginal populations, without mobility or capital, who must depend upon land and tenancy for security. Its social cost is the creation of dependent refugee populations most visibly apparent in the huge Third World shantytowns and favelas, but no less visible in its First World manifestation of homeless encampments.

Our Skid Row, like all skid rows, is the outgrowth of an economic system that no longer exists. Such seedy areas, as they have manifested themselves in all U.S. cities for more than a century, have functioned as the traditional home of the single, working-class male who formed the backbone of a burgeoning industrial nation. The merchant seaman of New York's Bowery and San Francisco's Barbary Coast, the "gandy dancers" and railroad workers of Chicago's Morgan Street District, the loggers and lumberjacks of Seattle's Skid Road lived out alienated, tenuous lives divorced of any stable economic base. Thus the institution of skid row has been one that tolerates a high degree of social deviance, while providing housing for the working poor.

While the tectonic, social and technological shifts of the last 20 years have eliminated the economic function of such neighborhoods, the social function, as a refuge of tolerance in an increasingly rigorous and sophisticated culture, has become all the more essential.

As fewer of these living units become available to an increasing population of economically marginated, the social cost of redevelopment becomes evident in the growing number of people who end up on the streets with their deviances open to public scrutiny, judgment and, finally, rejection.

In an effort to redress this social cost of redevelopment, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has embarked on a program to save the last 5,000 units of low-cost housing in downtown. It remains to be seen, however, whether this incongruous action on the part of the agency to save itself from its own destructive consequences will be effective. I think not. But in the meantime, a credible attempt has been launched in the funding of two agencies with similar goals, though differing strategies, for securing Skid Row housing.

Single Room Occupancy, Inc. is a highly professional and efficiently managed non-profit corporation. Though ostensibly independent, it is actually an arm of the CRA, with interlocking boards and almost total funding by the CRA. Single Room Occupancy, Inc. effectively executes a beneficial but relatively non-controversial policy largely formulated by the CRA.

Skid Row Land Trust, Inc., on the other hand, is somewhat more controversial. Seeing its mandate as a kind of territorial imperative, it has, in opposition to the CRA and downtown developers, supported a two-year moratorium on the demolition of Skid Row housing, while aggressively pursuing its goal of putting all skid-row housing into non-profit control.

It is questionable whether the combined efforts of both these organizations, with their differing strengths and weaknesses, can build a strong enough dike to withstand the growing tides of downtown development. With land values appreciating at 25% a year, it is unlikely, in the absence of a permanent demolition moratorium, that "seedy" Skid Row hotels will long remain a viable investment option even for public funds. Time is short and available funding is even shorter.

Scripture tells us that the poor will always be with us. But like many endangered species, they face extinction as their traditional skid-row habitats are sacrificed to the religion of progress. The larger question is whether we will finally offer the bodies of the poor themselves as a form of sacramental food for the affluent in this compulsive ritual of progress.

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