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A Crackdown, and Aid Too

November 23, 2002

Los Angeles city policies have for decades deliberately concentrated chronic street dwellers in a no-man's land of crime-infested cardboard huts southeast of downtown. The intention was good: If the city funneled indigent funding to skid row, people might be guided into entry-level jobs, including some in the garment trade. But most of the people on the streets turned out to be resistant to employment, and the vision has been dismissed by most social service experts as a pipe dream.

Downtown business leaders long ago reached the same conclusion. At a press conference Monday, Central City Assn. President Carol Schatz assailed "behavior [that] ... takes the streets away from all of us." She said the downtown business organization would pursue tough new laws, such as city bans on public urination and defecation, camping on sidewalks and panhandling.

The plan has not yet won City Council backing, but the city's new police chief, William J. Bratton, promised to beef up patrols on skid row. Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes skid row, also supports the measures.

Bratton didn't waste time. Three times this week, more than 250 officers swept skid row in raids that, although mainly targeting parole violators, also rousted people sleeping outdoors.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 28, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 14 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles' skid row: There were two police sweeps of downtown Los Angeles' skid row area last week, not three as stated in a Saturday editorial. The second was spread over a night and the next morning, but was one sweep.

Other Southern California communities are ahead of Los Angeles. Last month, Santa Monica passed laws forbidding people from sleeping in doorways and charities from offering free meals in city parks. Last week Palmdale decided to issue misdemeanor citations to the scores of people who camped without permits in the desert.

The proposed L.A. laws may seem harsh. However, if Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council can couple new restrictions with programs that honestly help the addicted, ill and destitute lead productive lives, then Los Angeles could succeed where New York and San Francisco -- which have spent ever-larger amounts without making a dent in the street-dweller problem -- have failed.

The main local source for new spending on such programs is $46 million in the city's housing trust fund, set aside by the City Council two years ago to "increase the supply of housing ... affordable to all income levels."

Now the city is deciding how to spend the money. To get the biggest result, at least one-quarter should go to helping house families earning less than $15,000 a year -- which includes those headed by fast food and garment workers and security guards, plus people now living on the streets.

That sometimes means complicated solutions. People with mental illnesses and drug or alcohol addictions need treatment and other help, before or concurrent with any housing benefits. And some of the encampment dwellers, those who prey on their neighbors as thieves, rapists and drug sellers, properly belong in jail.

Californians a few weeks ago generously approved a $2.4-billion statewide affordable housing bond measure "especially for people who are poor or destitute." About one-third of it could go to Los Angeles over several years as matching funds. But such generosity won't last unless the results show on the street. That's why a policy of tough love plus compassionate pragmatism is so urgent.

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