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Wheels of Commerce Are Rolling Over the Homeless

November 27, 2002|Alice Callaghan | Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest, directs Las Familias del Pueblo, a nonprofit community center in downtown Los Angeles.

Bumps slept curled by the trash bin. It was 6:30 a.m., Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, yet the rancid air was heavy with summer-like heat. David and Faustino, members of the Catholic Worker community, left their soup kitchen as six police cars swarmed down on the homeless sleeping on Gladys Street.

Faustino, a brown-skinned fourth-generation American born in Kansas, was ordered against the wall. David, a white-skinned American, was not, and his simple, unsubstantiated claim that Faustino was a member of Catholic Worker secured Faustino's release.

There has been another raid since that first one. Police and business leaders insist that they carefully targeted criminals and were not out to harass the homeless and poor of skid row. Just the day before, business and political leaders unveiled their plan to clear skid row sidewalks. A civic party is about to get underway downtown, and the poor and homeless are not invited. "Downtown Los Angeles is on the cusp of an urban renaissance," the leaders declared.

Indeed, these business and City Hall heavyweights, led by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, went to New York the week before, inviting real estate moguls like Donald Trump to the party. Trump declared downtown Los Angeles depressing. "It needs people," he noted. Bumps is not whom he had in mind.

The business community plan, "Downtown's Human Tragedy: It's Not Acceptable Anymore," begins by asserting that downtown does not have a homeless crisis but rather a health and safety crisis. No longer acceptable is the visibility of homelessness. Its misery is barely noted.

The plan says the few who are "temporarily homeless" through circumstances not in their control will be aided by existing services. Beyond this empty offer, the business community turns a cold shoulder to the rest of skid row. The plan acknowledges L.A.'s housing shortage but says "this plan will not address housing issues at all." Notwithstanding "compassion for those in need," it is necessary for society to "take back our streets from those who cannot help themselves."

Yet it is not the streets in the financial district that the business community wants to take back. No encampments and few homeless linger there. It is the streets of skid row. There, speculators and developers see huge financial opportunity and, with city support, already have begun to convert skid row's low-cost housing to high-rent lofts.

Living on city sidewalks is unacceptable to everyone, especially the homeless. However, until and unless sufficient and acceptable shelter is available, the city cannot order people off skid row sidewalks. There are hundreds fewer shelter beds and affordable housing units than in the past. Skid row sidewalks are the housing of last resort. Every affordable housing unit on skid row has a waiting list. Providing jobs, mental health services and addiction programs will not get the homeless off sidewalks. Only affordable housing can do that.

Come January, the civic heavyweights promise to begin arresting homeless sleeping on sidewalks and stop church groups from handing out food. It is a cynical calculation that public concern for the homeless will be put away with the Christmas ornaments.

The business plan states that "a civilized society should not ever condone people living on the street in squalor." The homeless would agree. A civilized city ensures that all citizens have the fundamental human needs of food and shelter.

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