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L.A.'s skid row mission

Officials should build on recent progress, cracking down on criminal predators while extending help to those who need it.

November 24, 2009

Skid row in downtown Los Angeles is not what it used to be. Just three years ago, close to 10,000 people may have been living on the streets from Third south to Seventh and from Main east to Alameda, many of them the destitute and troubled single men who had long gathered in the area when they ran out of options, but joined increasingly by women and their young children. People huddled in donated tents and discarded cardboard boxes, waiting for meal times at local missions, defending themselves from the drug dealers who preyed on them or seeking them out to help dull their pain. Today, large clusters of homeless people are less common.

Last month, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that the county's homeless population has fallen by 38% since 2007, notwithstanding the steep recession.

It's easy to examine the changes on skid row and the countywide numbers and conclude that Los Angeles is tackling its homelessness problem. That would be premature. Despite the count, areas of the county formerly unaffected by homelessness have seen, for the first time, families gathered in parks or living in cars parked discreetly on side streets. The Los Angeles Unified School District reports more children coming to class from shelters or from couches or garages borrowed from friends and neighbors.

Still, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has made good on a vow to fund, so far, 1,331 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless residents, where they will receive the mental health care, drug treatment, job training and counseling they need to stay off the street for good. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky led an effort to coordinate county services to help and house skid row's most vulnerable residents, and the county has begun to replicate the program in Hollywood, Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley and Venice.

To define success, it is necessary to first define the mission. If it's to end homelessness in Los Angeles, the task appears as impossible as ever. But if it's to help some people get off the street and stay off, the success, although still small in numbers, is real.

And what if the mission is to "clean up skid row"? That is too often, and incorrectly, deemed the mission of the Safer Cities Initiative, a Los Angeles city program to reduce crime and improve services. Opponents sometimes see it as an attempt to sweep away the destitute and the suffering in order to protect property values in the area that business owners would prefer to be known as Central City East. What they often seem to miss is that it makes sense for police to target crime, not to "clean up skid row" but to protect the homeless from those who would prey on them.

Now police say skid row has become something of an open drug bazaar, where dealers and buyers who may once have done their business in MacArthur Park or other parts of town seek each other out. It may be tempting to try to wipe outcrime with a heavy hand to eliminate skid row once and for all. That would be a mistake.

It's not always easy to distinguish skid row's criminals from its victims. Homeless addicts -- and many remain on skid row -- often are recruited by dealers to sell drugs in exchange for feeding their habits. They are lawbreakers, but sending them to state prison, where there is no room, or county jails, which likewise are packed, would be to simply repeat the mistakes of recent, less-enlightened times. The city must move wisely and deftly, distinguishing between criminal predators who deserve little mercy and addicts who can be helped off the street for good with a little tough love rather than be pushed into the revolving door from street to jail to street.

If homelessness numbers truly are down, Los Angeles has a narrow window of opportunity to get help to longtime skid row residents. That window may close all too soon, when overcrowded prisons are compelled to release thousands of inmates -- many of whom will no doubt drift to skid row. When they get there, the city must be prepared to show them that crime will not be tolerated but that help is available to those who need it.

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