It's time to bring relief to the homeless in L.A.

The death of a homeless man on skid row sheds light on a problem that deserves more attention

It's too soon to know exactly what happened on the skid row street where a homeless man was shot to death Sunday by officers from the LAPD.

It will take months for police officials to, as they say, "get to the bottom of this." And that bottom is likely to be so murky and haunted by suspicion that whatever they find won't be universally believed.

In the meantime, the death of the man known as "Africa" ought to be considered more than just the latest entry in the #blacklivesmatter campaign.

This is not about black lives mattering, but about all lives mattering — and not just when they're in a face-off with police.

This tragedy reflects our collective schizophrenia about homelessness and homeless people: We count them, we feed them, we bless them at holidays with public attention. But mostly we ignore them, except when we want them to stop soiling our streets.

There are important questions to be asked about this case: How can four police officers be unable to physically restrain a single, unarmed man? Do we blame training, tactics, human error, the disorienting force of street chaos?

But the cops aren't the only ones who need to do some soul-searching.

The attention that this very public shooting has drawn should lead us to consider our own complicity.

It's time to stop with the platitudes about ending homelessness and actually bring relief to broken people living on our sidewalks and streets.

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Los Angeles' skid row covers less than a square mile on the edge of downtown, but it has the largest concentration of homeless people in the country.

It was isolated by design 40 years ago, part of a "containment" process that city officials intended both to serve the homeless population and to separate them from us.

But the "them" got bigger as mental hospitals closed and crack cocaine took hold. And the "us" got tired of long commutes and began to reclaim downtown.

That made skid row, with its tent-clogged sidewalks and waste-spattered streets, an embarrassment and impediment to our real estate renaissance.

The LAPD has estimated that 60% of skid row residents are mentally ill and 80% abuse alcohol or drugs. But the city's efforts to deal with that population and those problems have been clumsy and halfhearted.

In 2006, the Safer Cities Initiative began relying on amped-up policing to take back crime-ridden streets. The officers involved in Sunday's shooting were part of that program.

"Its fundamental strategy was to try to make life miserable for people, so they'll go someplace else and we'll recapture skid row," said Gary Blasi, an attorney with Public Counsel and an expert on homelessness. "That didn't work because they had nowhere else to go."

So last year the city began to back away from wholesale arrests and focus, with Operation Healthy Streets, on providing restrooms and storage space for skid row denizens.

But that didn't address residents' real needs: shelter, medical care, mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment.

Blasi blames a lack of leadership, funding and commitment. "Los Angeles is the worst major city in the country," he said, when it comes to providing permanent housing for chronically homeless people.

It's not that we can't afford it, he said. Getting people housed and healthy would cost less over time than we'd spend on law enforcement.

"The fundamental underlying issue is no one should be living on the streets because they have a mental health or addiction issue."

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It's hard to imagine what skid row is like unless you actually visit. And even then, it's hard to believe that something so blighted, so medieval could exist in this city, in this century.

I can't walk those streets without feeling ashamed that we let people live like this.

"We ought to be embarrassed," said the Rev. Andy Bales, head of the Union Rescue Mission, one of skid row's largest shelters and service centers. "No other city allows such suffering among so many of our brothers and sisters."

I chatted with Bales on Monday when I visited the spot — just steps from the mission's door — where the shooting occurred. He was heartsick, but not surprised, that the sidewalk confrontation suddenly went so wrong.

"It's a violent and drug-crazed environment … an impossible place for the police to maintain peace," he said.

Both Bales and Blasi believe police ought to rethink their tactics.

It might be wiser, Bales said, for an unarmed officer with special training — and armed officers nearby — to make the initial overture when a person might be mentally ill. He's seen many encounters like Sunday's go wrong, "because the officers are all using one hand to protect their guns."

Blasi suspects that years of hard-nosed policing have embittered skid row residents.

"The way people view the police makes encounters like this much more likely to happen," he said.

But he also feels for officers charged with managing social problems that we've allowed to fester.

"I don't think anybody goes to the police academy thinking their mission in life is going to be to hassle homeless people," he said. "Officers really have to develop an understanding of mental illness.... They ought to spend at least as much time training for this as they do for terrorism."

And we ought to spend as much energy creating housing for hurting people as we do trying to woo a football team and build a stadium.

Twitter: SandyBanksLAT

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