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Op-Ed

The cowardly way L.A. perceives its homeless only makes it harder to get them help

A message posted recently to my neighborhood’s website caught my attention. It described a homeless woman passed out on the sidewalk in the middle of the day with an open liquor bottle, her shopping cart in the street. The writer called “non-emergency” services to report the situation because it felt “unsafe.”

What was it about this pathetic scene that seemed “unsafe?” Even with the open liquor bottle, did the passed-out woman pose some threat? Why were “non-emergency” services called, when the woman might have passed out from a heart attack or some debilitating disease? If another neighbor had been found in a similar condition, would the writer have called a real emergency service, like an ambulance or the LAPD?

No doubt the answers lie in the perception that the woman was homeless, with evidence provided by that shopping cart in the street.

On a recent visit, Philip Alston, the United Nations’ monitor on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded that Los Angeles “is lagging behind other cities in attacking its homelessness problem.” The Los Angeles Times quoted him saying, “We want to see homeless people as losers, a low form of life.” In other words, as people who are entitled to no more than “non-emergency” services and who make us feel “unsafe” even when they’re unconscious and lying in the street.

Despite the proximity of a major intersection, it would be hard to declare our neighborhood unsafe. Since we moved here in 1996, the value of our home has multiplied by a factor of four; so much that we couldn’t afford to buy our own house. We’re a mile from the ocean and not far in two directions from Silicon Beach, and we’re increasingly surrounded by expensive condos. Occasionally there’s a minor crime. We lost two computers in a burglary the LAPD termed “amateurish,” for example. But compared to many parts of the city, this is an oasis.

On our street, there are several acres of city-owned property, which used to be a maintenance yard, but it’s been swept clean and enclosed by an expensive-looking metal fence. That public land could be sold for a few more mini-mansions, like those fast replacing the old beach cottages that are now wildly overpriced (more than $1 million for 2 bedrooms and 1 bath).

There is an alternative: a project for 29 families with an additional 69 units for seniors. That’s occupancy below what’s allowed by the Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance pending in the City Council. Although the most destitute couldn’t afford it, it would create vacancies lower on the economic scale, and some number of homeless people would have the chance to be just people. The project might create a “mixed” neighborhood, so residents from somewhat different economic strata could learn, as Rodney King put it, to “just get along.” But many of our neighbors are so opposed to that possibility that they’ve hired an attorney for possible legal action.

Alston also stated that America is rich enough to end homelessness. He said the lack of “political will” has created hundreds of homeless encampments, including skid row, those multiple blocks of appalling squalor in the heart of downtown LA. Will the same lack of “political will” obstruct the opportunity for our neighborhood to become at least somewhat more inclusive in a city famously enriched by diversity?

As a journalist, I’ve reported on the closing of mental hospitals and disabled veterans returning from unnecessary wars. I’ve covered the concentration of wealth, the criminalization of poverty and the people displaced by skyrocketing rents due to the housing shortage. These are among the root causes of homelessness, and they are not the building blocks of a sustainable society.

Those issues won’t be easy to resolve. But a final question remains inescapable: If neighbors like mine feel “unsafe” because of homeless people, what are they really afraid of?

Warren Olney podcasts “To the Point” for KCRW public radio.

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The Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance has not yet passed. It is pending approval in the City Council.
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