The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD's chief and a police captain for ticketing or arresting the "homeless" in skid row. The lawsuit frames the issue as the city and police taking sides with developers and powerful economic interests against a homeless population forced to live in the streets because of the failure of the city to provide adequate shelters.
Clearly, anyone who has been in the skid row area knows that there is a problem; it is considerably more complicated than put forward by the ACLU, however.
We are reminded of New York City's subway system during the 1980s, when crime and disorder threatened its future. Riders were abandoning it in droves. Everyone blamed the problem on "homelessness." Any attempt to restore order was challenged legally and represented in the media as "harassing the homeless" and putting the interests of the well-to-do over the poor.
Simple-mindedly framing the subway's problems as "homelessness" and rich versus poor was as unhelpful in New York's subways as it is in Los Angeles' skid row area.
First, skid row is a diverse community of residents, small businesses, wholesale merchants, homeless shelters, schools and places of worship. Like any community, skid row needs minimum levels of order to thrive: Children need a safe and wholesome environment; small businesses need easy access to their stores; sidewalks and streets need to be passable so residents, street users, shoppers and just plain strollers can use them; and strangers to the area must know that "street rules" exist in skid row, just as they do in wealthy suburban shopping centers.
Second, certainly the homeless have interests in skid row. The existence of many shelters and single-room-occupancy hotels ensures that they will continue to frequent the area. They have every right to do so, and it is the obligation of the police to protect their interests. Third, a good portion of those identified as homeless have problems that are far more severe than merely being without a home or job: Many are mentally disturbed or chronic alcohol and drug abusers. This group is especially troubling. Many don't want help; many can't use help; many are incapable of holding jobs or maintaining a room or an apartment; and many don't want homes or shelters -- they want to live on the streets.
In fact, many of this group are not homeless in the traditional sense. They either have been kicked out of the homes of families and friends -- for stealing from them for drugs, for instance -- or they choose not to live with relatives and friends. Some subgroups of this population are criminals.
While providing adequate shelters for those who need them and can use them is a legal and moral duty of every community, nobody should assume that the skid row problem will go away if more shelters are provided.
A street culture has evolved in skid row that is perilous for those called homeless as well as other residents and users of the area. Part of this culture is lawlessness: public urination and defecation; open sexual activities; littering the streets with garbage; blocking sidewalks; taking over blocks of walkways; prostitution; defacing public and private property and more.
Somehow, the idea has developed that in skid row tolerating the intolerable is a form of public virtue. Activities that simply would not be allowed elsewhere are justified by invoking "homelessness" and shortage of shelters. Clearly, Los Angeles has to find ways to manage its "homeless" population in humane and legal ways. But the solutions also have to be realistic: The problem is a tangled web of homelessness, pathology, drug and alcohol abuse and criminality. Allowing lawbreaking to continue serves neither the genuinely homeless nor the community.
The focus of the Los Angeles Police Department's enforcement efforts is not on the "condition" of the homeless, but on illegal behavior -- whether it is sleeping on the streets or worse. Our enforcement actions will always be lawful and built on a foundation of compassion and sensitivity to the special needs and conditions that the truly homeless face.