During the winter of 1990, New York City’s chief of transit police unveiled plans to crack down on homeless people living in subway tunnels. From that point on, William Bratton said, police would sweep into those encampments, escort hundreds of people out and bus them to shelters.
“We got some resistance over our efforts,” said Bratton, now Los Angeles’ police chief, in a recent interview. “Critics said, ‘You’ve just pushed them into the cold.’ But I said: ‘No, there’s a bus up there, and the bus will take them to a shelter. Come into the tunnels, look at the conditions and see how “inhumane” putting them on a bus is.’ ”
Soon after he became Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s police commissioner in 1994, Bratton extended the front of the battle: “We are going to flush them [homeless people] off the street in the same successful manner in which we flushed them out of the subway system,” he said.
“The man kept his word,” said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the city’s Coalition for the Homeless, which has frequently locked horns with the police. But, she added, “None of this ever helped one homeless person [permanently] get off the streets, out of the subway or into a new home.”
Amid a debate over law enforcement agencies “dumping” the homeless downtown, Bratton has made it clear that the New York model should be transported to Los Angeles, where the largest concentration of the county’s estimated 91,000 homeless crowd into several blocks of downtown Los Angeles.
But in interviews with The Times, the chief acknowledged that it might never be possible to apply this approach in Los Angeles, where the police force, the homeless population and services are vastly different.
“I don’t have here anywhere near the resources I had in New York, where police were a significant factor in changing the face of homelessness,” Bratton said. “And the face of homelessness in New York was one of incredible fear of the violence and disorder of that population.”
Bratton’s record in New York, however, remains a matter of debate. Critics say that some crimes he cracked down on had little to do with the homeless population in the first place and that he merely pushed the homeless from one place to another. Sullivan said fewer than 10% of the homeless people pulled out of the subway entered shelters, because they were afraid of the conditions there.
Bratton has made it clear that he never promised to solve the problems of homelessness in New York or Los Angeles. In New York, Bratton’s police implemented the “broken windows” program, targeting subway fare beaters, panhandlers, squeegee men, drug dealers and other petty criminals. Many of the homeless were caught up in that campaign. Where did the legions of homeless on subways and streets go?
“They went to shelters,” Bratton said. “But again, a lot of what happened was, the behavior stopped. There were no more squeegee pests. The aggressive beggars at the turnstiles were gone.
“It is not that there were fewer homeless, but they weren’t allowed to congregate in a way in which the public’s attention was drawn to their behavior.... I was just in New York last week for several days, you still see quite a few of the beggars. But the beggars aren’t chasing you down the street; they are usually sitting somewhere. It is a more benign form of street person, and there is nowhere in New York, nowhere you can find this concentration of homeless we have in L.A.”
In New York, Bratton had more places to send the homeless when he swept them off the streets. New York is the only big city in the country that has been mandated by a court to provide shelter to single adults, mothers and children. There are publicly funded shelters operating in each of the city’s five boroughs.
The city of Los Angeles has 17,934 shelter spaces and 83 single-room occupancy hotels, 76% of them downtown, according to the Shelter Partnership, a nonprofit homeless resource and education group, and the Los Angeles Housing Department. The biggest segment of New York’s homeless is composed of children and mothers; in Los Angeles, it is single adults. About 78% of Los Angeles’ single-room occupancy residents are single males, according to studies.
Homeless advocates on both coasts say a city’s supply of affordable housing has a more dramatic effect on homelessness than almost any other factor, including enforcement of laws.
Soon after New York was required by a 1981 court order to provide emergency shelter, Giuliani’s two predecessors, mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins, supported efforts to build thousands of new units, in tandem with federal funding. The goal was to get people out of shelters and into their own apartments.
The first of these units began appearing in the early 1990s, and the number of people in shelters began to drop, Sullivan said. In 1990, the year Bratton became chief of Transit Security, the number of people living in New York shelters had dropped sharply, from 28,737 in March 1987 to less than 17,000 three years later.
But after Giuliani’s administration reduced support for housing programs, the number of people in shelters began to rise dramatically.
“The city’s commitment to build affordable housing has been the real test of its efforts to deal with homelessness,” Sullivan said. “Everything else, talking about getting tough on crime, has had a negligible impact.”
As of June, New York’s shelter population had risen to 32,835, according to city statistics.
Results of a 2005 county survey found about 91,000 people living on streets and in shelters in Los Angeles County, the largest of any major metropolitan area in the country. Many wind up downtown, either dumped by other law enforcement agencies or drawn by shelters and other infrastructure.
Throughout skid row, Bratton’s crackdown on parole violators and strict enforcement of laws against public urination and sleeping on sidewalks have been met with lawsuits. In 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union won an injunction that prevents police from searching homeless people without reasonable suspicion that they are parole violators. A federal lawsuit against the city that sought to prevent police from arresting people sleeping on sidewalks if it couldn’t also provide adequate services for the homeless is on appeal before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bratton has said enforcement is based on complaints about drug dealing, graffiti and gangs and not targeted at homeless people. His policies have been met with mixed results by homeless people, advocates and the business community. And in Los Angeles, full implementation of a “broken windows” strategy has been constrained by a severe manpower shortage.
“That is the last of five safer city initiatives,” Bratton said. “We have saved the most difficult for last.”
Still, Bratton makes it clear that arresting criminals on skid row is a narrower job than solving the homeless issue.
“My responsibility is the behavior of these individuals,” he said. “My responsibility is not their housing, not their medical care, not their social needs. Those are the responsibility of city government and county government, and in those areas, both the county and the city and state have been incredibly deficient servicing that population.”
Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton contributed to this report.