I was recently pushed off of a panel on LA Homelessness, put on by KPCC Radio here in Los Angeles. My guess was that some did not want to hear my views on homelessness in Los Angeles, especially regarding the effectiveness of LAPD’s Safer Cities Initiative. This is what I would have shared:
Much has been made of the good work of Common Ground and others in New York for reducing homelessness, specifically their work to clean up Times Square and get everyone experiencing homelessness off of the streets and into permanent supportive housing. It was, indeed, good work. However, to draw the conclusion that the good work that has taken place in New York some how discredits the effectiveness of the work being done through LAPD’s Safer Cities Initiative and other work here is extremely naïve. The circumstances leading up to the much touted success in New York need to be put into perspective. When the initiative to clean up Times Square was launched, there were 55 people experiencing chronic homelessness on the streets. In essence, Common Ground’s excellent work reduced the numbers from 55 to 0 or 1 or 2 occasional people on the street.
During a similar time period, Los Angeles made an effort to bring order, clean up, and reduce homelessness on the streets of Skid Row. A powerful series of articles by Steve Lopez of the LA Times titled “Life on The Streets” shed a much needed light on the desperate situation precious people were experiencing on Skid Row.
Part of the response to the desperate situation Steve helped all to see was the LAPD’s Safer Cities Initiative. 50 officers were added to the force to exclusively focus on crime in Skid Row, which at that time was accurately described as “Mardis Gras on Crack”! If you’ve seen the chaotic scene from the movie “The Soloist”, let me assure you that this was no exaggeration of the conditions on Skid Row at that time. Union Rescue Mission supported and still supports the Safer Cities Initiative. We helped train the officers on responding to people experiencing homelessness and dealing with mental health issues. We joined the officers and carried on outreach while they enforced the law. Before officers carried out maximum enforcement, we were sent ahead to offer folks the services URM provides. This was all an effort to change the culture of Skid Row from lawlessness to a culture of somewhat order. And it worked!
Before Safer Cities was put into action, I would often leave the building at URM and find myself needing to jump in to an altercation to save someone from being beaten to death with pipes or worse. One episode had me standing above a man with my feet on each side of his head to protect him from vicious kicks and hits with pipes coming from the 2 men and 3 women attacking him. I shouted “I think you’ve made your point. I think he gets it” as I ducked the kicks and the swings. This was not an uncommon occurrence.
Before Safer Cities, during the two times a year when 300 young volunteers from URM would deliver care packages, we call them boxes of love, to the surrounding SRO’s and hotel rooms they would be laced with racial slurs, cussed at, threatened, and see things that made them sick to their stomachs and cause them to return to URM early and retreat to their homes. After Safer Cities, the beatings described above became less common, and our young volunteers no longer get threatened, or called racial slurs, or see things that make them ill.
While there is still much work to be done, the culture of Skid Row has changed. Many other efforts along with Safer Cities have been carried out to bring about the change. Union Rescue Mission opened a place for women and children and Senior ladies, Hope Gardens Family Center, far away from the mean streets of Skid Row, and worked with others, including LA County and Beyond Shelter, to make sure there were no women and children living on the streets of Skid Row. URM doubled our capacity, moving from housing 500 to housing 1000 precious people. While some agencies and missions responded to the recession by reducing the programs and services they offered and cut staff, since the fall of 2008, URM not only increased capacity, but tripled the number of meals served each day. We opened a wing on a floor to assist two parent families and single dads with children and focused resources to help families experiencing homelessness for the 1st time. In fact, URM is the only mission in LA that serves men, women, single moms with children, single dads with children, two parent families with children, and accepts families with teenagers!
We have not been alone. Skid Row Housing Trust, SRO Housing, and Volunteers of America built permanent supportive housing – 100’s if not 1000’s of units – and housed some of the most vulnerable of people on Skid Row. URM played a key role, with the city, to stop the dumping of hospital patients and patients from mental hospitals on the streets of Skid Row. Stopping the faucet of people pouring into Skid Row has allowed us to focus on the folks who are already here. We also played a key role in bringing about an injunction against the top gang leaders and drug dealers on the streets of Skid Row. Removing the predators preying on the precious people of Skid Row also helps us to focus on helping the people already here.
In all, together we’ve reduced the number of precious people living on the streets of Skid Row from 2000 in 2005 to 750 today. That is remarkable! I need to ask, what is more remarkable, going from 55 to 1 or 2, in Times Square, or going from 2000 to 750 on Skid Row? Don’t you think that LA should receive some credit for this transformation…at least as much as New York does?
Without question we have a long way to go. There are still too many precious vulnerable people on the streets. We should not rest while there is even one precious human being on the streets of our city. We need to live up to our name, the City of Angels. We need more services, in and out of Skid Row. We need to regionalize services so that each neighborhood, each city, each region provides opportunity for their own neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. We need more well run, permanent supportive housing, in and out of Skid Row.
URM is transitioning from emergency beds that can be merely enabling to a Gateway Program that is much more empowering, holding guests accountable for sobriety, offering case management, allowing them to pay a portion of their way rather than frittering away all of their resources and allowing them to rest in their bunks at any time and offering a place to store their valuables in return.
We need stronger law enforcement, not less. We need the officers of the LAPD to get out of their cars, off of their megaphones, and walking a beat on Skid Row and dealing with precious people face to face, community policing. We still have too much drug trade and too much violence on Skid Row. I want to share an example from this past Saturday. I was sitting in the URM lobby and I overheard a man coaching another man on how to collect money from the girls working on the streets. His advice was “to be tough and firm, brutal to those girls.”
I recognized him as muscle for the gangs on the streets. He was using the foulest of language and I could not believe he was even in our building, let alone coaching another man on how to be a strong arm debt collector. I’ve seen he and other guys chase down folks who owed them money and beat them into submission and rescued a camera crew from a beating a couple of months ago by stepping in between them. I said to him, “You can’t talk like that in this mission. You can’t talk about that in this mission.” He answered, “I have a 1st amendment right to speak to my friend.” I said, angrily, “Maybe on the street, but not here. What are you doing in here? GET OUT!” I chased him and his friend out the front door. On his way out, he said with expletives, “Life is a @#^*&#, and then YOU die!” Stuff like this still goes on every day on Skid Row. People are preyed on. Gangs take over the SRO’s, occupy corners, prey on people’s addictions, and violently collect debts. It will take even more remarkable and herculean efforts and a stepped up Safer Cities with strong community policing and an intolerance of mistreatment of human beings by all of us to move to the day when we live up to truly being the City of Angels.