To fight homelessness, some cities provide services, some build housing, and some arrest people. Often it’s a combination of the three, but now many critics are calling on officials to de-emphasize the law enforcement element. Los Angeles is Ground Zero.
“On any given night in America, there are about 664,000 people sleeping on the street. On that same night in Los Angeles, there are more than 40,000 — the highest concentration of homeless people in any American city. Many of these homeless people can be found in downtown L.A.’s infamous ‘Skid Row’ neighborhood. This 50-square block area has been called ground zero for homelessness in the U.S. and one of the most-policed areas in the world, but the thousands bundled in sleeping bags and tents on its sidewalks every night call it home.
They’ve been doing it for decades, and though it’s frowned upon by many in the city – from politicians to law enforcement officials to business leaders to regular residents – it is an accepted reality. The Los Angeles Police Department and the homeless population of Skid Row have a kind of informal agreement that once night falls the area becomes an unofficial campsite. Tents are left standing and occupants are allowed to sleep through the night, uninterrupted by flashlights and badges. Uninterrupted, that is, if all people are doing is sleeping. Any other illegal activity remains subject to punishment, especially since the adoption of a “zero-tolerance” enforcement policy in 2006. Particularly high numbers of citations and arrests in this part of town show that for the LAPD, to permit homeless people to sleep on public property is not to look blindly on its consequences.
A 2009 joint report from the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty singled out Los Angeles as the nation’s “meanest city” in terms of police enforcement of the homeless.
But a 2007 legal settlement between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has watered down that “zero-tolerance” policy to “some-tolerance”. In the face of a 2003 lawsuit seeking to repeal a more than 40 year-old law that prohibits people from sleeping on public sidewalks, the city agreed that until it built 1,250 units of affordable housing it would not enforce the law, allowing people to sleep on public sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. anywhere in the city.
Allowing people to sleep legally on public sidewalks may not be the solution to homelessness, but many experts on homelessness and civil rights agree that it represents a major step towards a solution. Arresting people for sleeping on sidewalks criminalizes homelessness, and that, many say, sustains homelessness. Others argue that it is the homeless themselves who perpetuate their own situation by refusing services and remaining on the street. They say the only effective way to deal with them is by strict enforcement and institutionalization.
These represent two of the dominant ideological perspectives on the issue — two states of mind that have shaped this country’s approach to homelessness for the past three decades. But in recent years, some public officials and civic leaders have begun to question the existing models for dealing with homelessness, arguing that the persistence of the problem shows that what has been done up until now isn’t working. Across the country, cities and communities are trying out new strategies to address the issue, and some of them have made significant progress and actually reduced homelessness for the first time in nearly 30 years. These new approaches have much to teach Los Angeles and other American cities that continue to struggle with homelessness today…”
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