Downtown’s skyline continues its ascent upward while at street level the battle continues for the fate of the less fortunate in Los Angeles’ halls of justice.
On April 22, the United States District Court handed down a restraining order against the Los Angeles Police Department, the county Department of Public Works, and other agencies, which prevents them from confiscating or destroying the property of its homeless citizens in the city.
This decision is merely the latest in a series of conflicts revolving around the future of homeless people, most of them minorities, specifically within the jurisdiction of the LAPD’s Central Division, as the gentrification of the Central City continues.
In the forefront of the revitalization effort is the implementation of the Safer Cities Initiative launched in 2006 by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Police Chief William Bratton. Since its inception, the program has been alternately praised for reducing the crime rate and improving the safety around the area called Skid Row, and condemned by numerous charitable organizations and community activists for unfair persecution of the disadvantaged.
Articulating the frustrations of many who oppose the initiative, Pete White, founder of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), made the following observation:
“…in a recent count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, they found that one out of every 18 African Americans are homeless in the city of Los Angeles. That is compared to 1 out of every 270 Latinos, and, one out of every 251 Whites. That number suggests that something more than people simply choosing to be poor and homeless is at play.”
White suggests that a different ploy rather than the law-enforcement-driven Safer Cities approach is in order, and a program inaugurated from a social-welfare perspective is the more pragmatic and humane approach.
Specific points about the LAPD’s methods that come under criticism include the prosecution of drug offenders as traffickers with nominal amounts of narcotics, leading to extended felony convictions which, in turn, effectively bar defendants from future aid in the way of food supplements, housing support and other assistance, often permanently. Using the rationale that small quantities indicate a substance-abuse problem and not the intent of commercial gain, social welfare activists say these lawbreakers (and society) would be better served via steering into treatment programs more likely to end the vicious cycle of incarceration and homelessness.
In a nutshell, these tactics, in White’s view, amount to the criminalization of homelessness.
“On its face the Safer Cities Initiative has been touted as an effort that targets those who prey on the poor and homeless; however, in reality, the initiative itself has been the primary predator,” White says. “It is impossible to make a bad initiative better. Instead, the costly initiative should be scrapped and the resources that are being used to criminalize should be spent in ways that truly make communities safer.”
Compounding the problem is the periodic seizure or destruction of the belongings of the destitute. These events often cause the loss of Social Security cards and other pertinent identification, which can contribute to the probability of continued dispossession.
The LAPD previously had been providing security for the Sanitation Department during its trash pickups in the vicinity of Skid Row, which is when many possessions of the homeless are confiscated. Police spokesperson Mitzi Grasso said that policy will change:
“…in compliance with the court’s decision, the LAPD will only pick up trash that has obviously been discarded, and the city attorney will address the provisions of the restraining order,” she said.