Author: Jessica Gelzer
In the early morning of Easter Sunday, two men were shot to death in a Skid Row motel. This is the first shooting of the year in downtown Los Angeles area of Skid Row, part of Central City East. The deaths serve as indication for Los Angeles policy makers to evaluate the state of Skid Row and what needs to be done to improve conditions in the homeless mecca of Los Angeles.
In October of 2005, Los Angeles Times opinions writer Steve Lopez wrote an exposé on Skid Row after spending one week on the streets talking to individuals. Timed with the recent exposure of dismal treatment of the low-income and homeless in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the articles inspired Angelenos to push for reform in Skid Row. Advocacy groups ultimately pressured Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take action to clean up the area.
The result was the Safer City Initiative. The legislation requires an extra 50 police officers to work on Skid Row, part of a new “broken windows” approach to reducing crime in the area. This strategy encourages police to target petty crimes and misdemeanors, like jaywalking and public urination, with the notion that this will prevent greater crimes. Since going into effect in September 2006, deaths in skid row have declined 36%.
“In the case of the Safer City Initiative, the ‘broken windows’ approach to policing [. . .] certainly played a role in decreasing crime – more arrests were made, incarceration rates increased, fewer people were on the street, fewer crimes are committed. Without a doubt, many serious criminals were caught in this net,” Associate Politics Professor and City Planning Commissioner Regina Freer said. “However, it is important to think about who else was caught in this net and at what cost to them and to citizens of Los Angeles who pay for increased policing, jails, and prisons”
Reverend Andrew J Bales of Union Rescue Mission, a religious-based organization helping the urban poor, said, “[Skid Row before the Safer City Initiative] was described as Mardi Gras on crack by Commander Andrew Smith. It is much safer, and there is a feeling that it is now safe to walk the streets. My friends who are homeless feel and are much safer.”
While crime in Skid Row has decreased, the controversy arises over the way in which crime is reduced. Critics of the initiative and its implementation believe that L.A.P.D. officers are harassing the homeless. The population had been decreasing, indicating that the homeless are either seeking rehab and shelter, or they are put in jail.
Bennington Evers (junior), an Urban and Environmental Policy major, previously worked as an organizing intern for Coalition L.A., a community-based organization in mid-Wilshire. “Safer Cities was a sad attempt to clean up 5th and Main for a couple months. But that being said, yes, Safer City is most likely responsible for the sudden decline in crime, but it is equally responsible for the recent slayings,” Evers said. “Once these people get out [of jail], it’s back to the pipe and back to the streets. We need to help them, not punish the people that are victims of the systemic problems that plague L.A.”
Many homeless rights advocates argue that the more money needs to be put into rehabilitation.
“Unfortunately, not enough services came at the same time as the enforcement. This forced some dispersal of people who are homeless, and though this made the streets safer, it did not provide for the needs of the people. We need more outreach, services, and housing, but the police have done their job of bringing order” Rev. Bales said.
Dr. Rachael Gonzalez, Assistant Research Psychologist at the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, and adjunct Urban and Environmental Policy teacher at Oxy, said “I think it needs to be a multidisciplinary approach to identify and work towards addressing the underlying issues of mental health, substance use disorders and other life issues like unemployment, lack of education and vocational issues . . . For those that do not get treatment the recidivism rate is really high.”
Activism continues to reform the Safer City Initiative. The American Civil Liberties Union fought for L.A.P.D. to not handcuff Skid Row residents unless the officer reasonably believes the suspect is a threat. Other activists want a federal investigation of L.A.P.D. practices. Others feel the solution to the problem is affordable housing. Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) is trying to develop and pass a permanent Citywide Residential Hotel Ordinance, based on model that has been proven successful in San Francisco.
“I think Skid Row is one of the most important parts of Los Angles and how we move forward in our policy and initiatives on Skid Row will highlight our priorities and ambition as a city ” Evers said.
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