Los Angeles is reputed to be the home to the largest number of “homeless” people in the United States. The favorable climate is one reason, another is that several cities have had public policies that tried to help the “street people” survive. Most such city policies have been rescinded and replaced with programs designed to get the homeless off the street.

Los Angeles recently launched yet another police enforcement project aimed at dramatically reducing the street population in downtown’s “skid row” in large part because of a rapid gentrification of the area that has seen a renaissance of condo and loft conversions. Estimates are that 20,000 units will be added just this year, bringing a 24 hour population to downtown that has been absent for many decades.

The new police program has met criticism from groups such as the ACLU which contends people who appear to be homeless are unfairly targeted by the police. As a result of this program, the homeless population in the 10 square block area has dropped from 1,800 to 800 and there have been numerous arrests for drug possession for sale, a very rampant problem on the streets.

Compounding the problem has been a practice of several L.A. hospitals to “dump” patients without a place to go on the streets of skid row. The district attorney has launched investigations and leveled charges against this practice, the most egregious instance of which saw a limbless, wheel chair-less man dumped off before watching surveillance cameras.

In large part this success in reducing the population on skid row has merely relocated the homeless to other parts of the vast city. Mayor Villaraigosa has launched attempts to come up with comprehensive solutions including housing, job training and drug rehabilitation. Los Angeles County also has sought ways of dealing with this issue that have included locating homeless centers throughout the county so that there is not a concentration in any one area. For the most part no one seems to want such a center in their district, however.

At least one study suggests that it would be cheaper as well as more humane and effective to simply provide clean public housing for everyone on the street. Of course the problem with that solution, even if accurately portrayed, is that many who live on the streets have no interest in living in any facility. So while many, maybe most would benefit from free housing and other programs to lift them out of poverty, there remains a hard to reach slice of this population.

Of course one of the primary reasons such a group exists at all are the “reforms” to mental health law that were enacted several decades ago and resulted in many people being released from mental hospitals. For the most part they are people who can function within the rules of their own reality, they are able to feed themselves by one means or another and sustain their lives in their own fashion. Hence, they are not what the law describes as “unable to care for themselves” and cannot be held in a facility against their will.

There may be, then a certain subset who would resist any and all attempts to “help” them, some of whom are mentally healthy and who simply want to live a “homeless” lifestyle. That does not justify our lack of a viable solution for those who need our help.

One element of such a solution is, of course, another instance of the pressing need for universal health care. As it is, a homeless person gets subsidized health care only when arrested or when they go to an emergency room of a hospital. That is a very expensive form of health care, however.

In Los Angeles’ skid row, as in many large cities, there is an abundance of unused buildings that could be converted to housing. But as is recognized by L.A. County, these facilities must be spread out so that people do not have to leave their area for help. A significant portion of the homeless population is composed of single women, many of whom have children and are on the streets as a result of divorce or disappearance of a spouse or father of their children. Another growing portion is composed of people who have lost their jobs and have joined the rapidly growing number of people living below the poverty line.

There is no easy solution to this problem. There are many who feel it isn’t ours to solve, that the homeless should just stop being lazy and get to work. I reject those views, contending that ours is a community of interests, and that we can and should be our brother’s keeper. We have incredible wealth in this country, those who hold it have a moral obligation under virtually every religious tradition to share it with those less fortunate.

We need to be the solution for homelessness.

(Phil Hoskins is a Hollywood attorney who founded “Take Back West Hollywood.”)

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