Friday, February 25, 2011

The "Meanest City" at Oscar Time

Not long after I arrived in Los Angeles in early January, I came upon man who had rolled his wheelchair into the middle of Fifth Street; he gripped a fistful of bills in one hand while trying to keep a soiled brown blanket from slipping off his lap with the other, all the while yelling like a deranged maestro at cars streaming out of an alley. "Go, go, go!  What's wrong with you motherfuckers?  Can't you see my signals?  Go, go, go!" When the light changed down the block and Fifth Street traffic bore down on him, he grabbed his wheels and scurried to the sidewalk, the decibels of his shrill directions rising as a gallery of other homeless men watched impassively.

This scene was played out not on the city's Skid Row, the 50-square-block area that has been a dormitory for the homeless for decades, but a few steps from Pershing Square, in the heart of downtown. Still more homeless men and women occupied every corner of this landmark park, panhandling, cadging cigarettes, shuffling aimlessly, huddling under blankets on benches or the hard earth. In the center of this oasis of defeat, skaters glided and twirled cheerfully on the seasonal rink. In the evening, after the sanitized, guarded office buildings empty out and the concert- and theatergoers drive off into L.A.'s vast sprawl, the homeless take over the downtown like wraiths in a haunted urban dreamscape.

Homelessness is a pressing matter in my home town, too, so it may seem bad manners for a New Yorker visiting this welcoming metropolis to point a finger. But the problem seems more pronounced here than in any U.S. city I have ever visited. I am used to seeing a few homeless men and women in the main branch of New York's public library, where I have spent many hours over the years. L.A.'s Central Library is more like a dedicated shelter, where dozens of the city's down-and-out souls daily seek refuge, slouching at the tables and staring with glazed eyes into books and magazines, sleeping in the carrels, loitering in the bathrooms, or forcing their occasionally threatening conversation on the patient librarians. "Many of them haven't bathed in days, they reek," one told me, looking at once irritated by the invaders and embarrassed by his hard judgment. 

I assumed that one place the homeless would not be found was on the ubiquitous freeways. This proved to be naive. Driving to Santa Monica one morning, I encountered six ragged men at freeway off-ramps and at nearby street intersections, all bearing signs reading "Homeless" or "Veteran," and pleading for food or money. In the seaside community itself, which has its own government but is part of Greater Los Angeles, scores of homeless have occupied the beachfront park for years. Joggers, cyclists, dog walkers and strollers weave around them as if they were merely palm trees, seeming to regard the strip's denizens as permanent fixtures, like the The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and the other upscale emporia along the 3rd Street mall three blocks away.

These anecdotal observations, it turns out, are depressingly well-supported by evidence, especially a 2009 study that found Los Angeles to be the "meanest" city in the nation in treating its homeless as criminals. This distinction was accorded the city by the The National Coalition for the Homeless and The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, after the two organizations surveyed 273 cities in the country. They based their report, Homes Not Handcuffs, on the number of anti-homeless laws in a city, the enforcement of those laws, and the general political climate, among other factors. L.A. emerged on top with its strategy of ticketing, arresting, ignoring and occasionally brutalizing many of its homeless, tactics that local social service agencies and civil rights leaders had been decrying for years as not only inhuman but also counter-productive financially.

The so-called Safe City Initiative, for example, assigned a 50-police force to tackle crime on Skid Row. This crackdown cost an estimated $6 million a year, at a time when the city was budgeting just $5.7 million to serve the homeless. "Advocates found," reads the report, "that during [an] 11-month period 24 people were arrested 201 times, at a cost of $3.6 million for use of police, the jail system, prosecutors, public defenders and the courts." By some estimates, that money could have provide housing for 225 people.

Politicians have made the usual promises to furnish more housing and services for the homeless, and some progress has been made since the 2009 report. But L.A. remains the homeless capital of the country, suffering certainly from the national economic travail but perhaps more from a continuing lack of urgency on the part of many well-housed and well-fed local and state officials. Last year, some 254,000 men, women and children were homeless in Los Angeles County (pop. 10 million) at some point, and 82,000 were on the streets on any given night. Not surprisingly, almost half of them were African-American, though blacks constitute just 9 percent of the county's population; Latinos make up 47 percent of the county and 33 percent of its homeless. As many as 75 percent of people on the streets are not receiving the public benefits to which they are entitled. Some 20 percent are physically disabled, 25 percent mentally so. The wheelchair-bound traffic director was both.

At the end of January, volunteers from several agencies, public and private, conducted a count of the homeless throughout the more than 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County. The hope of all involved is that the efforts of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which leads this biannual census, and the many others groups and individuals who have been battling on behalf of the homeless, will have produced a significant reduction in their numbers. The results won't be known until later this year.

Meanwhile, there is Winter's Bone to contemplate. This "small" film is one of the ten nominees for best picture at the Academy Awards on February 27. It doesn't take much courage to predict that it will not win. It deals with a drug-addicted father who abandons his poverty-stricken family, leaving them on the edge of homelessness. Such subjects rarely, if ever, prevail at Hollywood's annual exercise in self-congratulation; better to anoint less troubling features like True GritThe King's Speech or The Social Network, which have been arriving for weeks on waves of studio hype. And when the dream makers arrive at the extravaganza on waves of couture, they will unlikely be fretting much about living in the nation's "meanest" city.

Perhaps it would be useful if, after the glitter fades, the motion picture academy held a special ceremony (dress optional) for features that might focus the city's mind a bit. The Grapes of Wrath comes to mind, for starters. Other proposals welcome.