Winter’s Bone, one of ten nominees for best picture at the Academy Awards, is not likely to win. It deals with a drug-addicted father who abandons his poverty-stricken family, leaving them on the edge of homelessness—subjects that rarely, if ever, prevail at Hollywood’s annual exercise in self-congratulation, where less troubling features like True Grit, The King’s Speech or The Social Network are favored to take the top prize. And when Hollywood’s haut monde arrives on waves of couture on February 27, it will not be fretting much about living in the nation’s “meanest” city in treating the homeless as criminals.
Los Angeles earned this distinction in 2009 when the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty 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. Los Angeles emerged on top because of its strategy of ticketing, arresting and occasionally brutalizing or just ignoring many of its homeless—tactics that local social service agencies and civil rights leaders had been decrying for years as not only inhumane but also financially counterproductive.
The so-called “Safe City Initiative,” for example, assigned a police contingent of fifty to tackle crime on Skid Row, a fifty-square-block area east of downtown that has been a homeless domain for decades. 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. As “Homes Not Handcuffs” reports, “Advocates found 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 provided 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 LA 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 (population 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.
Not long after I arrived here in January for an extended stay, I came upon one man who was both. He had rolled his wheelchair into the middle of Fifth Street and, gripping a fistful of bills in one hand while trying to keep a soiled brown blanket from slipping off his lap with the other, he yelled 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 came at him, he grabbed his wheels and scurried to the sidewalk, the decibels of his shrill directions rising as a gallery of fellow derelicts watched impassively.
This scene was played out not on Skid Row but a few steps from Pershing Square, in the heart of downtown. 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 the city’s vast sprawl, the homeless take over the downtown like wraiths in a haunted encampment.
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. LA’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 at books and magazines, sleeping in the carrels, hanging out in the bathrooms or forcing their 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 judgment.
The problem reaches into every corner of the county. Driving to Santa Monica one morning, I encountered six ragged men at freeway off-ramps and at 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 as the upscale shops along the Third Street mall three blocks away.
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 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 show a significant reduction in their numbers. The results won’t be known until later this year.
While we wait, perhaps it would be useful if, after next Sunday’s glitter fades, the motion picture academy held a special screening (dress optional) of features that might focus Hollywood’s mind a bit. The Grapes of Wrath comes to mind, for starters. Other proposals welcome.