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.