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America’s Lowest Class

Posted on Jul 8, 2013
AP/Jae C. Hong

By Bill Boyarsky

The homeless are a powerful example of economic injustice and the failure of all levels of government to provide for the nation’s poorest.

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Yet Washington’s only response has been sequestration budget reductions that are cutting funds for housing—the best cure for homelessness—for more than 100,000, the majority of whom are families with children, mentally and physically disabled people and veterans.

That is a substantial number of the approximately 635,000 homeless people in the United States, a figure compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. That estimate is more than the population of Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver or Miami.

A disproportionate number—almost 50 percent—are African-Americans, who make up about 13 percent of the general population. In Los Angeles County, widely considered America’s homeless capital, the number of homeless increased by 16 percent to more than 58,000 in the past year.

“When we have so many people struggling, we need every resource,” said Va Lecia Adams Kellum. She is executive director of St. Joseph Center, which provides assistance to about 6,000 poor, including homeless, in the Venice area of Los Angeles, not far from the beach. “We do not have adequate housing. We do not have enough housing stock.”


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I had visited Kellum and two of her colleagues after reading the report on the increase of homelessness. I’m a resident of the so-called homeless capital and the report confirmed what I see every day.

In the mornings, my wife Nancy and I walk along Westwood Boulevard toward the UCLA campus, through one of Los Angeles’ more affluent neighborhoods, past restaurants and expensive food markets. In doorways, alleys, on bus stop benches and seated on the sidewalk we pass homeless men and women in a state of poverty, looking confused or even deranged.

That’s nothing compared to Skid Row, a kind of homeless ghetto in downtown Los Angeles. We drove through it the other night, taking a shortcut from a freeway gridlocked by Dodger baseball traffic. Men and women were packed on the sidewalks, a terrible sight in one of America’s richest cities. With shelters filled, they’d be there for the night unless they were arrested for some minor offense.

That would take them to the county jail, a couple of miles to the north, a grim facility best known for its twin towers, eight- and nine-story structures that house the mentally ill awaiting trial or who have committed a crime. With 2,200 such inmates, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca calls it the nation’s largest mental hospital.

A few weeks ago, James Coley and Robert Warfield, caseworkers for assistance organization Integrated Recovery Network, took me through the place. On the top floors, men pounded the locked doors and shouted. Some, drugged, lay senseless on their bunks or in a corner of their cells.

On lower floors, it was quieter, although overcrowding had packed the day rooms of cellblocks with bunks. Coley and Warfield interviewed inmates to see whether they were interested in the recovery network’s approach—settling them in housing, linking them up with counseling and drug rehabilitation and, hopefully, jobs. It’s an intensive strategy, requiring great patience by Coley, Warfield and their colleagues.

The same sort of personal outreach is practiced by the community teams of St. Joseph Center as they prowl the streets, parks and beaches of Venice, befriending the most distressed and long-term homeless, bringing physicians and psychologists to them, persuading them to visit the organization’s facility for food and a shower. Eventually, some would be placed in housing.

It takes a lot of effort. But St. Joseph and the Integrated Recovery Network have statistics showing that finding housing for the homeless can end their downward spiral.

That’s why it was so discouraging to hear St. Joseph’s Kellum tell of how the sequester cuts are devastating federal housing funds. It is also infuriating to see how the sequester has slipped from the notice of the attention-challenged news media. I hadn’t heard of the housing cuts until she told me, and I doubt if very many other people had either.

This isn’t the only government policy that is exacerbating homelessness.

Michael Arnold, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said the foreclosure crisis has been especially damaging. He noted that banks are buying foreclosed homes, raising rents and flipping houses for profit. “We have a lot of empty foreclosed homes because people can’t afford them,” he said. The continuing high level of unemployment makes things worse. “If people had jobs and made a living wage, they could afford housing,” Arnold said.

Housing isn’t a cure-all. The causes of homelessness are complex and go back more than half a century when well-intentioned reformers in Washington and state capitals, appalled at “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” mental institutions, closed them. They were to be replaced by community care centers, where the mentally ill could be treated near home. But few of such centers were ever built. As the 1970s began, the mentally ill drifted from the hospitals to the streets, the beginning of what we see today in cities big and small and in the suburbs. These are shattered people, too often beset by the twin curses of mental illness and substance addiction, their families long gone.

Some are incurable. But a great many can turn their lives around if given a chance. That chance begins with housing of their own and accessible medical care and counseling—opportunities that Washington seems determined to deny them.

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