The shooting of another poor person by police turns the lens on urban poverty once again

skid rowAfrica is dead. That was his name on the streets. He fought the law and the law won. It almost always does in these encounters on the streets. The law has guns, mace, tasers and batons and the guys on the streets have fists and sticks and sometimes ropy wiry muscles that are no match for the law.

This isn’t about the killing of “Africa” in Los Angeles, or about the kid in Cleveland or the guy in Ferguson or any other people on the streets who fought the law and lost. The proper thing would be a moment of silence every day to mourn their deaths and reflect on their lives. Most of us don’t know them, of course, so it will have to be global and generalized. Then we can get on with the blame-placing, the committees studying body-cam images, the protocols, the training, the racial composition of the law.

This is about the streets and people living there on Skid Row in Los Angeles, but there are other cities with similar dumping grounds for homeless people. This is about what we have done to allow such places to exist in the first place and what we can do for the people who live in them.

Poor people who have no place to live are not welcome in established middle-class neighborhoods, urban enclaves of wealth, or suburban malls and public spaces. Shelters are designed to be temporary solutions to transient homelessness, not permanent housing. In urban planning parlance, “good money” drives out “bad money” so high-end lifestyle establishments and residences choke off the neighborhoods that might have offered housing for the poor.

We know all this. We have known all this since well before Jane Jacobs ruffled the feathers of the rich and powerful. We have never been tolerant of the appearance of poor people on our main public streets, so we have tried to contain the problem. Los Angeles’ Skid Row received official designation in 1971 with streets named to mark off the sector (3rd to 7th, Alameda to Main).

Vancouver’s Downtown East Side is the place to go to  find addicts nodding on the streets, crazy people shouting at nothing, broken-down kids with tats and nose rings strung out from whatever they can get. It is a short walk from some of the the city’s main tourist attractions. Penn Station in Newark is a commuter hub and a magnet for people who live out of a duffel bag.

We know they’re there. We’re uncomfortable about it. But as long as the Los Angeles street people don’t wander around the Geffen Museum at MOCA (two blocks away) or the Grammy Museum (a bit of hike, but still. . .).

Vancouver is uneasy and troubled by its persistent Downtown East Side problem, but it would be worse if a lot of them wandered to the steam clock in Gastown.

One of the things we’ve done to allow this is to create a place to keep “them” away from “us.” A second factor is the location of social services, clinics, unemployment offices and other resources that draw poor people. If we open it, they will come. In some cases, it’s not clear which came first, the clients or the service centers. But they are there, together, and they keep poor people on those streets.

skid rowFinally, what we’ve done is ignore the problem (until a shooting puts the lens on the poor people). The War on Poverty was fought and lost 50 years ago. Yes, we had some small victories. But there are more than 600,000 chronically homeless people in the U.S. and the number of people who are homeless for a short period is probably more than 3 million people.

President Obama’s LA Promise Zone initiative primarily targets youth and students. Skid Row is not in the zone. Poor people who are homeless congregate in areas that city leaders decide can be left well enough alone. Social services strengthen the pull. And we have turned our attention to other wars.

Now what’s to be done? The Heritage Foundation would remind us that simply increasing Federal spending is not going to impact poverty. It estimates that we’ve spent $22 trillion on anti-poverty measures since the War on Poverty began. Let’s be generous and say the estimate is inflated by 50 percent. So we’ve really only spent $11 trillion. What have we missed? Why are there clusters of poor people on city streets?

I suggest that these are the steps we need to consider. None of them will work in a vacuum. They have to be done together and they have to be shaped city by city, not by a massive one-size Federal model that doesn’t fit all. Mayors may be the best architects of local solutions.

1. Much more attention paid to mental health among poor, homeless street people. We can’t afford delicacy in this matter. Some of them are unwell. How about rigorous and caring assessments of street populations, with the resources and supplies available to treat people who are identified as needing it? I know they have rights. One of them is life. Theirs may be threatened if they don’t get help.

2. Use what’s available. Amnesty International estimates that there are many more millions of empty homes and dwellings than there are homeless people.   City by city, identify the empty spaces, provide whatever social supports are required, including resident social workers and move people inside. Work out the issues of property rights and rents and subsidies. All parties give up a little to get closer to a solution.

3. Build more cheap, durable, innovative housing. New materials and new techniques make it possible to build small units that offer safe, secure, inexpensive dwellings. Build them with public-private partnerships. Later on, deal with issues like tenancy and management and supervision. Get people inside.

4. Create city workforce initiatives that employ only poor people. Collaborate with unions to earmark these jobs. Make it known that there are jobs available (fixing up city infrastructure, park maintenance, etc.). Recruit poor homeless people to these jobs.

5. Treat the street population of poor homeless people like the victims of a natural disaster. Call in FEMA and any other agencies that are tasked with helping to handle emergencies. Make this as much a natural disaster as a hurricane or a tornado.

6. Create municipal squads of semi-trained professionals to conduct a person-by-person assessment of housing and health and other basic needs. Use social work students, psychology students, pre-med students. Pay them a small stipend to work one-to-one with a homeless poor person and pay the same stipend to the poor person for being a partner in the needs assessment.

None of this will bring Africa back. But maybe some of this, in combinations that make sense city by city, will start us toward the shining city on the hill, without the human dumping ground of a downtown Skid Row.


  1. We have the means, if we had the will. The cost of basic needs of the homeless is virtually a rounding error in the Defense Department budget. Having these folk on the streets is not cost free either. There is also excessive money spent on contract prisons housing non-violent offenders of minor crimes. Reduce the prison population and pay them to take care of the “homeless”.

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