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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Los Angeles Battleground: Skid Row

Spread across fifty square blocks southeast of Downtown Los Angeles, Skid Row has between seven and ten thousand homeless residents nightly. This homeless city has grown and diversified since its beginnings in the late 19th century, and these changes have brought about problems along with debate.

Today, this debate involves the Los Angeles’s Police Department’s Central Division and the American Civil Liberties Union; two groups devoted to creating a safer and more just society.

So what do they have to fight about?

It is a battle of ideal versus reality. The LAPD work directly with the Skid Row community and feel that they know best what policies will and will not be effective. The ACLU stands as an observer, intervening when they believe the police are doing more harm than good. An incident that took place a few years ago highlights the potential for human suffering created by this conflict.

In 2006, the ACLU rallied support to provide port-o-potties for the Skid Row population after a member saw and smelled the quantity of human waste that was being left on the sidewalks. It sounded like a great idea; a simple way to clean up Skid Row. The LAPD was strongly opposed.

Within a few hours, pimps and gangs took over the installations and began charging for their use. If a customer was interested in soliciting a prostitute or purchasing crack to use in the stall, the restroom fee was waived. The toilets immediately became cramped brothels, drug houses, and pay-to-use restrooms; all in a 4x4x7 box.

The result of this good-intentioned project was wealth for pimps and drug dealers, and a new tool of exploitation for the homeless. The areas surrounding the port-o-potties became more popular restrooms than the stalls themselves, displaying the ineffectiveness of the project for all to see and smell.

After months of fighting, the LAPD finally had the restrooms removed. While large trucks loaded the facilities to be hauled away, hundreds of homeless people stood in the street and began to applaud. The LAPD watched in affirmation.

On the flip side, the ACLU believes the constitutional rights of the homeless are at risk. Last December they helped pass a law that prevents the LAPD from issuing unnecessary petty violations and illegal searches in an effort to fight the criminalization of this homeless population. The LAPD argues that this law hinders their effective policing of the area, and that the small offenses and searches help them catch drug dealers and criminals who prey on the truly homeless.

In an LA Times article captain Andrew Smith explains that there are the homeless, and then there are those who “chose to stay on skid row because of the cheap and plentiful drugs, alcohol and prostitution.”

So why do the homeless flock to Skid Row?

Most other L.A. communities spend less than 1% of their operating budgets on homeless services or housing and cannot support more than a fraction of the Skid Row population. So those without shelter travel to the heart of the city in search of basic services. What they find are others like themselves, and the wolves.

Wolves like Jason Johnson, a gang member who had a home in Azusa but liked to hang out on Skid Row because “he liked to smoke rock cocaine and because of the ‘party’ atmosphere.” Jason stabbed a homeless man in a dispute over a bicycle in 2006.

In this struggle to help those unable to help themselves, the ACLU and LAPD both have their roles to play despite their disagreement on most issues. We can only hope that their system of checks and balances does not further disrupt the progress of cleaning up Skid Row. We need to protect both the rights and the environment of those who live in the shadows of our society.

-Sean McEvoy

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Anonymous Jordan Bunger said...

Awesome job Sean! I had no idea about the port-o-pottie system or guys like Jason Johnson who just hang out on Skid ROw, not actually homeless. Thanks for doing this research and sharing your thoughts

February 26, 2011 at 10:45 PM  
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