Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Los Angeles County takes responsibility for homeless people

   A current TV commercial tells us that “Life takes” a lot of things:  “Life takes exploration,” “risk,” “joy,” and “spontaneity,” among others.  Conspicuously absent is an assertion that life takes “responsibility.”  Responsibility is, of course, less fun. 
   Los Angeles County, California, yesterday approved a plan to introduce a bit of responsibility into urban policy toward homeless people; the homeless will be encouraged to disperse from the downtown skid rows and to go to one of a handful of scattered shelters and social service centers. 
   Policies concerning the homeless have been schizophrenic with regard to responsibility.  For a while, a popular idea was that assistance for homeless people should have to come to them.  Because of an assumption that most of the homeless were simply those who had “lost out” in our competitive society, it was considered inappropriate to demand anything of them.   The fact that homeless people tend to concentrate in public parks and in skid rows was something that society would simply have to accept.  Results of such a policy included Zurich’s infamous “needle park,” which attracted drug addicts from across Europe, and the congregation of homeless people outside San Francisco’s City Hall in the 1980s.
   Our policies have sobered up.  Many cities today realize that most homeless people suffer from drug addiction, mental illness, or other serious problems.  To allow them the “choice” of living on the street is irresponsible – both to the public and to those who endure life on the skid rows. 
   The new Los Angeles County plan (enabled by a temporary rush of property taxes into county coffers) would establish five centers spread across the county of more than 10 million people, as well as programs to keep off the street those who are discharged from mental hospitals and prisons. 
   Needless to say, watchdogs for more affluent areas have mobilized to try to stop centers from being sited near their homes.  But a proposal to give towns a veto power – which probably would have ensured that the city of Los Angeles (which has less than 40 percent of the county’s population) would be saddled with most if not all of the centers – wisely was defeated.  This is where another form of responsibility comes into play:  Suburbs have a social responsibility to assume their fair share, in some way, of a metropolitan area’s homeless problem.  (Cf. New Jersey’s Mount Laurel law).  Suburbs that wish to shrink from their responsibility should be gently but firmly pushed into line by a strong metropolitan authority, as is possible in L.A. County, which encompasses most of the metro area.  Calling Orange County? ….

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