Thursday, November 1, 2007
The problem of homelessness continues to evolve both as a public debate and as a feature of nuts-and-bolts land use law. The nation has evolved both beyond the old days of viewing homeless people uniformly as unworthy “bums,” and beyond the days of the 1980s, when many suggested that homelessness was largely the result of heartless Republican policies. Nowhere is the new, nuanced view of homelessness a bigger issue of public debate than in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, where a mild climate allows thousands of homeless people to live on the streets—mostly notably in the city’s infamous downtown “skid row” (although the term apparently originated in Seattle).
In the city of angels, the government has struggled with the issue of whether to enforce laws against sleeping on the sidewalks. In a recent opinion column in the L.A. Times, Philip F. Mangano and Gary Blasi criticize the practice of criminalizing sidewalk-sleeping, by pointing out how expensive it is for taxpayers. One point that they fail to emphasize, however, is that one of the primary reasons for arresting people for anti-social conduct isn’t simply to stop the arrestees, but also to discourage others from engaging in the unwanted behavior.
The comentators point out that many homeless persons suffer from mental or other illnesses—a point that helps disprove both of the old stereotypes. This fact also makes it more difficult for some homeless people to accept changes that might be good for them. Moreover, the sheer number of homeless persons in Los Angeles makes the preferred solution—providing warm and protected housing for the homeless—tougher in L.A. than elsewhere.
I suggest that when the political support does not exist for the best solution, governments should consider a second-best solution, such as semi-permanent “shelving,” with a fixed communal restroom, that at least would be better than a cardboard box or a tent on the sidewalk.
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