Is LA the meanest city in America
to it's skid row homeless?


Is LA the meanest city in America to it's skid row homeless?
by Bill Murray

EDITOR'S NOTE: I attended the Police Commission meeting on Tuesday, July 14, and met a group of folks representing the Los Angeles Community Action Network. They explained they were there to give public comment on a just released report which lists Los Angeles as topping the list of "Meanest Cities in America" to the skid row homeless.

Los Angeles Community Policing has followed the plight of the homeless since its inception. The community of government workers, merchants and, increasingly now, residents of refurbished or new lofts and apartments in the downtown area are perhaps understandably concerned about "doing something" about LA's skid row.

But at what cost? And using what methods?

The homeless are among the weakest in our society and yet face the most challenges, too. Many are simply down on their luck and others have physical and / or mental incapacities .. and are desperate for assistance.

LACP believes this is a community issue of significant importance, because how we, as a society, treat our most needy neighbors is an indication of how developed, or UNDERdeveloped, we are .. spiritually and actually.

Here's a portion of the "Meanest Cities" report followed by a link to the entire pdf document from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless. It's primary focus is from the perspective of how the police in America's cities treat the homeless, and apply the law.

What do you think we can / should do for the skid row homeless? And what does it say about LA?

From the Report:


The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC and founded in 1989 to serve as the legal arm of the national movement to end and prevent homelessness. To carry out this mission, the Law Center focuses on the root causes of homelessness and poverty and seeks to meet both the immediate and long-term needs of homeless and poor people. The Law Center addresses the multifaceted nature of homelessness by: identifying effective model laws and policies, supporting state and local efforts to promote such policies, and helping grassroots groups and service providers use, enforce and improve existing laws to protect homeless people’s rights and prevent even more vulnerable families, children, and adults from losing their homes. By providing outreach, training, and legal and technical support, the Law Center enhances the capacity of local groups to become more effective in their work. The Law Center’s new Homelessness Wiki website also provides an interactive space for advocates, attorneys, and homeless people across the country to access and contribute materials, resources, and expertise about issues affecting homeless and lowincome families and individuals.

You are invited to join the network of attorneys, students, advocates, activists, and committed individuals who make up NLCHP’s membership network. Our network provides a forum for individuals, non-profits, and corporations to participate and learn more about using the law to advocate for solutions to homelessness. For more information about our organization, membership, and access to publications such as this report, please visit our website at



Founded in 1982, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) is a private, non-profit, national advocacy organization that exists to educate all levels of society in order to identify and put to an end the social and economic causes of homelessness. NCH is the nation’s oldest and largest national homelessness advocacy organization, comprised of activists, service providers, and persons who are, or have been, homeless and are striving toward a single goal – to end homelessness. It is the mission of NCH to create the systemic and attitudinal changes necessary to prevent and end homelessness, while concurrently working to increase the capacity of local supportive housing and service providers to better meet the urgent needs of those families and individuals now homeless in their communities.

NCH focuses its work on four policy areas: civil rights of those who are without homes, housing that is affordable to those with the lowest incomes, accessible/comprehensive health care and other needed support services, and livable incomes that make it possible to afford the basic necessities of life. The strategies we use to implement our mission are: litigation, lobbying, policy analysis, public education, community organizing, research, and providing technical assistance.

For more information about our organization, membership, and access to publications such as this report, please see the form at the end of this report or visit our website at


Ten Meanest Cities

While most cities throughout the country either have laws or engage in practices that criminalize homeless persons, some city laws or practices stand out as more egregious than others in their attempt to criminalize homelessness. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless have chosen the following top 10 meanest cities during 2007 and 2008 based on one or more of the following criteria: the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, the enforcement of those laws and severity of penalties, the general political climate toward homeless people in the city, local advocate support for the meanest designation, the city’s history of criminalization measures, and the existence of pending or recently enacted criminalization legislation in the city. Although some of the report’s top 10 meanest cities have made some efforts to address homelessness in their communities, the punitive practices highlighted in the report impede true progress toward solving the problem.

1. Los Angeles, CA
2. St. Petersburg, FL
3. Orlando, FL
4. Atlanta, GA
5. Gainesville, FL
6. Kalamazoo, MI
7. San Francisco, CA
8. Honolulu, HI
9. Bradenton, FL
10. Berkeley, CA


Narratives of the Meanest Cities

#1 Los Angeles, CA

A study by UCLA released in September 2007 found that Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services. Advocates found that during an 11-month period 24 people were arrested 201 times, at an estimated cost of $3.6 million for use of police, the jail system, prosecutors, public defenders and the courts. Advocates asserted that the money could have instead provided supportive housing for 225 people. Many of the citations issued to homeless persons in the Skid Row area were for jaywalking and loitering, “crimes” that rarely produce written citations in Los Angeles outside of Skid Row.

Crime apparently dropped 18 percent in 2006 due to the Safer City Initiative, the formal name for the crackdown that added fifty extra patrols to the Skid Row area, and is ongoing. According to the Los Angeles Times, crime declined 35 percent in the first month of 2007. Nevertheless the Skid row “crackdown” promised by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has come under fire by advocates for homeless individuals, civil rights attorneys, and homeless service providers. City leaders promised a strategy to end homelessness, including housing and services to go along with clean-up efforts in Skid Row. However, they have been slow to provide the promised housing.

Police brutality against homeless people intensified during the crackdown on crime in Skid Row. In June 2007, the Los Angeles County Community Action Network reported one example: two L.A. Police officers attacked a petite homeless woman, who may have been mentally disabled, with clubs and pepper spray. Police reportedly beat her and tied her down.

Though many business owners in the Skid Row area believe that the streets are cleaner and safer due to the Safer City Initiative, the changes come at a substantial cost to the homeless population. Advocates believe homeless residents have dispersed to areas without services. According to an Associated Press article, in January 2006, an estimated 1,345 people were living on the streets in Skid Row. A year later, only 875 people remained. Moving homeless individuals from Skid Row not only takes them away from a familiar area, but also moves them farther from service providers. Around the time of the police crackdown on Skid Row the providers in surrounding neighborhoods, such as Santa Monica and Hollywood, noticed an increase in their homeless populations, a problem for which they were unprepared. Richard, a homeless man interviewed by Tidings Online, described the problem: “Unless you get [the homeless] a place to go, they’ve got to go somewhere… They’re going to disperse. You hit a bunch of marbles in the middle, they splatter.”

In June 2009, a UN Expert on Racism, Mr. Githu Muigai, introduced his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding his visit to the United States in May and June of 2008, condemning the disparate law enforcement efforts against African American homeless persons in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. The report, issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, drew special attention to the Skid Row area of Los Angeles where law enforcement officers are increasingly arresting homeless persons for minor violations under the Safer Cities Initiative. The report says racial disparities in enforcement result in a “disproportionately high number of African-American homeless persons [taken into] the criminal justice system.”

The tactics used by police officers in Skid Row have raised legal questions and have been the target of legal scrutiny in court. In April 2007, a federal district court judge extended an injunction that was originally issued in 2003 in a lawsuit, Fitzgerald v.City of Los Angeles, filed by the ACLU to stop police from searching homeless people without probable cause. Many homeless advocates feel that Los Angeles’ most vulnerable population is being pointlessly targeted. When homeless individuals are cited for crimes, even for the most innocent violations such as jaywalking or loitering, they are rarely able to pay their fines. As a result, many are jailed and end up with a criminal record. Once a person has a criminal record, it is more difficult for them to get access to housing assistance and other services.

In December 2008, the ACLU and the city agreed to a settle the Fitzgerald case. According to the settlement, police officers may not search anyone caught jaywalking or sleeping on the street, and may not place handcuffs on anyone unless the officer is truly concerned that the detainee may be harmful, compromise evidence, or may try to escape. Due to the new mandate, Skid Row-placed officers are also required to attend trainings to educate themselves about the constitutional requirements for searching and detaining people.

In October 2007, the city settled another lawsuit – Jones v. City of Los Angeles -- in which six homeless plaintiffs challenged a law that makes it illegal to sit or lay on sidewalks. The city agreed not to enforce the law between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until it builds 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing. The parties reached the settlement after the plaintiffs, who had not been t successful in District Court, prevailed before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit found that enforcement of the law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment, as there were thousands more homeless people in L.A. County than there were shelter beds. Jones v. City of Los Angeles, 444 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2006) vacated per settlement 505 F.3d 1006 (9th Cir. 2007)

Officials say it will take three to five years to create the new housing contemplated by the settlement agreement, at a cost of $125 million. The New York Times reported that City Council officials applauded the settlement, which they said will help the local government, advocacy groups, and homeless residents “move… forward toward our shared goal of ending homelessness.” Bob Erlenbusch, former Executive Director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness and Hunger, was less optimistic, observing that the 1,250 new units of housing would only aid 2.6 percent of the city’s homeless population.

In February 2007, Los Angeles began a formalized program to decentralize the provision of shelter and services for homeless people. The project had a price tag of $100 million and called for the development of five centers throughout Los Angeles County to provide shelter and other services for homeless individuals. The goal of the project was to improve conditions on Skid Row. However, these efforts were temporarily halted because many residents did not want the shelters and other services in their neighborhoods.

Later in 2007, the California Senate passed, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the Fair Share Zoning Bill, which forces all California cities and counties to make room in their zoning plans for transitional housing and homeless shelters. The bill distributes housing and other services throughout the state instead of keeping them centralized on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Although the bill does not force local governments to build shelters, it prevents them from deterring organizations that do so.

Locations for these services are also unspecified, but the bill says that once a local government chooses a site it cannot be re-revaluated or re-zoned even if local residents complain.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please look at the constructive ideas in the full report:

Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homeless in U.S. Cities

A Report by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
The National Coalition for the Homeless

download the full Report - a 194 page pdf file document