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Safer Cities Backlash Hits the Media

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, February 01, 2007, at 11:23AM

Last night saw two stories on Downtown's homeless situation hit the Internet. They bring two different angles to the issue, but both are negative toward LAPD's enforcement of the Safer Cities initiative Downtown.

The first, running in the Times, says that the Downtown crackdown is causing overflow at service providers in other areas. The other, obviously written before that story went up, runs in the Weekly and accuses the Times of missing the real story in its recent praise of Safer Cities.

It seems to me that both stories fail to deliver a reasoned take on what's really happening Downtown.

This is going to be a little longer than my typical post here, so bear with me...

The Scattering Numbers Game

Ashraf Khalil and Cara Mia DiMassa paint the picture of a city that's being overrun with homeless who are fleeing Downtown's persecution.

While shelters and homeless service organizations in Pasadena, Glendale and the San Fernando Valley report no noticeable uptick in numbers, shelters to the south and west -- the places skid row denizens can directly reach by bus and by foot -- tell a different story.

"It's been a nightmare," said Brenda Wilson, president of New Image Shelter near the Los Angeles Coliseum. "We're beyond bulging. Food and supplies are way over budget."

Wilson, a 17-year veteran of local homeless services, said the situation at her shelter worsened soon after the LAPD crackdown began last fall. The 400-bed shelter was suddenly overflowing, and Wilson had to hire security guards to turn away people at the door.

"We were turning away 200 people a night," she said. "It's overwhelming -- more than we can stand."

Let's put things in perspective here. The quoted high count in September was 1800. The November 1st count, the first after Safer Cities enforcement started, was 1187. The following count was 1391 (you can see all these numbers via the Downtown Homeless Map). We have no data for the time between September and November. At the high end, though, you've got the possibility that Downtown's street-sleeping population dropped by 600 when Safer Cities took effect. That ignores traditional population drops over the winter, but we'll use that number for now.

Did 1/3 of those who left Downtown's streets (the streets, mind you, not the shelters) suddenly turn up at New Image's door wanting a bed? That seems an entirely unreasonable assumption.

Captain Smith thinks there might be something else to it.

"What I think is happening is people are just noticing it more," Smith said. "I've been getting calls from as far away as San Diego, saying they've got our homeless... Everybody can't be getting them."

Can We Believe the Numbers?

The Weekly piece is highly skeptical of LAPD's numbers when it comes to drug arrests.

Rubin of the Journal, however, does the real work and unpacks, in rather harrowing detail, those seemingly glossy numbers. Of the 1,400 arrests made by undercover cops since the Skid Row sweep began last summer, Rubin reports, a mind-blowing 1,093 were categorized as cases of "possession for sale." Think about that for a moment. The LAPD and the D.A. are claiming that they busted more than a thousand dealers in five months in one small area of the city? Who does that leave as their client base? Unless I'm missing something, the cops' own stats give the lie to the official version.

Let's get one thing straight. The buyers and sellers of drugs Downtown do not live here. They come here for the drug market. Yes, there are addicts Downtown. Yes, these people are preyed on by the drug sellers. But do these dealers come Downtown simply to sell to those living on the streets? Absolutely not.

Skid Row has been the way it has because it was a "safe" place to come buy and use drugs. Individuals would come from all over the City to make their score and then use their dope on the streets. At home there were people who might see. On Skid Row one was anonymous, just another of Downtown's homeless population.

One thousand arrests for dealing does not mean one thousand dealers. The sad state of the justice system means a guy can get busted one day and be back selling on the street just a few days later. It would be very interesting to know what the repeat rate is in that arrest statistic.

What Makes the Numbers Drop?

So what is driving the drop in the number of individuals on the street?

First, enforcement. Yes, Safer Cities is driving down the counts, but it's doing it by making Skid Row a far tougher environment in which to buy and sell drugs. When the dope man's not here, the customer base goes down. Skid Row's not as fun of a place to use when you know the cops are coming around.

Second, weather. The last month has been cold and now wet, and the number of people on the street has gone down accordingly. The January 1st count was 1146. Since then the weather's been crappy and we've seen counts of 875 and 812. Is that just a coincidence? The December 1st count fell right after some crappy weather and it was significantly lower than either of the counts around it.

We Need Safer Cities to Continue

I've said time and time again that there will be no way to improve the situation for Downtown's homeless until the drugs are pushed out of Skid Row. The drug situation looks to most eyes like homelessness, but it isn't.

We must drive away those who come Downtown to sell and to score in order to be able to help those who are truly in need. It's vital to Downtown and to this City that the Safer Cities initiative be continued and that Central division be allowed to keep the fifty officers assigned to it for that task. There's a lot of good going on down here, and it's time to keep working.

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