OPINION: Across The Atlantic, Solutions To L.A. Homelessness

While the issues of extreme poverty are complex, with no easy solutions, heavy-handed responses on the part of the state and law enforcement only serve to perpetuate this brutal cycle of despair. A recent United Nations report, authored by Philip Alston, New York University professor of law and the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, focused on extreme poverty in the United States. The report was damning, and while much of it focused on areas traditionally associated with poverty, Alston also highlighted the notorious “Skid Row” neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles.

Skid Row has one of the largest populations of homeless people of any neighborhood in the United States. The 17,400 residents of Skid Row, especially the 2,521 homeless residents, are subject to near constant state repression and violence.

As Alston summarizes, “Homelessness on this scale is far from inevitable and again reflects political choices to see law enforcement rather than low cost housing, medical treatment, psychological counseling, and job training as the solutions.”

Alston observes in his report that “In Skid Row, [L.A.], 6,696 arrests of homeless persons were reported to have been made between 2011 and 2016.” This figure only scratches the surface of the history of state crackdowns there. In both 1987 and 2002, the city of L.A. attempted to clear Skid Row by enforcing petty crime laws such as anti-camping regulations that systematically displace and criminalize homeless populations.

In 2007, the practice of “patient dumping” in which homeless people who had entered the system through the hospitals or police department are simply dropped off and left in Skid Row, emerged.

Despite this seemingly hopeless state of affairs, with poverty and homelessness being criminalized rather than addressed as societal ills, there is an alternative model that has started to take shape.

Across the Atlantic, British Labour Party leaders, including Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn are proposing bold and transformative policies, such as their emergency shelters that protect vulnerable homeless populations from dangerous weather climates. This is only an example of the measures being taken to address homelessness with compassion rather than criminalization.

I believe that these ideas could potentially provide the United States, and L.A in particular, with a model for dealing with issues of extreme homelessness and poverty.

Taking office as mayor of London in May 2016, Khan inherited an unprecedented housing crisis in the capitol. Rather than deal with the problem as a policing issue, Khan, by all accounts considered a moderate, has laid out a number of innovative solutions to tackle homelessness as a human rights issue. Khan launched an aggressive inquiry into foreign ownership of primarily unoccupied buildings.

This practice of foreign investors, buying property as an investment and leaving the place vacant, has expanded widely in recent years, especially in the United States and United Kingdom. Feb. 1, Khan doubled down on his commitment, promising to give Londoners first dibs on new homes, rather than those left vacant in the hands of foreign investors, while thousands sleep on the street.

While not completely tackling the issue of homelessness, it is certainly a start that could easily be applied in L.A., one of the U.S. cities with the most property owned by foreign investors. Khan also promised to invest €15 million to purchase hundreds of homes in London for the homeless.

This plan mirrors broader schemes from the leftist wing of the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn recently made headlines by promising that if elected, his government would not only purchase 8,000 homes for the homeless, but also give local authorities the power to seize vacant houses and give them to the homeless.

As outlandish as the idea sounds, it could easily work. L.A. could readily link the vacancy of investment homes with a solution for homelessness. After all, unoccupied properties hurt the cities’ small business owners and its income revenues.  

A tax on vacant properties, beyond real estate taxes, could be used to fund new construction or home purchases for the homeless. In addition, when considering how miniscule a portion of our bloated military budget that it would take to help cities purchase or build homes, the task looks infinitely more possible.

While I cannot predict which ideas are most likely to work, these ideas change the conversation from policing to Alston’s view that extreme poverty and homelessness are human rights issues.

While extreme poverty is largely absent from present American political debate, the focus of British politicians on the issue of homelessness should inspire our city leaders. While we are students residing in L.A. county, we should challenge the city to consider bolder and more compassionate solutions to the issue of homelessness — especially for Skid Row.

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