[Hpn] LA Times: Just Another Try in Paradise
Wed, 07 Jul 2004 18:35:20 -0700
I think this writer has a rather nasty edge, but I have to agree with the
Just Another Try in Paradise
Can yet another homeless plan finally succeed?
July 7, 2004
Whatever became of bums? Or winos, for that matter? Or hobos and
They're still there. We've just lumped them all together and renamed them
"the homeless." That hasn't done them much good, any more than designating a
janitor a "sanitation engineer" lifts him into the 35% tax bracket.
And we've made hand-wringing about them into an art. I have received enough
press releases announcing furrowed-brow symposiums on "What to Do About the
Homeless" to wallpaper my kitchen.
Now San Francisco, with the optimism of a city that began life as Yerba
Buena and quickly admitted its mistake, is about to try again. Its
Democratic mayor, Gavin Newsom, has his own big plan for the homeless: a
10-year model that even the Bush White House likes. Imagine, something
coming out of Sodom by the Bay that gets a thumbs up from the GOP, instead
of that other digit.
The idea: permanent homeless housing, with one-stop medical, mental and
employment services on-site. For each chronically homeless person, this
would knock down the cost from the equivalent of a year at Stanford to a
year at San Francisco State. Making this happen took 84 meetings with nearly
three dozen agencies, under the shepherdship of Angela Alioto, who will pass
purgatory and go directly to heaven, if not for the program then certainly
for the agony of the process.
There was a time in this country when the down and out were local color.
Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp. The butler on the ash heap in "My Man
Godfrey," and Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in frayed frock coats and
battered top hats in "Easter Parade." The Times devoted a page in 1952 on
how to throw a "hilarious" hobo party. The hobo was the last real American,
unfettered and free.
But reality turned out this way: With a push from "One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest," court rulings barring the busting of drunks on skid row, new
laws nixing the forcible lockup of the insane and a new generation of
budget-busters in Sacramento, the mental hospitals and the drunk tanks more
or less went out of business. Ex-soldiers, supposedly cured, left veterans
hospitals and joined the unemployed and hopeless, everyone trapped between
compassionate compulsion of "meds and beds" and the constitutional license
of the street. Sure, they were free, but sometimes they just swapped one
form of torment for another.
Conservatives didn't see a percentage in addressing the problem and slyly
left it to liberals, who worried they could never get it right. Cities like
Santa Monica opened their parks to the homeless, and restaurateurs fed them
almost biblically on leftovers, from Dodger dogs to lobster stew. But
matters never seemed to get better. Liberals such as Tom Bradley, L.A.'s
black Democratic mayor, figured that if he, a sharecropper's son, could make
it, anyone could, and he personally ordered the homeless swept off skid row.
Our paradise towns, which draw the down-and-out as well as the
up-and-spending, fretted over balancing the nuances of public urination
versus the Bill of Rights.
So, they're not charming, amusing Charlie Chaplins out there, if they ever
were. Here's a newspaper nugget about men standing "around in little
staggering groups mumbling and swearing in a state of semi-intoxication
impudently blocking the way." That was printed in January 1896. They can be
scary and smelly and menacing, but they can also be men, women and children
unmoored from their lives and families, their livelihoods and their grasp on
San Francisco is willing to try again to help them, and I say Godspeed.
The plan may work on paper ‹ a lot of them do ‹ but how will it work on
people? People who ask, Can I bring in my dog? Can I smoke? Can I get drunk
or get lucky? People who don't buy into what San Francisco is offering will
find their way back to the same major-appliance boxes. The 84 meetings may
come to naught, and the streets may start to fill again. If we don't get it
right one of these days, we'll just stop trying.
E-mail: patt.morrison@la times .com.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
A Publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
468 Turk Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
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