Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Hearkening back to my homeless relief days . . .

For a couple of years after finishing grad school, Our Man in LA worked for one of Chicago's better-known homeless relief agencies. For all my complaining during those years, it was a pretty cool job. I raised funds that went directly toward homeless and near-homeless people getting a permanent roof over their heads, not to mention getting the services they needed to get a job, get off drugs, and so on. In the later years, I even became a part of the group's Public Advocacy team, helping other non-profits all over the Midwest learn to provide services and raise funds for homeless relief.

So it was with a great interest that I read the following story in the LA Times:,1,2289231.story?coll=la-headlines-california

Apparently, four suburban police departments in the LA area stand accused of picking up homeless and mentally ill people in their communities and dumping them in the middle of LA's Skid Row, which is just east of the downtown business district.

LA's skid row is something to see. You get just a few blocks away from the skyscrapers and $1,000 suit crowd, and you're in the middle of a Third World country. Garbage on the streets. Storefronts pocked with graffiti, bullet scars, and the like. Whole communities of people living in cardboard boxes.

Apparently, in the LA area, it used to be a common practice to dump those people deemed to be society's refuse right there. But now the city is fighting back, bringing news of this practice to the papers.

In Chicago, where Our Man in LA used to hang his hat, this kind of behavior was rumored and whispered about, but I never saw it proved. But here's the interesting thing about the Big Windy. During the 90s, when I worked in the homeless relief world, Chicago's downtown was going through a renaissance. Big condo buildings were going up. Low income housing was going down. The homeless population ballooned to more than 50,000 by some estimates. And, like in LA, the rumor was that the police would sometimes pick up the homeless and mentally ill folks, and move them out of gentrifying neighborhoods.

Only here's the interesting part. The cops didn't take them to skid row. Chicago's skid row - once on Madison and Monroe west of the Kennedy - had been turned into high rise and brownstone condos, not to mention the usual array of Starbucks and high-end boutiques. All but a few formerly low-income enclaves were gentrifying. Don't believe me? Look at Uptown these days.

So the cops allegedly dumped their homeless folks in the suburbs. Not the upper crust North Shore ones, where business leaders and rich folks - the kind of people who might move back downtown once their nest was empty - lived. Instead, it was to the low income ones - North Chicago and Waukegan, some of the communities in Indiana, and so on.

Like I said, none of this was ever proved back in Chi town. But I have to believe if it happens in one metropolis, it probably happens in another. We live in a country with a whole lot more homeless people after the disasters in Louisiana and Texas. Let's hope that the light of those disasters can result in us finally having leaders - on the local level as well as the state and national levels - who really want to take care of our own.

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