Monday, March 13, 2006


Happy Monday . . . Unless you're on Skid Row

Hope everyone had a nice weekend. Our Woman and LA had a great one together - saw a buddy perform a sketch comedy show in Hollywood, hung out a little in Pasadena (home of the LA area's first H&M store, opening soon), watched a great Sopranos episode, and cheered our teams making it to the NCAA tourney.

Actually, I did the cheering. And not all of our teams made it - DePaul (where the wife attended college) isn't in, and neither is Northwestern, Our Man in LA's undergraduate alma mater and the only school from a major athletic conference to never make it to the Big Dance. Don't even get me started on Northwestern b'ball. We hosted the first NCAA tourney in Evanston, but we've never made it.

Sigh. At least I can be happy for the Buckeyes and the Mighty Mighty Longhorns.

But that's really not what I wanted to talk about today. Another thing that happened over the weekend involved me catching up on current events and learning about this little tidbit. You can read it here:,1,5185702.story

It seems that the LAPD currently is considering two proposals for "cleaning up" LA's infamous Skid Row neighborhood in downtown. The first - not to mention the smarter - was proposed by Asst. Chief George Gascon, who seems to have his head in the right place, even if everything isn't completely thought through. Gascon argues that the problems in Skid Row are caused primarily by the abject poverty in which the area's residents live. He suggests a plan that would clear away the tent cities, and find methods to get LA's homeless people into housing and receiving the services that they need to live independently.

In the other corner, weighing in at 200 pounds of stupid and right wing, is George Kelling, a Rutgers criminologist who along with co-authors, developed the "broken windows" theory of neighborhood improvement. According to the LA Times (who will explain it better than I will, and with fewer expletives): "The theory holds that punishing lesser offenses leads to reductions in major crimes. Kelling argues that rather than removing homeless people wholesale from the streets, the LAPD should focus on criminals, including drug dealers and prostitutes, who he says create a 'culture of lawlessness' in the area."

The "Broken Windows" approach is simpler than Gascon's plan. Much simpler, and much more short-sighted, and so of course, Our Man in LA has every faith that plenty of people will see it as a wise course of action.

Because, look. If you can get the drug dealers and drug users and hookers off the street, then you won't have to look at them when you drive past on your way to the Staples Center (Go Clippers!). And then you'll think that the problem is solved, and as long as it's out of sight, it'll be out of mind, and the world will be better.


As Jules from PULP FICTION might say, "Well, then, allow me to retort."

There are only a few thousand holes in this theory. I'll just poke the really big ones.

1) We have a prison overcrowding problem in this country to begin with. Want to know why? In large part it's because of the large scale jailing of people for drug-related crimes (primarily possession). If you were to count the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses from sea to shining sea . . . you'd have a lot. How many? Well, do this for me. Imagine the populations of a few of our large and mid-sized American cities. See if you can imagine the population of Miami, Cincinnati, Des Moines, St. Louis, San Antonio, and Atlanta.

Now imagine them all in orange prison jumpsuits. There. Roughly that's the number of prisoners in there for these minor, drug-related offenses.

And that leads us to issue #2.

2) Which is, that drug abuse, whether it's legal or not, isn't really stopped with incarceration. Drug abuse is rampant in our nation's prisons. The only better-than-even shot most people with an addiction problem have at getting clean is through recovery support. That includes 12-step programs, social work, and the like.

But since there are six or seven major cities worth of junkies in the joint, there is, as you might suspect, a pretty long waiting list to get into programs like this behind bars. So addicts are untreated, and then parolled, and then they go back to the life of getting high.

3) Oh yeah, did I mention how really very hard it is out there to get a job if you've spent time in the pen? Yeah, it's pretty difficult. If you've ever filled out a job application, you've seen the section where they want to know if you've committed a felony. By the way, possession often is a felony (it varies state by state, but you get the idea). Pretty hard to move into that data entry gig and make that $25K a year so you can "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" if you've committed a crime.

That is, of course, if you've actually got job training or job skills, which you probably haven't. Because it's hard to get into those programs in overcrowded prisons, too. And the high schools in neighborhoods like Skid Row aren't so grand to begin with.

But at least - WHEW! - you don't have to live in a neighborhood with broken windows.

That's not a problem unless . . .

4) Oh right! You can't usually rent an apartment in a decent neighborhood without a background check, either, can you? So the chances of you living somewhere where the drug addicts and drug dealers aren't hanging out is pretty slim, too.

I could keep poking holes, but I figure you're getting the picture.

The bottom line is this. Neighborhoods like Skid Row are awash in crime and drugs and poverty for a reason. Arresting all the people involved in drug-related crimes won't do the job. What the city needs is a comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying causes of homelessness and poverty, and amps up programs to make sure that those causes are mitigated.

What do I mean?

Basically this. Los Angeles - and all the big cities in the USA - need to start over with a holistic approach to these problems. First, there needs to be safe, clean, and inexpensive housing available (perhaps with local or state government subsidies) for people who are homeless or at extreme risk of becoming homeless. Yes, for the law and order types, you can have a no tolerance policy. You deal drugs in one of these buildings, or pimp someone out, you get thrown out. Fine.

But the reason you can have that no tolerance policy is that you have support services on sight for those homeless and formerly homeless people, so that they can get the skills and support they need. You can get them into recovery support, so that they can get and stay clean. You can teach them how to manage their money, cook their meals, maintain a home.

And yeah, you can give them access to educational programs and job training. Give them a way to move up the ladder. Few people want to live in poverty. Few people want to commit crimes to survive or to feed an addiction. But they need a way out.

And sorry, Dr. Kelling, a prison isn't a way out. It's just a trip away from crime and poverty and addiction. A trip that's usually followed by a trip back.

The easy way out doesn't get you anywhere with Skid Row. You have to concentrate your efforts, take the long view. But it has to be something that a city, a state, and its people invest in, over the long haul.

It's great that a "broken windows" approach can reduce violent crime in big cities. That is, until you learn that a larger, longer and possibly more violent crime is being perpetrated against citizens because they've been unfortunate enough to be poor, addicted, and at the end of their rope.

If we're going to clean up Skid Row or any other place, let's actually get under the dirt. Let's deal with the problem. Covering it up, moving it around, it all only looks better for a moment.

I'm with you on the holistic approach, but while we're taking a long view on things, let's also talk about taking a long view on education in neighborhoods like Skid Row or the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago. (Two girls, 10 & 14 yrs., have been killed there by stray bullets in the last 2 weeks.)
Fixing the educational systems means having parental support. Parents need to be home to support their kids, talk to them about what's happening at school, meet with the teachers, help with homework, etc. They can't do that if they're working 2 jobs. They can't work a minimum wage job and pay the rent. Thus, affordable housing, job training, and parenting classes need to go hand-in-hand with educational reforms. When you "clean up" a neighborhood, the best way to ensure that it stays "clean" is education.
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