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Joel John Roberts Headshot

Health Care Report Forces Homelessness Issue

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The activity in downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row reminds me of a creepy Michael Crichton sci-fi novel, where people wearing hazmat suits that make them look like Michelin men spray jets of steamed water on the sidewalks below.

But what Los Angeles is doing to its downtown sidewalks, and concurrently to its homeless population, is certainly not fiction. City leaders dispatched crews from the Department of Public Works, along with police and firefighters, to perform a major clean up of Skid Row, one of the most concentrated homeless populations in the country.

The remnants of frayed lives on the streets, from basic homeless living to non-homeless criminal activity, are being swept away. Discarded needles, human waste, and mounds of tattered clothing are being cleared out. So are the people living on the sidewalks.

But instead of providing permanent housing to these people -- although temporary shelter and services are offered -- officials are simply moving them out of the neighborhood.

These clean up efforts are not new. When business leaders in the downtown area become completely fed up with trash, panhandling, and other unsightly signs of homelessness, city leaders respond by sending in their Michelin men. When the upwardly-mobile residents of downtown's converted loft buildings are shocked by the sight of people living in their alleys and sidewalks, the city responds.

But everyone knows that, once the hazmat suits leave, homelessness will return to this infamous neighborhood. This cat-and-mouse game of keeping the city's streets clean is like guerrilla warfare against homelessness. There is confusion over who, or what, is the enemy.

This latest operation, however, is different. This time, the clean up effort was induced by a health report issued by the County of Los Angeles stating that the remnants of homeless life on downtown Los Angeles' sidewalks were in violation of health codes.

There was a time when people responded to homelessness with compassion. But, after decades of seeing little success in reducing homelessness on the streets, compassion may be fading.

More recently, economics has become the driving motivation to address homelessness. Business groups, like the United Way's Home For Good, are preaching the cost-benefit ratio of reducing homelessness. Just read Malcom Gladwell's 2006 article in The New Yorker that described how society spent one million dollars on one homeless man. Certainly, it would have been cheaper to place this man in an apartment.

Could it be that compassion and economics are not enough to convince society to seriously address homelessness?

The current Los Angeles effort to clean up Skid Row is a sign that the health of people struggling with homelessness has become a motivating factor. Could homeless Americans finally have the opportunity to be permanently housed because this country deems health to be a societal right?

In Los Angeles, one of the leaders in addressing homelessness is United Homeless Healthcare Partners. Nationally, there is now more emphasis on using Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) as a tool to end homelessness.

Everyone knows living on the streets is bad for your health. It's worse than junk food or smoking. Perhaps we need a Surgeon General's warning:

"Caution: Homelessness May be Hazardous to Your Health."