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The Politics of Shelter:

There’s some new energy afoot regarding the homeless, not all of it good. In early March, storage facilities in Santa Monica began refusing space to renters who could not produce proof of an address, seen by many as a move against a growing number of street people using storage facilities. Then in the last few weeks, the city of Los Angeles began paying attention to its downtown “Skid Row” in ways it never has before.Months ago, there was a piece in the LA Times describing the dichotomy of upscale downtown apartment and loft residents living right above the yelling, fighting, substance use and mental illness of the Skid Row homeless. That article gently tiptoed around the inevitability that gentrification would bring pressure to “deal” with downtown homeless in some way that looked like progress. But, you knew that phase was coming.Sure enough, video confirmation of indigent patients being “dumped” in downtown LA by area hospitals has brought on a new urgency about the homeless community there. It’s a community believed to be the largest concentration of homeless people in the Western United States. That’s a “factoid” that wasn’t kicked around much until lately.And when jaw-dropping statistics are in play, so are politics. In October, Mayor Villagarosa toured downtown LA’s Skid Row, even witnessing drug use. Last week, the Hospital Association of Southern California urged their members to revamp their policies. That’s right, they made it official: We probably shouldn’t dump human beings on the streets.But that’s not fair. Because focusing on any one reality of the condition in America known as “homeless” only keeps us from seeing all the threads in the quilt. Stop me when I cite a profile not found in the constituency commonly referred to as “the homeless”: Poor people unable to pay rent, single mothers unable to find shelter and work at the same time, drug users and alcoholics whose addictions have priority over getting off the streets, handicapped who have lost their financial and shelter benefits, young runaways, schizophrenics, war vets who have lost health care and shelter benefits, people suffering mental health problems who were turned out of facilities closed by Reagan-Bush One era cutbacks, impoverished emergency room patients without family or benefits, persons recently left homeless by hurricanes or flooding…and so on. Let me suggest that the perpetuation of “homelessness” has three component parts. Part One: We have a longtime American value expressed as “the dream of owning your own home.” We work collectively and with gusto on that shared vision because it’s good for business and the economy. But we currently have no shared vision or value that states, “No one should have to sleep on a sidewalk or in a cardboard box.” We haven’t made our minds up about that yet. Part Two: Similar to Rumsfeld’s lack of a plan after the invasion of Iraq, many social programs do not provide for housing and continuing support for persons with problems. Once they reach some level of cure or treatment, they’re on their own. It’s not that the programs don’t care, it’s that they haven’t got financing for that second part.Part Three: We think small. Millions of Americans believe God wants them to protect babies and the unborn, and they fight for that protection with personal energy and money and votes. A homeless person is somebody’s baby, grown up and in need. If we viewed Skid Row as a nursery left completely unattended for decades, maybe the words “Right to Life” would take on a more expansive meaning. Maybe that would get us past politics and on to the larger task of broadening the scope of our humanity.

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