If you think politics is an incendiary subject, try talking to anyone about what to do when you have 400 homeless (200 sleeping on the streets, the rest in cars, vans and campers) as your neighbors.
Our council representative, Joe Busciano, is an ex-cop who served as a neighborhood lead officer and who knows many of his San Pedro constituents by name. Busciano's service beat covers a large swath of the most challenging (and possibly unmanageable) part of the City of Los Angeles, including San Pedro and the Port, Wilmington, Harbor City, and Watts. Why he ended up with such a huge district says a great deal about the political gerrymandering of City Council, some 26 miles to the north tethered to us by a thin, geographic thread created for the illusion we are connected. This tether was created back at the turn of the 20th Century, when Los Angeles wanted to control the new Port. Savy politicians convinced the small, working-class town on the bay to be annexed for promised benefits and bigger coffers. But we were so far away from the bustling downtown L.A. business center and the wealthier residential areas that spread out over the next 100 years or so, that they came to see the increasing industrialized Port as a dumping ground for things they didn't want or think about. To begin with they didn't want to deal with the pollution that ensued, and the health consequences for thousands. Ignored until nationally-funded activist groups finally pressured them to taking action it's been a bumpy road getting converted to less polluting methods. And in the spirit of NIMBY, City council members who lived far, far away from us began seeing us as a powerless dumping grounds in other ways - for decades sober living houses and accompanying services for the poor sprung up and even today it is common to see a gaggle of recovering alcoholics walking heel to toe down our streets as they take their morning constitutional. Police coverage here is woefully inadequate - a friend recently reported that even when the alarm in their vacationing neighbor's house signaled a burglary in the wee hours and police were called, the morning light revealed their home ransacked and the front door wide open.
So much history, so little time. But one of the consequences of being so far from the source of money and power meant that the huge District 15 we live in has only one representative and a lot of challenges. Pollution, poverty, crime, and yes, the homeless, who have been steadily increasing over the last few years to the alarm of residents and business owners alike. And with this increase has come the most contentious and divisive amongst neighbors and friends. Why anyone would want this job is beyond me but for any errors he has made I give Council member Busciano props for even trying. And stepping up into the heat.
This is probably my biggest beef with the haters, complainers, boo-ers and even the justifiably angry. When it comes to something like homelessness, opinions last night were right up there with welfare cheaters and the judgment that goes with it. The frustration is understandable, yes. There is a clear relationship between living on the streets and mental illness, drug use, sometimes in tandem. People with no money and nothing to lose resort to crime to support their habit or just because they have a paranoid episode and go after a passerby. It's a neat package and easy to tie up. But because this isn't the whole picture let's unpack it and really figure out why things have come to pass the way they have.
We don't like anything that disrupts our daily life or feels too complicated to take on, we can get mired in the powerlessness that comes from a situation that has no easy or quick solutions. Trump knows this frustration well and has banked on it getting him into the White House. Some evil, schadenfreude part of me wants him to get the big-ass title he so desperately covets and then suffer the consequences. The same anger and frustration that got him there will well and truly bury him because he cannot do any better than his predecessors.
But we don't have to run a country. Can we do better in our small community when it comes to just one of the many issues we complain about? I hear a great deal on FaceBook about businesses that have shopping carts full of stuff (one man's junk is another's treasure) the owners unwashed and sometimes out of it. Residents see them and keep a wide berth. Downtown is financially struggling so having a lady sit on a bench next to your yoga studio and swear at the top of her lungs doesn't help. And it's scary. One resident said she felt like a prisoner in her own home when an encampment (now gone) set up across the street from her.
When word got out that a facility to store belongings for our homeless population was being considered near a school, emotions erupted. The meeting last night was packed. Close to 400 people came to express their anger toward Busciano and the task force he had appointed to look at the issue and recommend solutions. A week or so earlier neighbors had spread the word about the proposed storage location through social media, quickly organized, had tee-shirts made, and took to the streets in protest. At the resulting public meeting a mob mentality was in force when a clearly strained and wary Busciano tried to quell the rising tide of angry residents. It was clear the location, one of three being considered, was now off the table, but it didn't stop the dozens who got up to shout the same thing over and over to thunderous applause. It was as if years of frustration had finally boiled over, and it had only a fraction to do with the homeless. It was more about feeling neglected, having trash-filled alleys, delays in city services, police response times, and all the things that affect struggling neighborhoods all over the country, all over the world.
So this is my question. After the angry shouts, and boos, jeering, and one accomplished goal of preventing anything involving homeless people near a school, will we commit to finding an appropriate location for storage so the City can enforce a law that restricts homeless individuals to a backpack during the day and reduce the shopping carts, tents, and litter?
Will everyone step up?
Will the crowd that had so much passion, find compassion and commitment to community service in there somewhere? Will we 400 take to the streets and volunteer for neighborhood councils, alley clean ups, neighborhood watch events, area service providers, and homeless outreach? Will we visit other storage sites, study the solutions offered by other cities, take the time to research and get signatures on a ballot initiative to raise the billions required from all of us to increase housing, services, job training? File a class-action suit to counter those from the homeless population's side? Find ways to get the funds and manpower to take drug users and mentally ill off the streets in the appropriate facilities? If government isn't cutting it then to seek private sector funding as an alternative? Or will we empty the chairs and go back to our lives, looking to others to find, fund, and implement solutions? Ideas and solutions at this meeting were buried by blind anger, disrespecting those who came to talk to us, who work on the streets and with the homeless every day. We need keep going, to do more to understand why decisions were made, rightly or wrongly, why this one solution was put forward. And then we have to live with the uncomfortable reality that our work will not end with one step forward. One goal accomplished.
This is humanity. We are not a perfectly oiled machine and biology makes for some sad and frightening aberrations, those who turn to violence, those who can no longer cope. There will always be those who fall behind, who, no matter our anger and our rage, our frustration and harsh judgements will not magically provide the answer. In that passion should be the motivation to do something constructive and practical about it. I want to see more than the same 50 people who actually get out and do the work of connecting all the dots, who live with the complexity of the world, who do their small part, however and whenever they can.
And when someone who has a steady job, who moans about those who they see as sub-human losers because of the litter they leave behind, who then drop their candy bar wrappers on my front lawn, who dump their mattresses in the alley because they don't know how to call city services for a pick up and haven't bothered to find out, that's you I'm talking to, as well as those who are just so tired when they get home and work two jobs to make ends meet. Whatever it is, it's not enough to look to others to solve our problems. It will never be anyone else's job, whether at home, or out there.
It's a simple and as difficult as that.