In the early 1980s, Judith Michaelson, a talented reporter in the Los Angeles Times city-county bureau, told me about a startling new development. People were living under freeway bridges. Michaelson pursued the story and on July 11, 1982, she and Louis Sahagun reported their findings under the headline, "New Wave of Homeless."
They wrote of "the growing band of the homeless" caused by a deepening recession and federal and state budget cuts. These were families and individuals unexpectedly hit by unemployment-- "economic refugees." They constitute "an added layer to those who traditionally make up the bulk of the homeless--alcoholics, the mentally ill, the disabled..."
Everything that was wrong 37 years ago has gotten much worse. Income disparity and impossibly high housing prices are wiping out Los Angeles' middle class and putting working people on the streets. Blue collar jobs all but vanished with the decline and closing of aerospace and other manufacturing plants. Medical care costs are out of reach for working people. In addition there is growing addiction to drugs unheard of in 1982.
I don't want to let Mayor Eric Garcetti off the hook but in confronting homelessness, he is dealing with a decades-old tragedy that is woven deeply into Los Angeles' fabric.
His homeless message June 11 was both an apology for failing to solve the seemingly intractable problem and a recitation of ideas and plans that have been repeatedly proposed without success.
"As mayor, I take full responsibility for our response to this crisis," he said. "And like everyone who has seen families in tents or spoken to a homeless veteran in need, I am both heartbroken and impatient."
Garcetti's message, in the form of a letter to Angelenos, no doubt was prompted by the stinging criticism from Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote, "More than ever, the job calls for someone bold, maybe even a little reckless, the kind of leader who rewards friends and punishes enemies, knocks heads, detests blue ribbon panels, leads caravans of triage workers to every encampment, and takes a blowtorch to red tape."
Garcetti reminded residents of the many millions now available for housing for the homeless and for care, including counseling, through voter approval of city and county bonds and revenue measure. But, as Elijah Chiland reported in Curbed Los Angeles last month, the money "hasn't yet produced a single completed project though several are now under construction." NIMBYS, a reduction in federal housing funds, governmental inertia and lack of treatment for the addicted and mentally ill are all part of the problem.
Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, described the complexity of the issue in an op-ed piece for the Times: "The most frequent explanation homeless adults give for their lack of housing is the loss of a job ...Not having enough money to pay rent contributes to homelessness just as much as the lack of affordable housing does."
Flaming could have written this almost 40 years ago when Judith Michaelson told me there are people living under the freeways. The only thing that has changed is that the situation has gotten immeasurably worse.