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Workers Vanguard No. 1078

13 November 2015

Homeless Hell in the City of Angels

Opulent mansions and legions of the poor: for this stark contrast Los Angeles has been called “the capital of the Third World.” Now the City of Angels has become the homeless capital of America, a city of shanties. In the past two years, the number of people living in tents, makeshift camps and their own vehicles has shot up by 85 percent in L.A. County. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, as of January there were over 44,000 homeless people in the county and 26,000 in the city itself. Once mostly confined to downtown’s infamous Skid Row, today homeless people are found everywhere, from Pasadena to the Westside, from freeway medians to community college campuses.

In the 1970s, black Democratic mayor Tom Bradley purposely concentrated the homeless on Skid Row. Downtown was a ghost town after dark, shunned by office workers and the rich alike, inhabited only by those living in single-room-occupancy hotels or in cardboard boxes on the streets. But now, with construction cranes crowding the downtown skyline, a flood of new expensive apartments and restaurants has replaced cheap hotel rooms, motels and single-room apartments—once the last refuge of the poor. Meanwhile, skyrocketing rents are driving residents out of previously working-class areas like Highland Park and Boyle Heights. Growing numbers of working people find their wages too low to afford a place to live.

In addition to those newly evicted, thousands discharged from L.A. county jails, state prisons and foster homes with no prospects end up on the streets, including up to 20 percent of those released by court order in response to California’s grotesque prison overcrowding. L.A. hospitals have become notorious for “patient dumping”—dropping mentally ill and indigent patients on Skid Row, still in their hospital gowns. Large numbers of homeless people suffer from untreated addiction and/or HIV; 30 to 40 percent are seriously mentally ill or disabled. In the filthy conditions, infectious disease is rampant; since 2007, tuberculosis has infected dozens, claiming the lives of at least eleven people. Flesh-eating, drug-resistant “Skid Row staph” infections are widespread.

The 54 blocks that make up Skid Row are home to several thousand people, the largest concentration of unsheltered people in the country. The fact that most of them are black brutally illustrates the racist reality of American capitalism. In L.A. County as a whole, 50 percent of the homeless are black, although black people make up only 9 percent of the population.

It is a damning indictment of capitalism that huge numbers of people, disproportionately blacks and Latinos, struggle for the basic necessities of life—food, housing, sanitation, employment, health care—in one of the richest cities in the country. The situation cries out for a public works program to build affordable, quality, integrated housing, schools, clinics and libraries, as well as efficient public transportation across the entire city. Union-run minority recruitment and job-training programs are desperately needed to give jobs to the unemployed at union wages. But satisfying human needs runs counter to the system of capitalism, where production and employment are determined by what is profitable. The truth is that the American rulers view the homeless as a financial burden, not worth the money to keep them alive. To reorganize society to serve the mass of humanity will require a new ruling class—the workers.

In September, Democratic mayor Eric Garcetti and several L.A. City Council members declared a state of emergency in response to the surge in homelessness, promising to allocate up to $100 million to the problem. Months later, there’s no plan and no money. “Every few years, elected officials declare a crisis in homelessness or housing and pledge to spend millions of dollars or to pass new laws to address the chronic shortage of affordable homes,” the Los Angeles Times observed in a 28 October editorial, but “promised public funding dries up or gets diverted to new crises.” The city currently allocates more than $100 million a year for the homeless, but tellingly, much of that is spent on cop crackdowns.

This summer, two new city ordinances empowered the city to seize and destroy the belongings of homeless people that are left in parks or on sidewalks for over 24 hours. Another $3.7 million went to pay sanitation workers to help the cops haul away all the possessions of homeless people. Rather than allowing its members to be used as cops’ auxiliaries, SEIU Local 721, which organizes sanitation workers and has come under attack from the city administration, has an interest in defending the homeless.

Criminalized for having no place to live, the homeless are regularly harassed and arrested by the police, fined for sleeping on the sidewalk, jaywalking or dropping cigarette ash. In the past year alone, as protests over the killings of blacks and Latinos swept the country, L.A. cops killed several homeless men (see “LAPD Guns Down Homeless Man,” WV No. 1064, 20 March).

Recent police terror has aimed at driving the homeless out of sight as Garcetti prepares his bid to host the 2024 Olympics. The Olympic plan includes developing a rail yard along the concrete-lined L.A. River for an Olympic Village to house 16,500 athletes. Real estate developers are drooling at the prospect—and the likelihood that they will be able to buy up the area at a discount afterward for upscale development.

L.A.’s real estate moguls—heirs of those who built their empires on land and water grabs in the late 19th century—created the city’s housing crisis in their quest for profits. In the early 1950s, they defeated L.A.’s plans for public housing through a racist campaign against potential integration and “creeping socialism.” The giant developers and landlords have benefited handsomely from government regulations passed in the ’70s that tightly restricted the construction of housing and drove up prices. L.A. County’s housing stock grew only 20 percent between 1980 and 2010, while the population increased by a third.

Over the past two decades, rising housing costs have led many black people to move from L.A. to the historically white, segregated suburbs. By 2006, thousands of black recipients of Section 8 housing subsidies had moved to Lancaster and Palmdale in Antelope Valley, about 70 miles north of the city, where they were met with a racist backlash. Aiming to drive black people out of town, armed sheriff’s deputies, sometimes nine at a time, conducted surprise searches of Section 8 rentals, looking for petty violations such as marijuana possession. As a result, more than 350 families lost their housing vouchers and some became homeless. City officials’ calls to “wage war” on Section 8 families they branded as “criminals” and “security threats” incited further racist attacks. In 2010, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Palmdale was firebombed, and black families’ properties were defaced with racist graffiti. This July, the L.A. County Housing Authority and Antelope Valley officials were found guilty of racial discrimination against hundreds of Section 8 voucher holders, only five of whom have had their subsidies reinstated.

The soaring rents, low wages and high unemployment driving the explosion in homelessness threaten the whole of the working class. An effective fight to reverse the long decline in wages and living conditions must include struggling against the oppression of the black population. The capitalist class uses racism to keep the working class divided and drive down wages and living conditions for all workers. Such a fight also requires defense of immigrant workers, regardless of their legal status, against deportation and discrimination. The strength of the working class lies in its ability to shut down profit at the point of production through unified struggle.

This is counter to the perspective of the labor tops in L.A., historically a viciously anti-union town. In the face of decades of attacks by city administrations, the union bureaucrats have refused to mobilize their ranks. Instead, they have pursued a losing strategy of lobbying the capitalist Democratic Party and appealing to the good conscience of the bosses. The City Council’s vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 (by 2020!) is falsely presented as proof of the success of their efforts. A higher minimum wage is good as far as it goes. But, by the union bureaucrats’ own admission, $15 an hour is not enough to survive on without public assistance. It’s well below the $33 an hour that the California Housing Partnership says is needed to afford an average L.A. apartment. Outrageously, Rusty Hicks, head of the AFL-CIO’s Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, pushed for an exemption allowing unionized workers to be paid less than the new minimum wage! (See “How Low Can You Go,” WV No. 1071, 10 July.)

Under capitalism, workers, minorities and the poor can be used, abused or thrown away like garbage in the capitalist drive to maximize profits. But the working class has the potential to do more than simply eke out a living in the bonds of wage slavery. Under the leadership of its own revolutionary party, the working class can sweep away all the barbarity of class society and begin to construct a new, socialist order. As we wrote in “LAPD Guns Down Homeless Man”:

“In just one night, a revolutionary workers government would requisition living space from fancy hotels and the mansions of the rich—put the homeless in the Wilshire Grand Hotel, Beverly Hills and the Pacific Palisades! By ripping the productive forces out of the hands of the capitalist parasites and establishing a planned, centralized economy that serves the interests of society as a whole, the victorious working class will be able to provide a decent life for all.”


Workers Vanguard No. 1078

WV 1078

13 November 2015


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