Homelessness is a societal problem with many different implications for the homeless persons. To a degree in the United States, homelessness is now becoming illegal as is helping the homeless. For certain, a society can be judged how it treats its homeless, and in the United States, the legal establishment has not been kind to the homeless.
The documentary “Lost Angeles: Skid Row Is My Home” focuses on several homeless persons who live in Skid Row in Los Angeles. Skid Row is a fifty block conglomerate of primarily single adult housing units and is a low economic area with arguably the nation’s largest homeless population. It was established by a court case, Jones v. City of Los Angeles after it was found unconstitutional under the eight amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment that police could not destroy homeless camps in Skid Row because of the city’s housing shortage and thus the actions of the homeless could not be criminalized. Skid Row is a place of institutional proportions because it is also home to a large number of mentally ill persons. When the mental asylums were closed in the 1980’s by President Reagan, the policy toward the mentally ill became one of pharmaceuticals and little else support. The reason why so many people are homeless also have mentally health issues is because of the lack of community support, and in Los Angeles, many of them end up at Skid Row. Similarly, the Cook County Jail, LA’s jail, is also the largest mental health facility in the United States. The prevalence of jail and homelessness for the mentally ill makes logical sense since many cannot create the stability in order to lead productively healthy lives. Skid Row is an institution in and of itself for the mentally ill.
One of the characters the audience meets is Lee Anne, an eccentric old cat lady who cares for the cats and birds on Skid Row. She has a full shopping cart and a fiance who follows her around, a fellow by the name of K.K. Both share a mutually beneficially relationship by taking care and looking out for one another. K.K. remarks that to a degree, they have both chosen to be on the street. For him, he wanted to be “wild” and engaged in the drug lifestyle. For Lee Anne, she prefers to live outside despite having an apartment, K.K. reveals. Lee Anne has a mental illness where she collects trash, however, she seems to be one of the souls of Skid Row who is genuinely trying to make it a better, more improved place to live by taking care of the animals. We meet Emanuel Compito, a man who voluntarily literally cleans up the streets of Skid Row with a broom and occasionally takes time to wash the streets with buckets of water. When the city continued to refuse to clean the streets, Compito took it upon himself to improve conditions for himself and his fellow Skid Rowers.
There is a great tension within the city of Los Angeles between the business owners, government leaders, and the advocates of the homeless. People who are homeless exist because we live in a capitalistic society where peoples’ value and worth is measured in financial terms. In capitalist societies, there are more people than jobs to create demand for jobs at the same time there is more available housing than there is people in the housing. Homelessness, theoretically, does not need to be a problem, it is the system it exists within that creates the problem. William J. Bratton was brought in to assist the city with “cleaning up” Skid Row. Bratton infamously helped “clean-up” New York City in the 1990’s. Bratton is a proponent of the “broken-windows” theory of policing that dictates that small quality of life policing is more conducive in the fight against crime and the chaos crime can bring. This means stopping people for simple violations and essentially taking a zero tolerance policy on law breaking. It means that the police become a large, unstoppable force with which there is no reckoning, and it wrecks devastation on the citizens it is enforced against. There is a disturbing scene when the police harass Lee Anne; she puts the contents of her cart and the belongings of other homeless folk in the street because the police informed her that they would be cleaning the street that day. In a chaotic exclamation of calamity, Lee Anne tries to salvage the belongings while managing to keep track of everything. She later finds out that she was being harassed by the police, that there was no street cleaning scheduled for that day and that because of the debacle some homeless people lost all their sleeping blankets. It is a scene that crystallizes the struggle of the homeless plight.
Bratton enforced quality of life arrests because it disproportionately puts pressure on the homeless person to live their lives in a way that does not favor their current lifestyle, the policy is intended to force these people out of homelessness as if many of them weren’t trying to begin with. For example, people violating the ordinance stating that no one can sleep on a city side walk can be fined up to $1,000, a sum of money a homeless person surely does not have.
Legally, the battle in the courts over homelessness is an issue of conduct versus status. That is, a homeless person may be protected under the law like in the Jones case against cruel and unusual punishment if they were left with no other alternative for their conduct and thus their status as a homeless person allows them more protection. However, the conduct of a homeless person for example lying on the street could be construed as illegal because of city ordinances or other public safety rules, therefore allowing the conduct to be criminalized. It is a chicken versus egg issue, one whose coin can be flipped depending on the judge or set of judges at trial. It is one in a barrage of examples of how the lives of the homeless are often left up to chance.
The film ends to remind us that:
From beginning to end “Lost Angeles: Skid Row Is My Home” is a documentary that showcases the brilliance and resiliency of the human race. However, it reminds us that the comfort of our homes is one of our own making, that any one of us really can become homeless. We meet Danny Harris, a man at the beginning of the film, who won a silver medal in the Olympics for sprinting and became homeless on Skid Row. Life is filled with an endless amount of land-mines that must be navigated in order to continue. “Lost Angeles: Skid Row is My Home” is a documentary guaranteed to make one think of what makes life worth living and what the essence of humanity is.