Wednesday, May 2, 2007

LA: There's Something Happening Here

What it is ain't exactly clear.

A few months ago, at a meeting of west coast homeless organizers that was held in San Francisco, an activist from LA said that the police repression of homeless people in that city was so intense that, "if an ash falls off an African-American man's cigarette onto the sidewalk, they might find themselves face down and cuffed for littering."

Hard to believe, I thought, but we are talking about the LAPD here, so anything is possible.

A recent LA Times article offers additional evidence that LA is at the forefront of criminalizing the poor.

Police presence in the skid row area was increased by 50 officers last year, and more than 6,000 arrests have been made since last September. Since November, uniformed officers have performed street counts of homeless people every two weeks, often peering into tents and tarps with flashlights and waking people up to determine accurate numbers and gender of street sleepers.

Not surprisingly, the numbers of homeless people in downtown LA have been more than halved. Also not surprisingly, the numbers in other areas of the city and outlying areas such as Santa Monica have risen.

In a sci-fi twist that has to be seen to be believed, officers feed the exact GPS coordinates of the homeless they find into a GIS mapping system, and every two weeks a new map of downtown LA is generated. The general pattern has been one of attrition and dispersement. One can view an animation that shows the changing patterns, and download detailed 11x17 maps of homeless concentration areas.

The "Cartifact Downtown Los Angeles Homeless Map" project description is worth quoting in it's entirety:
The purpose of the downtown Los Angeles Homeless Map is to visually tell the story of downtown's homeless population. Before a problem can be solved it must be understood. These maps exist to convey the situation on the streets to City leaders, the Police Department and all those who are concerned with homelessness in our city.

Downtown Los Angeles is the epicenter of the largest homeless population in the United States. Though the problem of homelessness and the plight of those living on the streets of downtown has long been acknowledged, there has been little data to show whether the situation is becoming better or worse.

In 2006 the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division began taking counts of the homeless population living on the streets. In November the department started to take these counts every two weeks, providing the first standardized view of downtown's homeless street population.

Cartifact, a custom mapping firm located in downtown Los Angeles, approached Central division and offered its cartographic expertise. In its raw form the usefulness of the data was limited, but on a map it could be made to tell the story of a population and how it was changing over time.

The Count

Central division performs its homeless counts every two weeks. Officers canvass each block encompassed in its boundaries and make a count of men, women, children and various kinds of shelters. A log is made of the address and the number present in each category.

Creating the Map
Cartifact takes the raw data from Central division and pulls it into its GIS system. The system geocodes each address to produce coordinates for the address. The plotted points are then placed onto a map of downtown Los Angeles and styled to better convey the information. The finished map is provided back to LAPD in order to serve the needs of the department, and is also placed here for public access.
There are a number of transparent yet still remarkable fictions going on here. The first is that this is about anything other than repression, and that some form of legitimate "research" is actually occurring here. As everyone knows, a thing observed changes, especially when it is observed in an unusually obtrusive, frightening, and objectifying manner.

LA started working out their Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in 2002. In 2006, the Bring LA Home plan was completed and released. More recently, a coalition of progressive urban academics released the provocative Reality-based Approach to Ending Homelessness in LA report, which focuses on supporting livable wage and other labor-led approaches while halting the assault on the civil rights of the very poor.

One gets a strong picture of the extremely disparate elements at work in LA at the Bring LA Home Website, which seems to resolve conflict in the coalition by simply offering air time to everyone. While we can only pray that the novel approach of the LAPD does not spread to other cities, it's clear that, for both better and worse, LA is way out in front of the rest of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's scary this cartifact mapping of the location of homeless people. It's hard to believe that they are able to map with such accuracy based on physical hand count alone. So what we are viewing is not an infrared heat based image but just a simulation of movement? Hmm... and this is your first intimation of something weird and sci-fi happening with the disenfranchised in our country? Hmm...

Also want to say thank you for being a marvelous, accessible resource for information on homelessness and poverty issues and other things. Your paper is fantastic and so are the staff and vendors.