Election sees the homeless vie for a place on Los Angeles' Skid Row council

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The Independent US

Call it the shopping-cart election. Yesterday afternoon, five homeless men on Los Angeles's Skid Row faced off for a seat on the downtown neighbourhood council - the United States' only known elected position specifically designated for people living on the streets or in temporary shelters and flophouses.

Call it the shopping-cart election. Yesterday afternoon, five homeless men on Los Angeles's Skid Row faced off for a seat on the downtown neighbourhood council - the United States' only known elected position specifically designated for people living on the streets or in temporary shelters and flophouses.

One, who sleeps on the concrete pavement of Central Avenue, was planning to spend the day distributing sweets and cigarettes to encourage residents to come out on his behalf. Another, a former legal assistant who hit hard times, has spent the past few days encouraging his fellow down-and-outers to register to vote. He has had some success out on the streets, although, with his front teeth bashed in, he has had some trouble gaining admittance to the area's few residential housing complexes.

Two of the other candidates include a lawyer, now living in a low-rent hotel on Skid Row, and a self-described monarchist.

It is not an easy electorate to win over, to put it mildly. Many of the Row's tens of thousands of inhabitants are either addicts or mentally ill. Quite a few are veterans who never found their way back into civilian society. They tend to be diffident and angry towards the outside world and have long since lost their faith in the power of collective action. Voting is not exactly second nature to them.

And yet the issues for the 40 square city blocks known as Skid Row - just a stone's throw from the gleaming skyscrapers of Los Angeles' downtown business district - are pressing enough to demand at least some form of redress from the city council.

Skid Row has hygiene problems (a dearth of portable lavatories, many of which are used for drug deals or prostitution), crime problems, healthcare problems, security problems and increasing day-to-day social problems caused by the swelling population of women and young children, for whom few or no social services exist.

Perhaps most pressing of all is the law enforcement problem. Los Angeles's police chief, William Bratton, has been trying to apply some of the same zero-tolerance techniques he made famous in his previous job in New York. That means rousing homeless people off the pavements at dawn, arresting hundreds of people for violating a new ordinance making it a crime to lie down on city property, and combing their ranks for parole violators.

That, in turn, has created a large backlash from homeless people and their advocates, who argue the city is trying to use strong-arm tactics to sweep a glaring social problem under the carpet. The local chapter of the America Civil Liberties Union has sued the police department and challenged the constitutionality of the no-lying-down ordinance. The city is also regularly accused of trying to clear out Skid Row altogether so businesses - especially from the neighbouring garment district - can move in without feeling threatened. At the same time, homeless services are woefully underfunded. A US Conference of Mayors report in 2002 showed that Los Angeles spent barely a tenth of the money disbursed by New York, for a homeless population that is twice the size.

In theory, the 27-seat downtown neighbourhood council acts as a community sounding-board for the three city council districts that converge on the area. In practice, however, it is doubtful just how much power this and other neighbourhood councils dotted around Los Angeles really have.

Their critics say they have no more than an advisory role, and the impact on Skid Row has - in the two years of their existence - been negligible to non-existent. Alice Callaghan, a downtown homeless activist, told the Los Angeles Times that the city council was interested only in cleaning up the streets and not in housing the homeless.

"If they were interested in solving the homeless problem," she said, "they would be at the mayor's office demanding more housing."

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