Mean Streets

In 1967, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, releasing thousands of inmates from state mental institutions. The intent of the law was to end the indefinite and involuntary warehousing of people with mental health disorders, developmental disabilities and chronic alcoholism. Community resources would be established, lawmakers hoped, to provide humane and effective treatment options.

By the 1980s, it was clear the law had done little more than move thousands of seriously ill people from institutions to the streets, where many faced hunger, violence and a further decline in both physical and mental health. More often than not, jails became the next generation of warehouses for the homeless mentally ill.

Homeless person on bench next to yellow trash can near beach.

Deinstitutionalization was a failure, for sure, but nobody could agree on a solution.

Skid row in downtown Los Angeles had been a gathering place for the homeless since the early years of the century. But in the years after deinstitutionalization, an increasing number of homeless people could be found in the public parks and beaches of the city’s affluent westside suburbs.

In 1986, when writer Toni Flynn and I began working on a cable TV documentary on the westside’s growing homeless population, we found the community split into warring camps.

“There’s no consensus in the community,” Santa Monica Police Chief James Keane told us in an on-camera interview. “Half the people want to feed them and half the people want them to go away.”

On one side were numerous residents and business owners who decried the homeless as dangerous, dirty and unsightly. On the other side were religious leaders, social workers and health professionals who advocated for public policy reforms as well as food and other forms of assistance for homeless people.

This latter group had an ally in City Attorney Robert Myers, a one-time staff attorney at the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, who adamantly refused to prosecute homeless people for vagrancy.

City Attorney Robert Myers in his office in Santa Monica.
City Attorney Robert Myers in his office in Santa Monica.

“It’s simply futile to say someone should be placed in jail just because they don’t have a place to sleep,” he said in an interview for the documentary. “If government is concerned they should provide the person with a place to sleep other than a jail cell.”

(The Santa Monica City Council fired Myers in 1992 for refusing to enforce a city ordinance banning overnight camping in city parks.)

Homeless on the Westside, produced for Storer Cable TV, attempted to focus attention on the issues and reduce at least some of the stigma associated with homelessness. It included numerous interviews with homeless individuals describing life on the streets, and examined many of the factors that made (and still make) chronic homelessness such an intractable problem.

Watch the Documentary

Daal Praderas filmed much of the footage and helped produce the documentary, which was nominated for a 1986 Los Angeles Area Emmy Award. Co-producer Toni Flynn joined the St. John’s Hospital homeless outreach team after finishing the documentary. She continues to write on social justice issues and is the author of two books: Finding My Way and Each Other’s Angels.

In 1986 an estimated 33,000 people were homeless in Los Angeles County. Today, that number is estimated at 55,000.

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