LA ‘sterilized’ its streets for the ’84 Olympics—how will it treat the homeless in 2028?
By Jenna Chandler
July 12, 2018
Photo courtesy AP
Image: Skid Row resident Helen Oliver, photographed in May 1985. The neighborhood pictured was the target of homeless sweeps before the 1984 Olympics.
In July 1984, nearly 6 million spectators watched the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles over the course of two weeks, with 20 million more households tuning in to the opening ceremony alone. The world had arrived in LA—and the city looked spectacular.
In and around the venue, neighborhoods were festooned in banners. The streets were lined with freshly-planted flowers, cleared of trash, and adorned with new murals painted by neighborhood youth who were paid to cover up graffiti. But for some of LA’s poorest residents, the festivities only made life harder.
In 1984, the cost of renting in LA was increasingly unaffordable, and the economy was still rebounding from a recession. The problems were fueling a homeless crisis so severe that, according to College of Environmental Design dean and Professor of City & Regional Planning Jennifer Wolch, Los Angeles was known as “the homeless capital of the United States.”
In 2028, Los Angeles will host the Summer Olympics for the third time, and, the homeless crisis is just as dire, if not worse. Residents and advocates are asking: Will officials learn from the missteps of 1984 to ensure the health and safety of its most vulnerable residents?
Back in 1984, the biggest concern about hosting the Olympics wasn’t the treatment of homeless residents or amped-up security. It was money. City Councilmember Bob Ronka was so concerned the games would financially ruin Los Angeles that he helped force a citywide vote on a charter amendment that essentially guaranteed public money wouldn’t finance the games. It passed 74 to 26.
Not only was the economy weak, there was a housing shortage and an affordability crisis “of unprecedented proportions.” According to Wolch, rents skyrocketed more than 50 percent between between 1980 and 1990. The county’s unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in 1983 and 7.9 percent in 1984, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.
Those factors, combined with cuts to welfare services nationally and locally, caused LA’s homeless population to swell in the 1980s, according to a 2007 report Wolch co-authored on ending homelessness in Los Angeles. The team of researchers who wrote the report also found the crisis was fueled by rising healthcare costs, the crack-cocaine epidemic, and a “rapid growth” in the number of residents who were uninsured.
There wasn’t a clear definition for “homeless” at the time or a standard way of measuring the homeless population, but according to Wolch, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County on any given night in 1984 was between 36,800 and 59,100.
Today, those numbers are—despite a booming economy—tragically similar: 53,195 people in LA County are homeless, and the vast majority (39,826) are not in shelters. Nowhere else in the United States is the number of unsheltered residents so high.
“We still have a crisis of major proportions,” says Wolch. The drivers, she says, are the same: an extreme housing shortage and “a welfare state that has become increasingly frail—shredded really.”
Now, though, the city of Los Angeles has the money to solve the crisis. The state and local economies are thriving, and LA constituents have voted to tax themselves to pay for housing and services for the homeless. But lawmakers still lack political will to fix it. As one United Nations official said last December, after touring Skid Row, LA’s homelessness crisis is a “tragic indictment of community and government policies.”
That’s one of the reasons why a local movement of anti-Olympics organizers largely focused on social justice issues are trying to stop the games from coming to the city. Its members say the games will further “strengthen the military apparatus” of the LAPD and accelerate gentrification and displacement. The platform listed on the website: “Insist on homes, not games.”
Read the article in full on Curbed LA’s website here.