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Latest items syndicated in from Zocalo Public Square ( related to homelessness.

Homeless Services Don’t End Homelessness

February 17, 2016
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Homelessness is often described as a problem we must solve—and Los Angeles city and county now have expensive plans to do so. Homelessness is also an industry. And as George Mason professor Craig Willse shows in his book, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States, that industry is designed to manage costs rather than challenge the mechanisms that create and maintain homelessness. As someone who has spent eight years working in nonprofit homeless services and studying homelessness, Willse’s book struck a nerve. It also confirmed the hypocrisy of my situation—of my desire to help those most vulnerable due to their extreme poverty, and my knowledge that I’m part of an industry dependent on the existence of extreme poverty. Homeless services don’t end homelessness; they manage it. While the industry is dominated by nonprofits, there is money to be made, and we have accepted the reality that homeless services are professionalized, and offer career opportunities and—sadly—a certain security. Homelessness is not routine—it’s a deeply personal experience of suffering, and its causes are largely systemic. Many of the folks that I’ve met through my work became homeless because of the way their life and choices were constrained by forces outside their control. Larry (I’m required to use a pseudonym as a condition of my work and research with homeless people) grew up in a poor neighborhood in South Los Angeles. His father left before he was 9, and his mother struggled to provide for him and his siblings. He learned to cook and hustled for the family, but, bitter with what he saw as few options, he got into gang life, and started robbing and dealing. He was in and out of prison for nearly three decades. Out of prison, he wound up on the streets or in homeless shelters. He told me he about his aspirations to go to college and get a good job. Larry hoped to overcome the bad decisions he had made, he said, but the economy didn’t have a place for people with his record and background, and the legal system termed him a failure and pulled him back in after every slip or relapse. In my work, I have observed common themes in narratives such as Larry’s—families without resources, life-long struggles with poverty, neighborhoods with limited economic opportunities and experiences of deep trauma. Of course, many people I serve also have high psychiatric needs and chronic health conditions, but I don’t buy into the notion—common in popular, policy, and academic interpretations of homelessness—that these conditions are the primary cause of homelessness. Through false interpretations, I fear we have constructed an imaginary chronically homeless person—mentally ill, with substance abuse and other issues. That hides the life experiences and structures behind their troubles—everything from lesser education for those who are poor and have special needs, to an economy that limits social mobility, to a criminal justice system that swallows up poor people, to health care systems that underserve the poor and mentally ill, to housing markets that don’t provide enough safe and affordable options. Framing homelessness as a pathology reinforces the legitimacy of the industry and places the blame for housing deprivation on the individual. Herein lies the dilemma—I am one of many who work to support individuals to better meet those needs, but in the context of an industry that presents no challenge to the realities that largely create and exacerbate those needs.
Through false interpretations, I fear we have constructed an imaginary chronically homeless person—mentally ill, with substance abuse and other issues. That hides the life experiences and structures behind their troubles.
In my research as a graduate student in applied anthropology at California State University, Long Beach, I explored some of the limitations of supportive housing as a response to homelessness. I completed the research at Lamp Community, a nonprofit homeless services organization in the city of Los Angeles. I did life history interviews with people in the housing program, interviewed staff and administrators, all the while documenting my observations. I found that life-long courses of trauma and poverty caused housing insecurity that led people to become homeless. I also found that housing insecurity remains even once a person makes it from the streets to supportive housing. Of course, the committed work of staff in providing services and intervention can sometimes help them keep their housing, even in tenuous situations. But all such efforts are temporary, since supportive housing, like the rest of the homeless industry, fails to confront the inequality, poverty, health care, and other systems through which homelessness exists. In exploring and describing these limitations, I hoped that my research would be read as a challenge to the assumption that these programs exist solely to do good. Rather, these programs are not simply a humanitarian response to deprived populations. They are also economic endeavors, as Willse suggests, that are part of a system of homeless management. My hope was that such an analysis would inspire a rethinking of how we confront homelessness. But I also questioned whether my research would simply amount to a step forward in my professional and academic career, to be buried on a bookshelf. When the city of Los Angeles declared a state of emergency in October 2015 and committed $100 million to address homelessness, I couldn’t help but see it through this more skeptical lens. Of course there will be folks who benefit from the infusion of millions of dollars into the homeless services industry. But if we accept Willse’s thesis, then expanding the industry doesn’t bring us any closer to ending homelessness. So the state of emergency and funds appear less humanitarian and more aimed at masking the visible reminders of our disparate economic and social systems. As downtown Los Angeles gentrifies and a palpable tension between the newer tenants and those living on the streets grows, the pressure to better manage the homeless population mounts. What has been an ongoing issue for decades is suddenly framed as an emergency due to the proximity of visible poverty to idyllic housing development. Many advocates have argued that housing should be considered a human right, but in our society it is first and foremost a commodity—a commodity increasingly unaffordable for most. Still many advocates adopt the argument that housing the homeless is cheaper than leaving them on the street, as a way of getting new policies and more funding. This demonstrates how effectively economics dominates the discourse of homelessness. Take the logic to the extreme, and you understand the horror of such thinking: If homelessness and costs shift so that abandoning homeless to the streets is cheaper, should we stop trying to find them housing? There will be people who get housing and maybe enough of the much needed support to retain it as result of Los Angeles’ decision to take some action, but most individuals will continue to live in vulnerable places and without stable housing. Warehousing visible poverty in the limited pool of subsidized housing may create the appearance of a reduction in homelessness, but that’s just an appearance. Of course I want to make a difference. That’s what drew me to the field of homeless services in the first place. But the poverty and trauma I’ve seen have convinced me that we are failing. The nonprofit industry and all our emergencies will not end homeless. What will? Real advocacy that isn’t compromised by the funding of an industry. Advocacy that produces deep changes in how our economic system creates and responds to poverty, how we create housing, how people get the health care they need. While I can focus on the day-to-day work—the great team I collaborate with, the amazing people I’ve met during my time in the field, and the ways we exercise compassion and, in a small way, attempt to lessen the harshness of our broader system of violence—I’d rather simultaneously confront the hypocrite that I’ve become. I can’t help but encourage others caught in the web—advocates, case managers, clinicians, administrators, academics, politicians—to do the same. The post Homeless Services Don’t End Homelessness appeared first on Zócalo Public Square. Continue Reading

My Improbable Descent Into Homelessness

September 14, 2015
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The homelessness issue in America can feel like an overwhelming and abstract problem. As such, it’s understandable that politicians talk about it in broad terms and propose broad policies that treat all types of homelessness as the same.

But as someone who was homeless until quite recently and is committed to finding solutions, I believe the key is to address homelessness with incremental policy initiatives, targeting specific groups. And I think we should start with homeless young people, who have immense potential to change their lives with assistance.

Dad and I stayed in a Culver City motel for about a month. Then we moved into his car, a compact Geo Metro.

I was 18 and living with both my parents in Santa Monica in 2008 when the economic downturn came. My dad, a salesman in the commodities industry—primarily via telemarketing—and the sole breadwinner, was no longer able to maintain his level of income. My mother, who has Huntington’s disease, was deteriorating at a progressive rate and couldn’t take care of herself. We fell behind on our rent, and I couldn’t continue at Santa Monica College, where I had been enrolled for a semester. Finally, we were evicted and my mother went into a nursing home, partially funded and cared for by her brother. Dad and I stayed in a Culver City motel for about a month. Then we moved into his car, a compact Geo Metro.

That began a six-year journey for me. At first, my dad made a go of it in the car, finding secluded spots to park and moving around from night to night to avoid the notice of the police. My dad was trying to get work, and I was spending a lot of time at the public library reading.

I learned about the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC) shelters and wanted to access their services, but my dad, too proud to accept a handout, refused. So we split up; I moved into a shelter, he stayed in the car. We lived separately from then on, but stayed in touch and continued to support each other.

I desperately wanted to get work and develop skills. I started with telemarketing, trying to emulate my father, but I couldn’t make any real money at it. I worked retail at Sears in Santa Monica, but that was a dead end. Over time, I couldn’t make enough money to meet the savings goals that the OPCC shelter set for me. I left their program.

Eventually I decided Santa Monica was the problem, with a cost of living that’s too expensive for someone trying to pull himself out of homelessness. So I moved east into downtown Los Angeles, looking for work everywhere and moving between shelters, including PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and the Weingart Center. When my situation grew particularly bad, I even slept on the streets. The transportation system often defeated me; I’d miss a bus back from a job and miss the inflexible curfew at PATH, and spend the night visiting coffee shops, diners, and other 24-hour places.

One day in 2014, desperate for a place, I called L.A. County’s 211 phone line for housing services and learned about Jovenes, a program serving young homeless young men, ages 18 to 24. I was 24, nearly too old. But after a wait, I got in, and it made a difference.

Jovenes’ focus on a specific subset of the homeless population made its services much more effective. It was designed for people like me—there was greater flexibility with regards to curfew and such. If you were running late because of an interview or a class, you could call your case manager and explain the situation. And because my fellow Jovenes clients were around my age, it was easier to compare notes and make connections than in a typical shelter.

The transportation system often defeated me; I’d miss a bus back from a job and miss the inflexible curfew at PATH, and spend the night visiting coffee shops, diners, and other 24-hour places.

At Jovenes, I found it easier to make progress. When I got into the program, I had just finished a six-month gig at the L.A. Food Bank. Jovenes helped me find warehouse positions that allowed me to save enough to put down first and last months’ rent for an apartment owned by the organization. I now pay rent on $500-a-month unit in the South Park neighborhood near downtown. (Thanks to an additionally subsidy program, I’m slowly building up to the full amount over 12 months.)

I also have found time to go back to school at Santa Monica College. It’s a hike, but Santa Monica has a strong transfer rate; in two years, I expect to have an associate’s degree, and then transfer to USC (just a mile away from my house).

I don’t want to make the Jovenes program seem perfect. It isn’t. And I know it doesn’t work for everyone. Still, I think they have very innovative and effective systems in place, designed for a specific demographic. I understand why the other shelters I stayed at had certain regulations and rules. Parents with minor children, recovering drug addicts, disabled veterans and the mentally ill all have different needs. And so do homeless youth. The biggest mistake that’s being made in the homelessness services field is trying to use a one-size-fits-all approach.

I’m still working to improve my life and those of my peers. In particular, I’m motivated to address and combat the issue of youth homelessness. One part of this was serving as a counter in the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA)’s Homeless Count. The goal is to improve how we figure out the size of the homeless population. One focus has been to get out in the field and do more counting of homeless youth (who might be living on the streets or in a car, as I once did). The counts are also reaching into new regions that were missed before; I was part of the first youth count in East Los Angeles.

I think there’s real potential for homeless young people to help each other—to learn from our mistakes and to bond over our successes. A young person can go from an orphan or homeless or in a gang to being a fully formed successful adult—in the space of two or three or five years. I’m fortunate to be one of those who have changed.

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Homelessness Is Not Inevitable

June 30, 2015
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Ten years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez attended what he refers to as a “dog and pony show” on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Its topic: the plan to end homelessness. “And yet,” Lopez told a standing-room-only crowd at a “Thinking L.A.” event co-presented by UCLA and Zócalo at the Plaza on Olvera Street, “homelessness is still going on.” Thinking LA-logo-smaller Lopez moderated a panel on why, despite years of discussion, people continue to live on the streets—and what can actually be done to change it. He was joined by L.A. County Housing for Health director Marc Trotz, UCLA psychiatrist Kenneth Wells, Ocean Park Community Center executive director John Maceri, and Christine Margiotta, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs alumna and vice president of community impact at United Way of Greater Los Angeles. The group agreed that while progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go. Obstacles ranging from skyrocketing housing costs and insufficient state and federal funding to social stigma are sending greater numbers of Americans onto the streets in cities. “Outreach is not organized well enough in L.A.,” Trotz said. “I work on Skid Row, with the largest homeless population anywhere, and on any given day I walk out and don’t see an outreach worker. The scale that’s necessary isn’t there.” Margiotta illustrated the extent of the problem by pointing out that while Los Angeles has made a major push to increase affordable housing, the homeless population is still outpacing what’s being provided. In the past two years, 7,500 veterans have made it off the streets, yet the net count of homeless veterans has only gone down by 300 people. “A tremendous amount of people became homeless in that time,” she said. Maceri described an 82-year-old woman named Betty whom he found hunched over, “almost catatonic” on a Santa Monica park bench in the middle of a rainstorm. “Why, in the richest country in the world, with such capacity for innovation, have we set the bar so low that we can have mass encampments in our streets and leave senior citizens to fend for themselves?” he asked the crowd. “I have a godson who just graduated form high school, and he has never known a country with anything other than large-scale street homelessness. It seems like the bar is so low that it has become the new social norm.” Lopez encouraged all the panelists to share their personal experiences interacting with people on the streets. Lopez’s book The Soloist tells the story of his friendship with a schizophrenic double bassist named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who attended the Julliard School before having a mental breakdown and ending up on L.A.’s streets. Ayers refused housing even though Lopez continued to try to help him find it. “One advantage of being out there is that you’ve got nothing to lose,” Lopez said. “To play by somebody else’s rules, that’s a terrifying, terrifying thing, especially in the case of someone dealing with a mental illness.” Wells had a realization 10 years ago that he needed to do something to help the people around him in need when he was walking down a street in San Francisco with his son. “He asked, ‘Why are you passing all these homeless people without talking to them like humans?’” Wells said. “So I started working in South Los Angeles to bring communities together.” Wells expressed the common sentiment among the panelists that for real change to take place, whole communities need to get involved—“parks, barber shops, clinics”—to address the needs of the homeless people, and to prevent homelessness in the first place. “Knowing how to engage people who have special needs, depression—it’s the front-line worker who knows how to take that small step before a person falls into homelessness,” he said. What other solutions exist? In addition to simply continuing to provide more housing, which all the panelists agreed is necessary, “it really begins with outreach and engagement,” Maceri said. “That basic human connection is really the foundation of the work. And we have to acknowledge that the work is messy, and not linear. You have to meet people wherever they are and walk with them in their journey to wherever they want to be.” He added that housing should never be looked at as a “reward” for good behavior: “It should not be the end game. It should be the beginning.” Trotz emphasized that cities like Los Angeles need to seize the resources available to them. “This is a wealthy region. In city and county government, there’s a lot of money spent every day that doesn’t get the solutions we want. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars locking people up, use that money to house people. For the cost of one emergency room visit, we could house someone for a month.” Margiotta encouraged the crowd to challenge the status quo when it comes to how we deal with the homeless—and to never lose a vision of a better future. “It’s critical that we keep talking about ending homelessness,” she said. “It’s true that it may not happen in the timeline we want, but we can’t lose that will and belief.” Continue Reading

Don’t Give the Homeless Your Sympathy

June 26, 2015
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It doesn’t take more than a stroll down a city street to see that America has a homelessness problem. The guy tucked into in a stained blanket on the bench, the woman pushing a cart filled with everything she owns—from New York to Los Angeles, there are more than half a million people sleeping outside or in some form of transitional housing.
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While this number is lower than it was during the recession, homelessness is still on the rise in many of the country’s major cities. New York City’s homeless population jumped 10 percent over the past year; L.A.’s jumped 12 percent. With housing costs continuing to skyrocket in these cities, there aren’t signs of this trend changing anytime soon.

Has progress been made? Or are more Americans simply bound to find themselves without a bed? In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA event “What Keeps the Homeless Off the Street?”, we asked people who study, write about, and are deeply engaged with the homeless: What have large American cities done that has successfully reduced the number of people living on the streets?

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Cruising East L.A. Before Dawn

February 17, 2015
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by Aurelio Jose Barrera

Every morning I wake up before 5 a.m. and head out from my house to walk for an hour. But one or two days a week, I load up my old bike with food that I deliver to my homeless neighbors in East L.A., and in the City of Commerce and Montebello.

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All the food that I distribute is donated. People who live in my neighborhood allow me to pick oranges, lemons, and grapefruit from their trees. One neighbor, Estel, recently gave me a trashcan full of recyclables to sell. I had just enough to buy a 2 ½-pound container of unsalted mixed nuts. Pedro, who runs Listo Produce Inc. at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, has donated several 40-pound boxes of oranges, tangerines, peaches, and bananas.

It’s still dark when I set out. For two blocks on Simmons Avenue, the only sounds I hear are dogs barking and a rooster crowing. I make a right on Whittier Boulevard and pass by closed restaurants and hair salons, a dry cleaner and a bakery. My bike is loaded with two worn grocery panniers and a blue plastic milk crate—filled with fruit but also water, canned drinks, nuts, and granola bars. I usually have about 30 pounds of food on my bike. To increase donations, I’ve started to document my delivery trips with a small camera mounted on the handlebars, the front fork, or behind the seat of my bike.

My first stop, only five blocks from my home, is the bus bench near a McDonald’s restaurant on Whittier Boulevard. Most of the time, I find Diana already awake. I always greet her with a loud “Buenos dias!” to make sure she knows I am a friend. She looks at me through her neon orange sunglasses and smiles. I hand her a banana, a drink, and some packaged food. “Que dios lo bendiga” (“God bless you”) she repeats several times in her raspy voice as I ride away.

After leaving Diana, I ride to my next stop where two men sleep in front of a shoe store. One man I have never spoken to because he is always either sleeping or pretending to be sleeping. The other man sometimes says good morning and takes some food. Other days, he curses at me. I back away and tell him that I am leaving food.

I ride my bike though dark alleys looking for men and women sleeping in back doorways, beside trash bins, on stairs, or anywhere else they find to stay as warm and safe as possible. On some days, I need to squeeze between delivery trucks that are being unloaded and a wall or a fence.

By about 7 a.m., I have usually ridden about 10 miles and am running low on food. I head to the final encampment in a parking lot behind a couple small restaurants and discount stores in East L.A. on my way home. There are shopping carts, mountain bikes, lawn chairs, and tents made of bed sheets that house up to nine people. One of the men takes everything left in my crate and passes it out to others still lying under blankets. As I ride away, I am happy that, with the help of friends and neighbors, I can deliver food to hungry people who appear to be increasing in numbers on our streets but whom we often don’t notice as we rush off to work or school.

This part of my day is done; I ride home to make breakfast for my daughter.

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Why Are Politicians Pretending to Be Homeless?

January 15, 2015
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In the mythology of ancient Greece, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, disguises himself as a beggar to gain an advantage over his enemies. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, a nobleman masquerading as a vagabond helps shift the monarch’s sympathies.

The past year marked a new trend in the electoral cycle: politicians “going native,” spending the night in homeless shelters or sleeping on the streets of Skid Row. Toss in digital technology and social media to document and promote these undercover exploits, and the experiences go viral. In this new age of digital selfies and homegrown YouTube videos, it’s no surprise that some politicians made their own “reality-videos” during the campaign season.

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Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy shadowed a homeless man around the streets of New Haven, from a methadone clinic to soup kitchens. In Milwaukee, County Supervisor Michael Mayo spent the night in a cardboard box at a local downtown park. U.S. Senator Tim Scott, from South Carolina, went on a “listening tour,” mopping floors in a burrito shop, and volunteering at a Goodwill store in downtown Greenville.

There is something more than a little manipulative about the whole enterprise—the inner city is more or less hijacked to serve as stage set for politicians who are suddenly “down with the people.” At least Scott, a Republican, is honest about these staged events. He admitted that he is a “salesman” not interested in changing his own views, but in convincing voters that the GOP does have something to offer, even to his fellow (and usually Democrat-leaning) African Americans.

He told a reporter during his South Carolina ‘listening tour’: “I sold doughnuts door to door, I sold vacuums door to door, I sold Amway door to door. So for me, that’s what I do.” Appointed to the Senate by the governor, Scott knew he needed to enhance his name recognition with voters. The “listening tour” apparently worked; Scott won the special election to the Senate in November.

The marquee player on the 2014 “barrio tour” was California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, the former Wall Street banker, who spent a full week last summer undercover on the streets of Fresno, California.

Not all such stunts work. The marquee player on the 2014 “barrio tour” was California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, the former Wall Street banker, who spent a full week last summer undercover on the streets of Fresno, California. Trailing incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown by more than 20 percent in the polls (and eventually losing by a similar margin), the millionaire tried to shake up the campaign with his homeless odyssey, which he dubbed “Is California Back?” in a widely circulated campaign video.

Arriving in Fresno by Greyhound bus, with “a change of clothes and $40 in his pocket,” Kashkari wandered the streets downtown in search of jobs. In handheld video clips we see him inquiring about work in local markets, appliance stores, and repair yards.

Kashkari launched his reality excursion under somewhat suspect premises. To begin, he chose the relatively isolated, San Joaquin Valley agro-industrial city of Fresno for his homeless trek. If the Newport Beach resident wanted to understand the homeless crisis in California, why did he not hop a bus to nearby Los Angeles, which has the nation’s second largest homeless population (over 50,000)? Or, travel straight up the coast to San Francisco, California’s second worst urban region for homelessness, where more than 10,000 city dwellers lack permanent shelter. From there, he might have taken the train just across the bay to Oakland, another California city with a homelessness crisis.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland weren’t the choice for a visit by candidate Kashkari. These cities have something else in common: They are Democratic strongholds. Fresno, on the other hand, is a city with a GOP mayor. Coincidence? I think not.

Yet, even Fresno’s GOP mayor was not entirely happy with Kashkari’s uninvited visit. Just after Kashkari unveiled what he’d done, Mayor Ashley Swearengin sarcastically told the press that if Kashkari had approached her, she would have been happy to show him new low-income housing and other efforts underway to address Fresno’s homeless problem, which, he, of course, never references in his video.

The Kashkari team had its own game plan. A few days after returning from the streets of Fresno, Kashkari’s opinion essay “Brother Can you Spare a Job?” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Next, his campaign released the 10-minute “Is California Back?” video, featuring the millionaire in disguise, sleeping on a park bench near the Fresno courthouse, washing his clothes in a local laundry, and frantically applying for jobs he would, of course, not get in his short stay.

In the end, these “barrio tours” leave one with an empty feeling. In Kashkari’s film “Is California Back?”, we see inner city storefronts, vacant parking lots, abandoned buildings near train tracks, the glaring lights on the inside of convenience stores—images that are shimmering, floating fragments of a place, but not tethered to a larger story about why Fresno is worth saving, or how (other than with more “jobs”).

Missing was any sense that Kashkari really cared about downtown Fresno as a place worth saving, or understood the policy strategies needed to revive it. While sleeping outdoors, surely he must have noticed the air pollution, which the EPA rates as worst in the state? Never mentioned. Fleeting cameos may have fit his campaign theme, but his team squandered a chance to address the larger question of how governments can help rebuild inner cities like Fresno.

Many of these political undercover operations have failed in the same way. By zeroing in on one malady (homelessness in one video, food stamps in another) these stunts obscure the most promising approaches to social problems—comprehensive ones.

Comprehensive strategies attack community poverty from the bottom up, and in all its myriad dimensions— affordable housing construction, better transit, upgraded schools, jobs tied to local agriculture, food production, renewable energy, and green buildings, as well as community policing, crime prevention, and other public health improvements. Taken together, multi-faceted approaches, anchored around public-private partnerships and tied to local ecology and culture, will make a difference on the rundown streets of barrios and skid rows.

Kashkari and other politicians deserve credit for venturing out of their comfort zones. Yet what the Kashkari video revealed was a slightly dazed and tired protagonist not merely in disguise, but also a bit lost amidst the searing heat and grit of Fresno’s back alleys and Skid Row streets. Maybe that’s because, at the end of the day, he was.

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