Homeless Representative Is…Homeless

Two years ago, the city of Los Angeles created an ‘advisory’ panel called the Downtown LA Neighborhood Council. The idea was to give actual residents a voice in city government. Then last year the DLANC voted to creat a ‘skid row’ seat, and this year several homeless candidates are running for it.

Organizers of the 2-year-old city-funded advisory panel created the unusual seat to give an official voice to the estimated 11,000 people living in and around skid row. But the number of homeless candidates running in the downtown council’s second election has taken even some of the participants by surprise.

“I actually didn’t think there would be much competition,” said Max Delsoin, who graduated from law school at Washington University in St. Louis but now lives in a hotel near skid row.

Interest in the council from a group often perceived as disengaged and disenfranchised is so high that two other candidates without permanent homes are seeking to represent the Fashion District and Central City East on the 27-member council. The downtown neighborhood council, like 80 others across the city, advises the mayor and City Council.

As the graceful old buildings around skid row are transformed into luxury lofts and upscale stores and restaurants, candidates like Ali want to make sure their community isn’t forgotten.”Our voices need to be at the table … to help City Hall make decisions,” Ali said, explaining that he thinks the city’s leaders lack the “political and creative will” to address the homeless problem.

[Candidate] Delsoin, who wound up downtown a year ago, thinks homeless shelters are dehumanizing and ought to be reformed, with “food that’s not expired” and better education and job-training opportunities.

But some of the candidates, he figures, are also seeking “self-actualization because, in every aspect of their lives, they are demolished, humiliated and seen as non-persons.”

Having an elected seat reserved for a homeless person may be unique to Los Angeles, according to Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C.

Uh, yeah, I bet it is. Too much of reporter Jessica Garrison’s article seems to find the whole thing amusing, what with one candidate pushing a shopping cart while he campaigns and another a self-described ‘monarchist’. But to give her credit, she does find time to note how serious the issues–and some of the candidates–are.

But Ali, though engaging and nicely dressed, is missing a lot of front teeth and did not look the part of the hip, downtown loft dweller. Neither the handyman nor the security guard offered to help him get to the apartments upstairs.

So down the street he went, past the discount clothing storefronts and men sipping from paper bags, and into the lobby of that other type of downtown residence, the kind of place with a locked metal door where tenants rent rooms by the week.

“Hi, I’m Bilal Ali,” he told a young woman in the dingy lobby of a hotel on Los Angeles Street. “A vote for me is a vote for you. This is for the neighborhood council. This is folks like me and you, getting our voices heard.”

Skid row is loud, colorful, pungent — an explosion of humanity. Tents, cardboard boxes, makeshift beds and sprawled bodies crowd the sidewalks. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and drug dealers share space with preachers and pickpockets. Free meals abound, but dignity and a private place to go to the bathroom are hard to find.It is a world few understand if they have not lived there, many homeless people say.

“I consider this my home,” said Garcia, who said he has lived on and off skid row since losing his job in 1991. “I’ve met a lot of really good people down here.”

If elected, he said, he would press the police to stop rousting sleeping people from the sidewalks at dawn.

“It’s making people’s lives more difficult — people who already have a lot of difficulties. They are dealing with drug addiction and poverty and looking for jobs and, on top of all this, they have the police.”

Isn’t this what democracy is about? Giving a voice to the voiceless? And they didn’t think anybody would care.


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