LA ‘sterilized’ its streets for the ’84 Olympics—how will it treat the homeless in 2028?
By Jenna Chandler
July 12, 2018
hurch bells rang out across Los Angeles, John Williams’s now-familiar Olympic theme blared triumphantly from 150 trumpets, and a man with an actual jetpack propelled across the Memorial Coliseum on July 28, 1984.
It was 86 degrees and sunny. Nearly 6 million spectators would watch the Summer Olympics in LA over the course of two weeks, with 20 million more households tuning in to the opening ceremony alone. The world had arrived in Los Angeles—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 researcher Jennifer Wolch, Los Angeles was known as “the homeless capital of the United States.”
In the years leading up to the games, authorities cracked down, enforcing laws that made it a crime to be homeless rather than finding permanent solutions to the crisis. The beautification campaign explicitly targeted the homeless—residents in and around Skid Row were driven out of view as visitors flooded into town.
“We’re trying to sanitize the area,” Los Angeles Police Department captain Billy Wedgeworth told the Los Angeles Times one week before the opening ceremony.
As the games approached, mounted police and narcotics officers launched sweeps of homeless residents in Downtown neighborhoods where tourists were expected to gather, the LA Times reported. Dozens of homeless residents were arrested, sent to detox centers, or forced to relocate while their belongings were discarded.
“Whenever you have these big sporting events, there’s an attempt to make folks disappear,” says Jerry Jones, director of public policy at Inner City Law Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit that provides legal aid to Skid Row residents.
“The lesson from ’84 is that we tried a punitive approach,” he said. “That certainly didn’t solve the problem.”
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?
“I want to go all out during the Olympics so we give a good impression to visitors,” Los Angeles City Councilmember Gilbert Lindsay said in August 1983, after recommending that the city corral its homeless residents in what had historically been known as the “drunk farm” near Saugus.
“Let them sweat it out in the sun, grow vegetables to eat, and learn a trade,” he said.
LAPD commander William Booth told the LA Times that his department liked the councilmember’s way of thinking, “not only for the sake of the city, but for the sake of those indigents and winos who are suffering on the streets.”
LA didn’t resurrect its “drunk farm.” But it was around that time that City Councilmembers drafted laws to limit people’s access to public space—and control where they could live and sleep.
In 1982, the powers-that-be passed a law prohibiting “the use of streets for habitation.” The ordinance barred anyone from using vehicles parked on the streets “as living quarters.” In February 1984, six months before the games, councilmembers put a law on the books that banned sleeping on bus benches.
In August 1984, one homeless man told the LA Times: “Before the Olympics it wasn’t so bad. Now they really treat us like dirt.”
And it wasn’t just the homeless who were targeted as the city tried to spruce up its streets. According to one news report, a special task force made up of about 135 vice officers was created in June 1984 to crack down on prostitution. Over a five-week period leading up to the games, some 1,000 people were arrested on suspicion of prostitution-related charges.
An “operation of epic proportions” is how Gannett News described security measures for the 1984 Olympics.
As many as 20,000 security guards and police officers from dozens of departments and agencies were stationed at venues, practice facilities, and Olympic Villages.
“We’ll have more police officers on the streets of Los Angeles than at any time in the city’s history,” LAPD captain William Rathburn told the news outlet.
Los Angeles had a good reason to be concerned about public safety. In the wake of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian gunmen who snuck into the Olympic Village, the LAPD and the FBI were focused on thwarting terrorist threats.
This didn’t just mean increased staffing. Documents that historian Max Felker-Kantor obtained through a public records act request show that, with help from the federal government, the LAPD acquired a slew of military-grade equipment, including specialized armor to protect helicopters from gunfire, flashbang grenades, ballistic helmets, an armored emergency rescue vehicle, and high-powered binoculars.
Gannett reported that other equipment in the Olympics security arsenal included “a skyful of night-seeing helicopters” and silencer-equipped submachine guns. The New York Times reported that it looked and sounded like a battle zone.
It’s unclear how much of that equipment was actually put to use during the Olympics. It’s also unclear how much of it the LAPD kept. But it did retain at least some of the lethal cache.
In 1985, the LAPD used an armored vehicle acquired during the Olympics to blast into a Pacoima home. The converted military V-100 had been used during the Vietnam War and was outfitted with a 14-foot battering ram, according to the LA Times.
“The message has to go out: If you don’t want a battering ram breaking down your wall and SWAT coming through your doors, don’t deal dope,” then-chief Daryl Gates said. The raid turned up “a small amount of marijuana and no guns.”
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 she 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 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.”
Ten years from now, when Los Angeles shows itself off again on the world stage, authorities will have two options, says Jody Armour, a law professor at USC who studies crime and culture.
“They could opt for a more cosmetic approach,” he says. “Or they could do something concrete and substantive that addresses the lack of affordable housing and the lack of adequate jobs and mental health services.”
To an extent, those cosmetic changes benefited some neighborhoods in ’84. At the time, Antonia Ecung lived in North University Park, just north of the Coliseum. She helped write grant applications for summer job programs for local kids to plant flowers and cover up graffiti.
One junior high school, she said, painted new murals under freeway overpasses that remained in place up until about eight years ago.
“The students got a chance to display their artwork and do something for the community that they could feel proud of,” Ecung says.
That was a bright spot in what was otherwise a heavy-handed approach to polishing the city’s image that included pushing homeless people aside and saturating streets with police officers—something LA had in common with other American cities hosting big sporting events, from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta to Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco.
If Los Angeles wants to break that mold in 2028, historian Felker-Kantor says, local officials need to ask: “Can the police operations look less like an occupying force?” And, he adds, they need to do more than host community meetings.
In the lead-up to the ’84 games, the Inner City Law Center filed multiple claims against the city accusing it of conducting illegal search and seizures of homeless residents. The response to homelessness is more positive now, Jones says, but there are “worrisome” signs that homelessness continues to be treated as a crime and a blight.
The UN report noted that in Skid Row, there have been 6,696 arrests of homeless people between 2011 and 2016. In Koreatown, residents are busy trying to block an emergency shelter from being built on a parking lot, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has recently said he is considering reinforcing an old ban on sleeping overnight on sidewalks.
“It’s an honor to host the Olympics, but we have to rise to a recognition that everyone in our city is a neighbor,” Jones says. “We need to provide real solutions to poverty and homelessness and not just make people disappear because it’s convenient.”
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