Now Comes the Heavy Lifting

"I am going to take on the challenge."

That's Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talking about skid row.

He went there twice last week and walked the streets, eyes wide open. So he knows he's understating things when he calls it a challenge.

As a five-part Times series documented -- and the mayor saw for himself -- there's a human catastrophe unfolding a few blocks from City Hall, in a city of unfathomable wealth.

"It's the worst situation in America," says Police Chief William J. Bratton, a veteran of urban nightmares in Boston and New York City. "And we should be ashamed."

City Council members Jan Perry and Bill Rosendahl spoke up too on Friday, putting out a "call for action" on homelessness across the city, from Venice to North Hollywood.

It's nice to hear that these folks are on the case, because it's going to take all of their best efforts -- and more -- to make a difference. We've all heard lots of promises over the years, and if there had been results, I wouldn't have spent the week on skid row, where I watched a junkie take her last breaths a few steps from where drug peddlers count stacks of cash.

And the mayor didn't get a sanitized version. I watched as a man injected heroin and another smoked crack in his honor's presence.

Skid row, in fact, is described by some as a bigger mess than ever. Like Villaraigosa, I'd been there before on many occasions, but I'd never gotten to know it the way I have this year, and it all began with a chance encounter.

The person who opened my eyes to the calamity was Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a onetime aspiring musician whose mental illness has robbed him of pretty much everything but his soul and his love of music.

Once you're invested in someone, particularly someone crippled by a devastating disease, you can't accept that a civil society has no qualms about leaving him out there with the rats. Nathaniel and too many others just like him.

No official count is available, but it's safe to say thousands sleep on skid row. Some readers have challenged my reference to 10,000 street dwellers, but we know that roughly 3,000 are in shelters, with another several thousand in and out of single-room occupancy hotels and flophouses. Councilwoman Perry says she's certain that 5,000 to 8,000 more are camped between 1st and 9th, Broadway and Alameda, with additional hordes living on the periphery.

It's time to get past the paralysis and do something, the mayor said in volunteering to lead the way.

It's going to take some real leadership. I've come around to the conclusion that laws intended to protect the rights of Nathaniel and other mentally ill people are well-intended but inhumane.

Nathaniel is too sick to know he's sick, so he resists treatment that might give him a shot at a better life, and I now understand the frustration of hundreds of families that have told me in agonizing detail of similar dilemmas.

On that one, the mayor says he's on board. He told me he plans to campaign for the legal authority to involuntarily commit people in obvious need of help.

It's a treacherous political and legal minefield, and the mayor's appointment of a fellow ACLU member to his commission on homelessness last week appears to put him in conflict with his vow. But he insists the pendulum has swung too far toward a hands-off approach. Let's be humane and respectful of civil liberties, he says, but "we need to commit people who are obviously sick."

Another priority, he says, is to ensure that money available beginning in January from Proposition 63 -- the 1% surcharge on taxable income of more than $1 million to fund programs for the mentally ill -- goes into the most creative kinds of outreach and housing programs. Prop. 63 is a chance for Los Angeles and all of California to make amends for the travesty in which mental hospitals were shut down without enough new community clinics, thereby sentencing helpless patients to the squalor of the streets.

Of course you can't change skid row without addressing all the feeder problems. Thousands of people earn rock-bottom wages in a region where real estate is obscenely priced and low-income housing is scarce.