Tak­ing on home­less­ness

Con­fis­cat­ing shop­ping carts and roust­ing sleep­ers from park benches won’t solve the prob­lem.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY OPINION -

It’s no sur­prise that of­fi­cials are strug­gling to deal with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of home­less peo­ple in Los An­ge­les and their plas­tic bags and shop­ping carts and bulky be­long­ings, not to men­tion their cars, tents and castoff fur­ni­ture. As home­less­ness be­comes in­creas­ingly ubiq­ui­tous, the day-to-day bat­tle to man­age the prob­lem — bal­anc­ing the rights of peo­ple liv­ing on the streets with the need to main­tain a clean, safe, liv­able city for the rest of L.A.’s res­i­dents— is of course heat­ing up.

Last week, the im­me­di­ate ques­tion was what to do about home­less peo­ple’s be­long­ings. On Tues­day, the City Coun­cil cast a pre­lim­i­nary vote to give home­less peo­ple 24hour no­tice be­fore con­fis­cat­ing their prop­erty from side­walks and public parks and mov­ing it to a city stor­age fa­cil­ity.

The city and county have also had to ad­dress whether po­lice may roust home­less peo­ple sleep­ing on the streets, and what to do when they camp out in parks. In Sacra­mento, leg­is­la­tors con­sid­ered — and ul­ti­mately did not pass— a bill that would have guar­an­teed home­less peo­ple the right to eat in public. Soon, the Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil will con­sider an or­di­nance to reg­u­late or pos­si­bly ban peo­ple liv­ing and sleep­ing in their ve­hi­cles overnight.

Such de­bates are in­evitable. But let’s be hon­est: These poli­cies will not solve the prob­lem. Rather, they are in­di­ca­tions of fail­ure — Band-Aids, fee­ble at­tempts to reg­u­late the be­hav­ior of peo­ple who are be­com­ing an eye­sore and a headache and po­ten­tially a health threat to the rest of the city. Tak­ing away shop­ping carts and roust­ing sleep­ers from park benches does not end home­less­ness. The mea­sure the coun­cil voted on last week, for in­stance, is not likely to have much ef­fect be­cause home­less peo­ple will evade san­i­ta­tion work­ers at one lo­ca­tion by sim­ply mov­ing to another within 24 hours. Be­sides, the city lacks space for home­less peo­ple to store their be­long­ings vol­un­tar­ily any­where other than down­town.

And home­less­ness is not just down­town. It is ev­ery­where. The 2015 bi­en­nial home­less­ness count for Los An­ge­les County re­vealed a 12% in­crease in the num­ber of home­less peo­ple, from 39,461 in 2013 to 44,359 this year, ris­ing in a ma­jor­ity of City Coun­cil dis­tricts and in ev­ery county su­per­vi­so­rial dis­trict.

And home­less peo­ple are more vis­i­ble on the streets of the city and county. Ac­cord­ing to the count, 12,226 home­less peo­ple are shel­tered at night in the county. But more than twice that— 28,948— are un­shel­tered. And there was a stag­ger­ing 85% in­crease in home­less en­camp­ments. In cul­verts, near free­way ramps, on side­walks in in­dus­trial ar­eas, in tun­nels and un­der bridges and over­passes, ar­rays of makeshift tents and lean-tos are spring­ing up, some out­fit­ted with mat­tresses, chairs and even desks in a si­mul­ta­ne­ously clever and des­per­ate at­tempt to cre­ate a home.

Frankly, it’s a dis­grace that 44,000 peo­ple sleep on the streets and in shel­ters each night in the County of Los An­ge­les. Of course, home­less­ness is a com­pli­cated and be­dev­il­ing is­sue, and no ur­ban gov­ern­ment in the coun­try has suc­cess­fully elim­i­nated it. Nonethe­less, L.A.’s city and county lead­ers won’t be­gin to make a dent in these num­bers un­til they de­clare home­less­ness a public cri­sis and pri­or­i­tize it when it comes to fund­ing and ser­vices.

There are cer­tainly in­di­ca­tions that city lead­ers are get­ting that mes­sage. The City Coun­cil re­cently es­tab­lished a new ad hoc com­mit­tee on home­less­ness, and at its first meet­ing on Thurs­day, coun­cil mem­bers rightly de­cried home­less­ness as an epic cri­sis that the city can’t po­lice its way out of. Co-chair Mike Bonin called home­less­ness in Los An­ge­les “as great a cri­sis as the drought is in the state of Cal­i­for­nia,” and Jose Huizar, chair­man of the com­mit­tee, promised a strate­gic plan of ac­tion within six months.

Good. Now let’s see some fol­low-up. Many of the most ef­fec­tive poli­cies are al­ready known; what’s needed at the­mo­ment is a sense of ur­gency. The strat­egy of “hous­ing first”— mean­ing not wait­ing un­til home­less peo­ple are off drugs or get­ting men­tal health ser­vices be­fore putting a roof over their heads — is now con­sid­ered the most suc­cess­ful way to get and keep peo­ple housed. More case­work­ers are needed on the streets. Los An­ge­les needs to ad­dress the dearth of af­ford­able hous­ing as well as the lack of “per­ma­nent sup­port­ive hous­ing” for chron­i­cally home­less peo­ple who need so­cial ser­vices as well as a roof. City and county of­fi­cials need to re­dou­ble their ef­forts to se­cure state and fed­eral funds to pay for these ex­pen­sive pro­grams.

In the short term, Mayor Eric Garcetti needs to push de­vel­op­ers for more af­ford­able hous­ing. Coun­cil­man Gil Cedillo, who is on the home­less­ness com­mit­tee, wants to en­cour­age the use of mi­cro-units of hous­ing, some as small as 300 square feet. Bonin has sug­gested look­ing at city-owned prop­erty— such as va­cant lots — that can be leased long term for free to non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that build hous­ing for home­less and low-in­come res­i­dents. With the land se­cured, builders would be in a bet­ter po­si­tion to put to­gether fund­ing for non­profit hous­ing ven­tures.

In the longer term, the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court’s re­cent de­ci­sion on “in­clu­sion­ary zon­ing” might help ad­dress the af­ford­able hous­ing cri­sis.

The city and county must do a bet­ter job of co­or­di­nat­ing to get the right ser­vices and hous­ing to the peo­ple in need of them. The non­profit group Home for Good has launched a pro­gram called the Co­or­di­nated En­try Sys­tem that ma­jor ser­vice providers through­out the county now use to log into a data­base ev­ery home­less per­son who comes through a ser­vice provider’s door. The idea is to as­sess each per­son’s needs, see if he or she can be matched up with avail­able hous­ing ser­vices, and track that per­son.

All these ideas seem promis­ing. But un­less city and county lead­ers push hard to pro­vide more types of hous­ing and pro­vide them faster, the side­walks will con­tinue to be filled with peo­ple whose homes are tents and whose ve­hi­cles are shop­ping carts.

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