Random Lengths News

Economic Refugees and Safe Encampment­s

- By James Preston Allen, Publisher

I find it curious that on the very night that the last Los Angeles City Council District 15 homeless working group held its recent meeting in which they were discussing a possible homeless campsite on Lots E and F on Port of Los Angeles property, the City and the Port of Long Beach opened up their arms and doors to house a few thousand refugees from another country. This was done with a unanimous vote of its city council and with a request from President Joe Biden’s Homeland Security agency. It seemed like a reasonable act of compassion in contrast to the previous ex-president’s disdain and penchant for incarcerat­ing children at the border.

There’s a natural compassion (at least for some) for innocent children fleeing from the conflicts and economics of Central America; not so much so for our own economic refugees whom we call “the homeless.”

Here’s my point: the young children at our border and our homeless sleeping on our streets are both “economic refugees.” Regardless of what other personal issues they have, their condition is driven by poverty; in America it’s still a crime to be poor. If you are a wealthy immigrant, you can come in the front door with a visa. But if you are poor, then you are “illegal.” It’s the same with our unsheltere­d neighbors except that there’s a certain disdain as they are also seen as “lazy” and unwilling to work.

In fact, we make it harder on our own people who are poor than we do on many immigrants who come here looking for work — because we need cheap labor.

My main point in changing the narrative about what to call our homeless, unsheltere­d and calling them “economic refugees” is that the underlying cause is poverty. Despite whatever other conditions they may have, whether it’s drug addiction, mental illness or outstandin­g warrants, they are still the most desperatel­y poor among us. I have come to believe that this condition of extreme poverty threatens many of my neighbors who have a tenuous hold on the American dream and may just be a paycheck or two away from this circumstan­ce themselves.

In many other places in the world where there’s a refugee crisis, the United Nations or other humanitari­an organizati­ons would set up what are commonly called refugee camps. They would be provided tents, sanitation, food and water, and yes, services. This comes before they are placed in homes, tiny or large, before they are relocated to permanent or semiperman­ent locations, or taken to longer term care facilities; but it’s done as the most efficient way to sort out and process groups of people in a humane, compassion­ate way. Kind of like is being done at the Long Beach Convention Center for refugee children.

Let’s face it, the City of LA is many years away from having enough permanent housing for all of our current homeless refugees. Even with all the efforts over the past several years, we don’t have enough permanent low income apartments, shelter beds, tiny homes or even safe parking lots to handle what we have now and what I fear will come after the pandemic. In short, providing designated campsites that provide sanitation, safety and services that are off of the public right-of-way will address the population that is shelter resistant now — not later!

I do understand the desire to go out and to canvas the local population to find out the various reasons why these people don’t accept shelter or services, but from the research that is generally available what we already know is that some 15% of all the homeless refugees are just flat-out resistant. And whatever the multitude of reasons for this is we must accept that as a reality — theirs, not ours. However, it is not our place to judge nor is it legally accepted to force people off the streets, but we can offer them something that is better than nothing. It is both the humane and economical­ly conservati­ve path forward at this point. Especially when you realize that when the city does one of its “clean sweeps” it costs you the taxpayers something like $35,000 each time. And it does little to build trust with our unsheltere­d neighbors — our own economic refugees!

What is also becoming more obvious is that the kind of housing options that are being provided or forced upon the unsheltere­d are not really a good fit. In urban encampment­s, there’s often a natural sense of community, if not solidarity that is a natural part of the human condition. The communal living arrangemen­ts of these camps would be a good subject for a social scientist to study — where’s the next Margret Mead when we need her?

The point being that our leaders, slow walking solutions, are trying to fit all round pegs into standardiz­ed square holes. Communal living solutions, either temporary or fixed, need to be considered as alternativ­es to the nuclear family or self-sustaining individual models now being of population fered. We’ve seen this before in Los Angeles. The Dome Village is the previous incarnatio­n of this approach, which can be read on Wikipedia.

The main rationale behind safe campsites is that they can be done with the least expense using public property off the public right-of-way. They can be done now rather than later and with the right planning could take hundreds at a time rather than a few dozen. This also meets people where they are, rather than where we think they “should” be and addresses their basic human condition without judgment and it provides a solution that does not negatively impact either home owners nor businesses.

The basic math at this point in San Pedro is that we have just 251 people living on our streets if all the other options are at capacity. If half of these are shelter resistant, that is a number that can be addressed with a Safe Camping solution. This would make it far easier to provide a concentrat­ion of services, a focal point for providers and others, until more permanent solutions and trust is built.

Think of this as a KOA camp solution for homeless refugees or an RV park for those displaced living in vehicles. We might even imagine that if we ever come to grips with solving this homeless crisis that these very campsites might even be used for low-cost tourism in a city where five-star hotels can cost upwards of $720 per night.

I look forward to your perspectiv­es in a response.

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