Los Angeles’s Homeless Emergency

Hits: 219
October 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 


Leslie Evans

The spread of homeless camps outward from Downtown Skid Row into every neighborhood spurred seven L.A. City Council members and Mayor Eric Garcetti on September 22 to declare homelessness a city emergency and promise to raise $100 million to ameliorate it. There is a long unhappy back story here. The city for decades has tried to nickel and dime its way out of the homeless morass. It has put what money it has allocated for this problem overwhelmingly into police and Department of Sanitation cleanups of homeless camps, spending $100 million in 2014, of which 67% went to these services, which took no one off the streets.

Shocked by Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) numbers from its January 2015 point-in-time count, the city found that it had 26,000 homeless people within its borders, 12% more than in 2013, but with an astounding 84% growth in the number of street camps and people living in vehicles.

These were not just numbers in a report. Tents and tarp shelters have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain everywhere: in alleys, under freeway bridges, in residential cul de sacs, and more blatantly, on sidewalks and in parks throughout the city.

While most of the country’s major cities have adopted a Housing First approach to reduce their homeless populations, our City Council moved first for punitive repression. It adopted two new ordinances in June, one for parks and one for city sidewalks, reducing the required notice period before breaking up a homeless camp from 72 to 24 hours and ordering immediate seizure of all objects that will not fit in a closed 55 gallon barrel. These passed into law without the Mayor’s signature, but enforcement is still being held up while minor humanitarian amendments are being debated.

Federal Opposition to L.A.’s Policy

A counter-tide to this approach is rising, however. This August the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief urging a Boise, Idaho, judge to invalidate a law similar to the ones just passed here in Los Angeles, ironically citing as precedent the 2006 9th Circuit Court ruling in Los Angeles that permits homeless people to camp on the street between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am. (The 2006 ruling is supposed to terminate here when a miniscule amount of housing for homeless people will soon be completed, which will shelter fewer than 2,000 of the vast homeless multitude.)

In their Boise brief the Justice Department argued, “if a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.” This clearly sets up our City Council for a confrontation with the federal government if they persist with anti-camping laws as their primary approach to the growth of homelessness. Obviously some camps must be cleared, as threats to public health, to regain public use of sidewalks, and where many of the homeless act as obsessive packrats creating huge stretches of junk belongings.

Philip Mangano, who headed up homeless policy under George W. Bush, publicly warned our Mayor that the Boise case “should be a shot across the bow to the city. “ He said that a repression-only approach would lead not only to a confrontation with the Feds, but would endanger federal financial aid. Much of the money that L.A. does have to spend on building affordable housing for the poor and homeless comes from the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency.

So September 22 marked a turnaround for our city government. The Mayor has not, as of this writing, released his detailed plan, either for where the new $100 million is to come from or how it is to be spent. (Preliminary announcements say that two-thirds of the $100 million will come from the city’s recently rebuilt emergency fund.)

Mayor Garcetti’s Three Pillars

As part of the September 22 announcement Mayor Garcetti did reveal the main points of his new plan. The L.A. Times reported:

“On Tuesday he said its ‘main pillars’ were the expansion of a system for tracking homeless people used by county and city officials; new centers for street dwellers to store their belongings and use social services; and anti-poverty measures (such as L.A.’s recent move to raise the minimum wage) that could prevent people from losing their homes in the first place.”

This is frankly a disappointing list. The tracking system is the Coordinated Entry System (CES) developed by United Way and adopted by LAHSA. This is an important reform, which implements a city-wide computerized registration procedure for all applicants for homeless housing and other major services. This allows for intelligent prioritizing of very scarce housing resources to those who most need them, especially families. But it does not in itself create any additional housing.

At present the city has only one storage location for homeless property seized in camp cleanups. This is a warehouse known as The Bin near Downtown’s Skid Row. It is 95% full, mainly with voluntarily stored belongings rather than materials seized in cleanups. If many new camps are to be cleared there has to be additional storage. Though more storage will be welcome, frankly, homeless people without wheeled transportation and often living many miles away from the existing storage facility, will only very rarely reclaim their belongings within the 90-day window before they are destroyed.

The one bright spot in Garcetti’s plan on this point is that the additional storage locations are to include toilet and shower facilities. This is an acknowledgement, of course, that the users will then go back out to live on the streets and rebuild their camps.

The final “pillar” is still more indirect. It is mainly Mayor Garcetti’s proposal to raise the city minimum wage from $9 to $13.25 by 2017. A one bedroom apartment on average costs $1,500 a month in Silver Lake and over $2,000 in Santa Monica. Monthly income before taxes at $13.25 is $2,332. If this is a family’s sole income they may still be unable to find housing, and few currently homeless persons, without an address, are likely to get such jobs.

Homeless Villages in Church Parking Lots?

More downscale, Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who has been a strong advocate for the homeless, proposes that some of the money be used to install lights and hire security guards for church parking lots, to collect scores of homeless people who live in RVs and automobiles. This sounds a little too much like the world of Mad Max, but might be better than what is going on now.

The city owns hundreds of vacant buildings, and many more, particularly among old Downtown office buildings, may be owned by people who are sympathetic enough, or at least have some other stake in Downtown that gives them an incentive to get the homeless off the streets, to convert them to small single room occupancy (SRO) units. One of the causes of the sharp increase in homelessness has been conversions going the other way, where many of the old SRO hotels have been bought up and remodeled into high price condos.

Giving Housing to the Homeless Is Three Times Cheaper than Leaving Them on the Streets

There have been numerous studies that show that housing homeless people, even the mentally ill who require auxiliary case workers, is far cheaper than what cities spend per person on police, Sanitation, and emergency room medical care. A report by Matthew Yglesias in the online Vox.com pointed out that recent studies show that “it’s cheaper to fix homelessness by giving homeless people homes to live in than to let the homeless live on the streets and try to deal with the subsequent problems.”

He cited a May 2014 Central Florida Commission on Homelessness study indicating that the region was spending $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals – largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks – as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.”

The study estimated that the cost for housing and caseworker supervision was running about  $10,000 per person.

“This particular study looked at the situations in Orange, Seminole, and Osceola Counties in Florida and of course conditions vary from place to place. But as Scott Keyes points out, there are similar studies showing large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado from focusing on simply housing the homeless.”

While homelessness has been increasing rapidly in Los Angeles, it has been shrinking elsewhere in the country where a Housing First approach has been adopted. This was supported even by George W. Bush’s homeless czar, Philip Mangano.

Yglesias wrote: “Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of homelessness in America declined 17 percent. . . . That’s a remarkable amount of progress to make during a period when the overall economic situation has been generally dire.

“When it comes to the chronically homeless, you don’t need to fix everything to improve their lives. You don’t even really need new public money. What you need to do is target those resources at the core of the problem – a lack of housing – and deliver the housing, rather than spending twice as much on sporadic legal and medical interventions. And the striking thing is that despite the success of housing first initiatives, there are still lots of jurisdictions that haven’t yet switched to this approach.”

Los Angeles, despite some talk in this direction, is one of those places. (The report appeared on February 4, 2015)

It is encouraging that our city’s finances have stabilized enough to commit major new funding to fight homelessness. Even the measures so far revealed will make some difference. We look forward to seeing how much of the new outlays can be targeted at actually getting homeless people into some kind of long-term housing. In the long run this will not only make life more livable for all of us but will save the city money.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.