By Edward Barrera
Los Angeles is facing an unprecedented challenge with more than 34,000 people suffering homelessness. The city is the latest municipality struggling to end the heartbreaking and vicious cycle in the face of residential and business opposition, high-housing costs and lack of available housing.
Over the past few years, the number of homeless has skyrocketed. In 2016, the count was an estimated 28,000. By 2017, the number topped 34,000, with Los Angeles County hitting 57,000, a spike of 23 percent from the previous year. The city has the highest number of “unsheltered” homeless people, living on sidewalks, in cars, campers and tents in the country. This year’s Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count numbers have not yet been released, but it’s expected to be higher.
A recent UC Irvine study found that the top causes of homelessness were unemployment, the high cost of housing and family problems, including domestic violence. Alcohol and drug abuse and mental health problems followed. It also found that it’s twice as expensive to care for a homeless person on the street as it is to get them into permanent supportive housing.
Mayor Eric Garcetti called homelessness “the moral issue of our time,” saying the city planned to “end homelessness once and for all.”
What Others Are Doing
In the face of such high numbers, Los Angeles is looking at what other municipalities have done.
San Diego and Houston, Texas, have pursued the “Housing First” concept, which prioritizes permanent housing and added services. At a recent meeting in San Diego, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker said that approach and other programs dramatically reduced the number of homeless in her city.
She also said cities need to create specific solutions for each person, all of whom have their own individual problems, and not treat all as a group. But she dismissed the idea of ending homelessness all together.
“You cannot end homeless,” Parker said. “You can manage it. It’s like a chronic disease, and there are new people falling into homelessness on a regular and repeat basis.”
Orange County has kicked off a campaign, called “United to End Homelessness.” Launched in February, it has brought together leaders from business, philanthropy, faith, and government. According to the Voice of OC, it’s aligned with an effort by Orange County’s association of cities to double the number of housing units with supportive services for homeless people – from 2,700 to 5,400 – within the next three years. It’s a similar approach that officials in Orlando, Florida took, which placed an estimated 3,400 homeless people into permanent housing during 2015, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
In Seattle, Washington, the city was the first in the country to offer public land and funding to support permitted encampments.
According to a city report, “the model is successfully serving people who have been living outside in greenbelts, on the streets, in cars and in hazardous situations.” In addition, crime hasn’t spiked near encampments, and neighbors have come to accept them.
Part of the reason for the success is that people are not constantly moving. “In the past encampments, or tent cities, were only permitted to stay in one location for a 90-day period. The disruptive nature of the 90-day limit placed a burden on the encampment community,” the report said.
Despite the success, critics of official encampments say it wastes funds on ensuring the safety, security, and well-being of the people living within the encampments and prevents funding from being directed to supporting and creating permanent housing and service options.
“The formation of encampments does not represent an end to homelessness, and strategies that focus on making encampments an official part of the system for responding to homelessness can serve to distract communities from focusing on what is most important—connecting people experiencing homelessness to safe, stable, permanent housing,” said Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Funding approved by voters will help Los Angeles. Proposition HHH will provide $1.2 billion in bond proceeds over a decade to build permanent housing, and Measure H will provide an estimated $3.5 billion over 10 years for rent subsidies and services. The expectation is that the funding will create or subsidize 15,000 housing units and pay for services to support those living in them. There is also an Assembly bill proposing $1.5 billion in budget state surplus money to address homelessness across the state.
Los Angeles City Council members are also pushing for each district to approve 222 units of homeless housing by the summer, though even if that figure is met and built, which is questionable, it is dwarfed by the units actually needed.
The city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee recently approved proposals to streamline the building of units for the homeless population and allow participating motels and hotels to be renovated and used for supportive and transitional housing. Both would need to be approved by the City Council.
“The bottom line is we have to accelerate our efforts to provide more long-term supportive housing and temporary, emergency housing,” said Councilman José Huizar. “The need is great on both ends and we simply must do more to meet that demand.”
Campaign Against “Not In My Backyard” Attitude
City officials say neighborhoods and community members throughout the far-flung city need to work together and accept that more homeless housing needs to be built throughout Los Angeles.
“We are not going to solve or even make a significant dent in homelessness unless we are all part of the solution,” said Councilman Mike Bonin. “All of us — every elected official, every part of the city, every demographic. It’s either all-hands-on-deck, or this ship is going to sink under the weight of this crisis.”
The city also plans to use public land, including parking lots and other places, as official, albeit temporary, homeless shelters. One pilot program will provide trailers as temporary shelter with services in a parking lot near the El Pueblo Historic Monument Downtown. That proposal has already met with swift opposition by residents.
Olvera Street vendors blasted the plan to put the trailers on a city-owned parking lot at Arcadia and Alameda streets for up to three years, according to published reports. Vendors complained that the homeless population would increase in the area and discourage tourists from visiting. They also questioned why trailers were not being placed in other areas.
As part of the campaign to get buy-in from community members, a United Way-led program, similar to Orange County, began on March 9 in Los Angeles. The “Everyone In” coalition will advocate for new housing and services for homeless people in their neighborhoods. Elise Buik, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, cited a recent survey showing that 70 percent of Los Angeles residents polled said they would support housing for the homeless in their neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of talk about NIMBYs (not in my backyard) but we want to start talking about YIMBYs (yes, in my backyard),” Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “Everyone In means we’re all responsible for this.”
City News Service contributed quotes to this article.