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Homelessness in L.A.: A national disgrace that must be fixed

Homelessness in L.A.: A national disgrace that must be fixed
The streets are lined with tents near East 5th Street and South San Pedro Street in the skid row area of Los Angeles on Feb. 15. (Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, March 3, 2018. Los Angeles is in the midst of only its third significant rain event since February 2017 — but it’s nothing compared with what’s howling through the Northeast right now. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Over the last week, The Times editorial board published a six-part series on perhaps Los Angeles’ most unyielding crisis: the presence of at least 58,000 homeless people within the county, a number that has lurched upward in recent years amid a chronic lack of affordable housing. There are hopeful signs that city and other local leaders — along with voters, who passed two measures recently to pay for increased services and housing — recognize the urgency of this problem.

Still, while there’s a collective sense of urgency that something must be done now, how to go about doing it eludes planners and residents when details such as where to house homeless people need to be worked out. There are also misconceptions about homeless people — that the vast majority are hopelessly mentally ill or drug-addicted rather than just down on their luck — that dampen the guilt that ought to come with simply looking the other way while thousands of our fellow humans struggle and die without housing.

The editorial board’s series began with an impassioned call to action: Our homelessness crisis is a national disgrace, and it’s no longer acceptable to tolerate it. In subsequent editorials, the board scolded NIMBYs and their City Hall enablers who balk at the idea of building new housing in certain neighborhoods, profiled people who were neither mentally ill nor drug-addicted but found themselves without a home because of terrible circumstances, examined methods that succeeding in housing and supporting formerly homeless individuals, and called for ways to measure effectiveness as Los Angeles engages in an unprecedented — and expensive — effort to combat this problem. Continue reading for excerpts from each editorial.

Politicians who have for too long shamefully shirked their responsibility to address the festering problems must now exercise real leadership; they must stop pandering to the vocal minority of residents who object to housing for homeless and low-income people in their neighborhoods. Years of infighting, mixed messages and failures of political will must come to an end.

All the region’s politicians must step up, but especially Mayor Eric Garcetti — whose legacy and political future will rise or fall on how he handles this colossal urban crisis — and the members of the Los Angeles City Council, who have too often allowed political expediency and timidity to guide their actions. Homelessness in the city of Los Angeles has risen every year since Garcetti took office in 2013. Over the course of his tenure, it is up 49%.

Part 2: "The homeless in L.A. are not who you think they are":

Many people think of homelessness as a problem of substance abusers and mentally ill people, of chronic skid row street-dwellers pushing shopping carts. But increasingly, the crisis in Los Angeles today is about a less visible (but more numerous) group of “economically homeless” people. These are people who have been driven onto the streets or into shelters by hard times, bad luck and California’s irresponsible failure to address its own housing needs.

Consider Nadia, whose story has become typical. When she decided she had to end her abusive marriage, she knew it would be hard to find an affordable place to live with her three young children. With her husband, she had paid $2,000 a month for a three-bedroom condo in the San Fernando Valley, but prices were rising rapidly, and now two-bedroom apartments in the area were going for $2,400 — an impossible rent for a single parent who worked part time at Magic Mountain.

For months she hunted while staying with family and friends. She qualified for a unit in a low-income housing project, but the waiting list was two years long. She obtained a federal Section 8 voucher to subsidize the rent in a market-rate apartment, but landlord after landlord refused to accept Section 8, or charged a rent that was too high to meet the federal government’s unrealistically low “fair-market rent” limit.

Nadia and her rambunctious young kids eventually wore out their welcome at the houses where they were staying. They found themselves left with little choice, with neither a place of their own nor a friend to fall back on. Last summer, they took refuge at San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission’s shelter for homeless families.

Part 3: "Don't let NIMBYs — or weak-kneed politicians — stand in the way of homeless housing":

Until the mayor and the members of the City Council treat the building of these 10,000 units of housing with the kind of extraordinary urgency this crisis requires — the kind that the federal and state governments bestowed upon, for example, the rebuilding of the broken Santa Monica Freeway after the Northridge earthquake — they simply will not be built. And they must be built. Supportive housing in particular — which offers not just a place to live but also access to job counseling and mental health and substance abuse treatment, among other things — is the best long-term solution for the chronically homeless, whose cases are the most difficult to solve. A substantial number of these housing units must be located in every single council district. They cannot just be concentrated in poor areas or in neighborhoods with less political clout. Already, a new report shows that even more housing will be needed than was estimated at the time HHH was passed.

There will be opposition, vocal and angry. There already is. But ultimately, every council member must support a fair share of this housing in his or her district — and push back against those constituents who object by rote. We expect council members to lead rather than follow, to explain why this housing is necessary and to push as many reasonable projects as possible through the gantlet of City Council approvals. We expect Mayor Eric Garcetti to stand up publicly and fight for those projects as well. The mayor, who is said to be contemplating his next career steps, has an opportunity to repair the long-standing perception that he is unwilling to take on tough public battles. Surely he must be aware that his mayoralty will ultimately be judged on how he handles this crisis.

Part 4: "Treating and housing the mentally ill is harder than jailing them. But it might actually work":

It’s important to remember that the mentally ill account for only about a third of the homeless, so even if they were all properly treated and housed, homelessness would remain a monumental problem in Los Angeles.

That said, people who should be in permanent supportive housing and clinical care are on the street in large part because a society that did so well at the easy and money-saving part of deinstitutionalization — releasing the patients, laying off the staffs, closing the hospital doors — failed to follow through with the difficult and expensive part. Few of the promised clinics were built. The funding was constantly delayed. It was finally supposed to come with the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, signed into law by President Carter. But the following year, Congress and the new president, Ronald Reagan, repealed the act.

Part 5: "How can a place with 58,000 homeless people continue to function?":

As homelessness spreads across Los Angeles County — the official tally shows a 46% increase from 2013 to 2017 — it is drawing two conflicting responses, at times from the same people. There’s sympathy and a desire to help, but there’s also a sense of being invaded and perhaps even endangered — in terms of both physical safety and public health (see, for example, the state of emergency California declared last year over a hepatitis A outbreak that spread among the homeless, or the Skirball blaze that was sparked by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment). There’s an unavoidable, often unspoken, fear that the city around us may be in a state of irreversible decline, and a suspicion on the part of some that the rights of homeless people have trumped the rights of everyone else.

The increasing visibility of homelessness and destitution contributes to the uneasy feeling that the problem is closing in on everyone. It’s also a daily reminder that the values and systems to which we cling — liberty, democracy, free enterprise, the social contract that’s supposed to hold a community together, the safety net that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable — haven’t steered us out of this mess. Nor have our leaders.

It’s not surprising that some Angelenos are angry or even afraid. But we need to channel those concerns into constructive action.

Part 6: "L.A. has a long history of failure on homelessness. It needs leaders who will take responsibility":

How many people have we housed, or at least, how many are we on track toward housing? Is Los Angeles setting the national standard for rapid and effective response to a vexing problem? Or are its leaders merely mastering the art of appearances while passing the buck and hoping things turn around?

Who knows? L.A. homelessness stats are spread among obscure reports from city, county and federal agencies.

And you’ll learn nothing by attending a meeting of the body charged with ending homelessness or hearing the report from the homelessness czar — the point person reporting directly to both the city’s mayor and the county Board of Supervisors. That’s because there is no committee and no czar with sole responsibility for ending homelessness. Or rather, there are many committees and many sub-commanders, which is almost the same as there being none at all.

Who’s in charge here?

Reach me: paul.thornton@latimes.com

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