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L.A. to Trump team’s tour of homeless camps: ‘We’re on it. Show us the money’

A large “membrane tent” at Union Rescue Mission will be used as a shelter for homeless people in Los Angeles.
A large “membrane tent” at Union Rescue Mission will be used as a shelter for homeless people in Los Angeles. Trump administration officials toured a similar shelter this week as part of their fact finding mission on California’s homelessness crisis.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The Trump administration’s trip to Los Angeles this week to explore ways to remove homeless street camps has left city officials confused — with reactions ranging from cautious optimism about new resources to fear about forced mass relocations to government-run facilities. Many also suspect the whole thing was just a political stunt.

“The feds are very late to this,” said Branimir Kvartuc, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino. “We’re on it. Show us the money and let us spend it.”

The busload of Trump officials who toured skid row and other locations Tuesday did not meet with Mayor Eric Garcetti or with L.A. County officials, although staff from City Hall was on hand.

The administration didn’t provide additional details about its plans. But President Trump is expected to visit San Francisco on Tuesday, and then head to Los Angeles with a midday stop in San Diego on Wednesday.

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Trump has long denigrated cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, as blighted jungles overrun by criminals and homelessness — a tactic some have speculated is part of a campaign strategy heading into the 2020 presidential election. In July, Trump told Fox News that he was “looking very seriously” at removing mentally ill and sick homeless people who “ruin” life for people who live and work in cities.

Without mentioning the homeless specifically, Trump on Thursday night said that conditions in American cities were deteriorating under Democrats’ watch.

“Take a look at what’s going on. We’re going to have to step in and do something about it. Because we can’t allow that to happen to our great cities. Los Angeles is a great city,” he said at a Republican conference in Baltimore, another city he has criticized. “Clean it up. You’ve got to do something. You can’t have it. These are our great American cities and they’re an embarrassment.”

As of January, Los Angeles County had just shy of 59,000 homeless people, while within the city, the number was more than 36,000 — a 16% annual increase.

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Overall, officials in L.A. and across California said that they’d welcome Trump declaring a federal state of emergency, but that the money it would unleash should be spent on housing, not sweeps of homeless camp or shelters.

“A state of emergency would be far more meaningful than wiping out homeless encampments,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, co-chair of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new statewide homelessness task force. “It’s unclear what Trump is planning to do, and I don’t know if it’s clear to him.”

Shelters already are experiencing a bottleneck that the federal government could relieve by lifting caps on rent subsidies in L.A. so residents could move into homes of their own faster, freeing space in government facilities for people still stuck in the street, said Molly Rysman, housing and homelessness deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

“Everybody is really focused on temporary shelter being the answer, but I think it’s important to keep people focused on the fact that we need to house people,” said Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “Everybody is looking for a silver bullet, but we’re not fighting werewolves here.”

Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco resident and member of the Republican National Committee, said the federal government has a legitimate role to play in what has been largely a state and local issue. “We don’t let our citizens simply die in the street because a state is too ‘woke’ to do what is necessary,” she said.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, an informal advisor to Trump who has discussed homelessness with the president in recent months, said there are limits on the federal government’s power to force people off the street. The administration could, however, help provide a better alternative to street encampment by supporting homeless shelters with resources to help people who need it, he added.

“It doesn’t have to be the Plaza Hotel or the Astor,” Giuliani said. “But it has to be a nice place. Maybe even more critical, there have to be services there.”

During the tour, administration officials visited a “sprung structure,” or “membrane tent,” that the Union Rescue Mission is building for a women’s shelter on its skid row property. The cities of Los Angeles, Pomona and San Diego have opened similar shelters. Most of the dozens of facilities that Garcetti plans to open over the next few years as part of his “A Bridge Home” program are also such tents.

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A sprung structure also is planned on the West Los Angeles campus of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with funding for the construction shared by the city, county and the VA. Veterans have repeatedly asked the VA to place more temporary shelters on the 388-acre site for the county’s 3,874 homeless veterans.

The Rev. Andy Bales, who heads the Union Rescue Mission, said he’d love to see the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put up scores of membrane tents across the city.

The Rev. Andy Bales, head of Union Rescue Mission, has set up a large tent that will be used as a shelter for homeless people.
The Rev. Andy Bales, head of Union Rescue Mission, has set up a large tent that will be used as a shelter for homeless people.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

“People do better when they stay in their own neighborhoods,” he said. “We shouldn’t send any more to skid row.”

The federal government already is required to lease or deed vacant federal properties to non-profits for free or to cities to use for shelters or for other aid for homeless people. In fact, the Bell Shelter in southeast Los Angeles County, one of the city’s largest crisis centers, is on federal land.

The administration could help identify and facilitate the transfer of properties to cities and nonprofits, but money would still be needed to build and run facilities.

“We need more than their land,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who also co-chairs Newsom’s homelessness task force. “We need them to stand up big time on the resource side.”

Several officials suggested that Trump could support Democratic bills in Congress, including one sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), which would allot nearly $14 billion for programs to help get people off the streets. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also has a bill to direct $750 million a year to supportive housing.

Government-run triage camps, which the administration reportedly is also considering, have a bad track record in Los Angeles. Former Mayor Tom Bradley opened an “urban campground” in June 1987 in what is now downtown L.A.’s Arts District. After 103 days and $397,000, the facility, nicknamed “Camp Dirt,” closed in filth and and disorder.

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“We should not be in the shelter business,” then-Deputy Mayor Grace Davis said.

Also this week, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice talked to Los Angeles law enforcement unions about “workarounds” to sidestep court settlements and lawsuits that have reined in police sweeps of homeless camps. Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said Trump is “falling for a talking point.”

“If the administration is saying that legal settlements are precluding the city from addressing health and safety issues on the streets, it’s false,” said Feuer, who supports a tentative city proposal to ban sleeping on sidewalks near homes, schools and daycare centers.

Retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi said the U.S. Constitution protects homeless people from harsh enforcement, and even a president will have trouble finding a loophole.

“This isn’t about ending homelessness,” he said. “It’s about ending visible homelessness.”

As mayor of New York City, Giuliani was criticized for heavy-handed tactics with homeless people. But he won praise from Trump, then a real estate developer, for clearing a homeless camp adjacent to a site where, in 1997, he had planned an apartment complex.

“They thought I was being mean to them. I thought they were being mean by ignoring it,” he said.

Giuliani said Los Angeles is a good place to focus on solving homelessness because it’s a major metropolitan area with one of the largest populations of homeless people in the country.

“If something works in Los Angeles, it will work anywhere else, " he said.


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