L.A. city council members announced in September that they would declare homelessness to be a state of emergency. Turns out it wasn’t, legally, theirs to declare. Instead, in November, they declared a "shelter crisis," which lifts some city restrictions and red tape on opening emergency shelters and allowing nonprofits to offer safe haven. More ambitiously, the city and county have released lengthy plans to help and house people; the plans will cost from millions to nearly two billion dollars. The big question: How much of the plans can be implemented and how fast?
These old vagrancy laws recall shameful periods in our history when communities selectively persecuted and punished migrants, people of color and the physically disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down California's anti-Okie law, which made it a crime to bring anyone indigent into the state, in 1941. In a 1972 case from Jacksonville, Fla., the Supreme Court invalidated a local vagrancy ordinance because it encouraged arbitrary arrests, criminalized innocent activities and placed unfettered discretion in the hands of the police.
But those rulings weren't the end of vagrancy laws. In their latest iteration, they target homeless people. After homelessness began skyrocketing in the 1980s, cities responded with laws that criminalize basic life activities conducted in public, such as standing, sitting, resting or sleeping, and even sharing food with homeless people. As the crisis worsened in California — 22% of America's homeless population now lives in the state — cities have piled on more and more vagrancy laws.
On Tuesday, both the county and the city of Los Angeles approved far-reaching and ambitious plans to help homeless people off the streets through a combination of housing, rental subsidies, case management and expanded counseling, therapy and other services. This is not the first time the county and the city have tried to address the problem of homelessness. But this time, they vow, they will succeed.
County and city elected officials say that unlike in the past they are now coordinating their plans rather than working at loggerheads, and that they have a level of political will and fortitude that they never had before. “Urgency has to be the mantra of the day,” said County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
While walking back to the L.A. Times after covering the L.A. County Board of Supervisors embracing an ambitious and costly plan to end homelessness, I spotted this homeless person. His sign said more than we could publish.
When a large enterprise like Los Angeles County government attempts something extraordinarily ambitious, such as effectively eliminating homelessness, yet repeatedly falls short, it's sometimes hard to tell whether the rubble left by each failure forms a series of impenetrable barriers against the next attempt -- or whether it instead forms a staircase layered with experience gained and lessons learned, leading upward toward eventual success.
The County Board of Supervisors sees a staircase, and on Tuesday it will try to climb it by adopting a far-reaching homelessness initiative. Much is at stake, not least of which is the well-being of tens of thousands of county residents now living in misery and danger on streets and sidewalks, in shelters and jails.
The effort also is a test of government's ability to sufficiently cut through its own bureaucratic knots and move past its own political jealousies in order to perform as its constituents demand -- and to vindicate democracy as a viable and meaningful system for meeting the challenges of basic human need, justice and equity.
I met James Lonon as he sat on a concrete bench at 22nd and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica in mid-November of last year. He was neatly dressed, a small cart of belongings at his side and a crisp brown bag set up at his feet for offerings of cash from passers-by. He smiled warmly as I approached.
We began chatting. He had been homeless a year, he told me, after his unemployment benefits ran out. In 2014, he lost a nine-year job as a clerk at a big retailer. He had a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Long Beach, he said.
If L.A.'s recent history is any indication, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to fighting homelessness. If city and county officials hope to make a dent into getting the region's roughly 44,000-strong homeless population the help they need, it's going to take a multipronged approach.
Portland, Ore., may offer one elegant solution in the form a of progressive homeless camp on the outskirts of the city.
It's called "Dignity Village," and it costs local taxpayers nothing.
Imagine the father of two young children. He gets arrested and sent to jail, and the children are sent to foster homes. The public is now paying to house and supervise three people in three places.
Because he's in jail, he loses his job and can't pay his rent. So he also loses his apartment. When he leaves jail, he's sleeping on the street.
Can we use the money we're spending on the kids in foster care to get him an apartment, so he can get his kids back? No new money needed, no new housing needed, family back home instead of on the street or living with strangers. Who in Los Angeles is thinking this stuff through?
According to The Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, not very well.
Over 70% of people experiencing homelessness [in L.A.] don't have a roof over their heads at night, and New York is embarrassed because they have about 4%. They spend a billion a year on homelessness issues. L.A. needs a basic heart change.