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L.A. controller says city should open emergency homeless campgrounds and shelters

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The L.A. city controller has recommended using city land for emergency campgrounds for the homeless. (Sept. 28, 2017)

The Los Angeles city controller recommended Wednesday using city land for emergency campgrounds and shelters to curtail the ragged shantytowns that have plagued neighborhoods from Boyle Heights to Wilmington in the current homelessness crisis.

In a 37-page report, City Controller Ron Galperin also recommended tougher policing, streamlined cleanup protocols, showers and bathrooms for homeless people and expanded storage, including mobile bins, for their belongings.

He said the city should investigate whether a 10-year-old court agreement allowing homeless people to stay overnight in public spaces is still in force, with an aim of finding more flexibility in controlling homeless tents and piles of property.

“Without creative solutions to address homeless encampments … the city will merely transfer the issue from one constituency to the next without finding a way to mitigate public health and safety risks for everyone,” Galperin’s report said.

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Galperin said he was not offering solutions to homelessness, but rather trying to curb the continued spread of unauthorized camps, even after the city’s ambitious 10-year, $1.2-billion homeless housing construction program approved last fall is well underway.

“I wish we could give everybody who wants one a house,” he said in a phone interview. “Ten thousand units, as significant as that is, is barely going to keep up with what the demand is, or with the numbers of people experiencing homelessness on our streets now.”

Both Seattle and Portland have experimented recently with allowing homeless camps on vacant land, only to sweep the settlements away months later as they descended into chaos or scattered violence.

Mayor Tom Bradley’s “urban campground” opened in June 1987 in what is now downtown L.A.’s Arts District and closed three months later, after being declared on all sides an abject failure.

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“We should not be in the shelter business,” then-Deputy Mayor Grace Davis said after 103 days and $397,000 in city costs devoted to the camp experiment.

Galperin said he recognized the challenge of city-run homeless campgrounds and shelters.

But with nearly three-quarters of the city’s 34,000 homeless people living in cars, parks, sidewalks, underpasses and abandoned buildings — the highest proportion of unsheltered homeless people in the U.S., the report noted — “the current state of affairs is no better,” he said. “The status quo is not acceptable.”

People carry their belongings in and out of a storage facility for the homeless population on skid row.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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Galperin said the city needs more resources and staff and better coordination devoted to cleanups. Los Angeles public works crews have cleaned 16,500 homeless encampments since 2015. But the $14-million citywide effort has made only a marginal difference in tent cities along alleys, riverbanks and sidewalks, a Times review found earlier this year.

Stricter policing of limits on homeless belongings, early intervention and additional storage facilities could make a difference, Galperin said.

“I drive by a site on Beverly Boulevard every day,” he said. “It began with a box and grew to a half the block being occupied over a month.”

L.A. provides 1,461 voluntary storage bins on skid row, as well as five shipping containers around town for property seized during cleanups and stored for 90 days.

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James Winfrey III, operations manager for Chrysalis Enterprises, which operates the facility, said that bin workers “turn people away everyday.” A homeless client who was picking up sneakers at the facility Wednesday said secure storage was especially important to homeless people, who’ve lost nearly everything.

“When people lose their stuff, they lose hopefulness and stay homeless,” said the man, who gave his name as Mr. Maxwell.

gholland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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