Homeless street services stall as encampments continue to grow

Billy Nelson comes out of his tent above the 110 Freeway in Elysian Park in Los Angeles.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

High above the Metro Gold Line tracks, a string of lean-tos that Lee Brown calls his “three-bedroom condominium” is tethered to a hilltop fence in Elysian Park.

The four-man, two-dog tent city — one of several camps in the 600-acre park north of downtown Los Angeles — has remained intact for at least two years, passed from one homeless person to the next, Brown said.

Last year, Los Angeles put money behind various efforts to curb encampments like Brown’s until the city’s ambitious housing construction program takes hold.

Funding for one strategy — camp cleanups or sweeps — expanded to $13 million. But spending on services for people living in the streets — mobile showers, housing navigation centers, storage facilities and homeless parking lots — lagged behind.

Of the $7.5 million budgeted for “street strategies” in 2016-17, more than $2 million was returned to city coffers, and nearly $2 million was diverted to camp sweeps, according to figures provided by city officials. Last month, the city approved an additional $509,000 transfer from services to homeless outreach workers to accompany cleanup teams.

Advocates say hygiene, storage and other services help homeless people get back into the mainstream. But no navigation centers have opened, storage facilities are available only on skid row and, to a limited extent, in Venice, and one small city-funded parking program opened in South Los Angeles in June.

“Institutionally we have not instigated a sense of urgency about the street strategy stuff,” Westside Councilman Mike Bonin said at a recent homelessness committee meeting. ”It doesn’t seem this is where we’re putting our shoulder.”

A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city has expanded homeless outreach, added drop-in and access centers, and spent $4.2 million on skid row storage and nighttime bathroom access. A $450,000 hygiene center with showers, wash stations and bathrooms is set to open on skid row as soon as next week.

“Mayor Garcetti is leading an aggressive effort to keep our streets clean and safe,” press secretary Alex Comisar said in a statement. “This strategy includes targeting drug dealers and other criminals who prey on our vulnerable homeless population, and continuing focused street cleanups to keep our sidewalks healthy, and prevent disease.”

But some advocates say the city may have missed an opportunity to curtail the camps — the most visible and politically toxic manifestation of the city’s homeless crisis.

In contrast to in many other cities, three-quarters of L.A.’s 34,000 homeless people live outdoors — on sidewalks and in canyons, riverbeds and alleys. Homeless vehicles and encampments jumped 25%, to 14,412 countywide in January, the last official count.

“That money was supposed to get people off the street,” said Greg Spiegel, director of strategic initiatives for the Inner Cities Law Center and until 1½ years ago the mayor’s top homelessness policy adviser.

Part of the problem, officials said, was that they had trouble finding agencies that would provide the services the city was funding.

Community opposition also worked against the city.

A proposed storage and service site in San Pedro was killed after public protests, and neighbors filed suit to stall Bonin’s proposal to turn an old senior center in Venice into a homeless center.

Other delays were self-inflicted. For example, it took nearly two years for city officials to decide that churches could allow homeless people with cars or campers to park overnight on their property, Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said.

“I think the city has failed miserably,” West San Fernando Valley Councilman Mitchell Englander said of the city’s homeless street strategy.

Tent-city sweeps are popular with homeowners and business owners, who take the brunt of the aggressive panhandling, public urination and disorder that goes along with many camps.

In Los Angeles, many cleanups are conducted by the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement, or HOPE, teams, which include police officers, sanitation and outreach workers and mental health providers. They offer shelter and services to camp residents.

The presence of officers intimidates homeless people, making it harder to get them off the streets, some outreach workers say.

Despite a strict protocol against displacing homeless people or destroying their property, officers still push tent cities from block to block, homeless people say, and sanitation workers throw away important belongings, including IDs and computers. Eight of the 10 outreach teams the city funded last year included police officers.

Meanwhile, the city a year ago passed a new ban on sleeping in vehicles near homes, parks and schools. In the San Fernando Valley, the city impounded so many largely derelict campers and RVs that Englander set up a new, temporary lot for the overflow, he said.

Some industrial districts were overrun by encampments pushed out of residential or other neighborhoods, occupants said. More than 600 business owners and tenants from industrial parks in Chatsworth and Northridge petitioned the city in October, calling for an end to the encampments and a more permanent solution to the homelessness crisis.

“They’re just pushing the problem around,” said Scott Caswell, a commercial real estate broker. “Homeless people need something better than what we’re offering.”

Some nonprofit groups and council offices stepped into the breach with services, including mobile showers. San Francisco-based Lava Mae brings showers and bathrooms to downtown, skid row, South Central L.A., Venice and Manchester Square on a rotating basis.

The nonprofit group rejected public funding, officials said, but the city is providing municipal water hookups.

“It’s beautiful,” said Terrell McGuire, 41, emerging from a Lava Mae shower. “I feel like a whole new person when I get out."

But earlier this year, as homeless people lined up to shower one morning, an LAPD officer ticketed Lava Mae’s truck and staff vehicles outside skid row’s Gladys Park, said Sanjay Gupta, the nonprofit’s L.A. mobile services manager.

The officer, who was filmed during the ticketing, said the vehicles were in the way of a cleanup, and the group needed written permission to park on the street, Gupta said.

“I can’t believe it’s taken this long to get bathrooms,” Harris-Dawson, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, said recently. “People don’t stop taking care of their bodily functions, even if you don’t provide bathrooms for them.“

Back at Elysian Park, Billy Nelson said mobile showers might have helped him earlier this year, when he was awarded a federal grant to go back to school.

Nelson acknowledged he dropped the ball on the grant, but said he worried he couldn’t get presentable for the classroom. Homeless people in the park open a water line or use the sprinklers to wash up, he said.

Nelson said he wouldn’t use storage, and no longer had a car, so parking was out. The best way for the city to help him is by getting him housing, he said.

“We don’t like it here, we just like it more than a tent on the sidewalk,” Nelson said.

Twitter: @geholland