Op-Ed: Stop punishing and start helping L.A.'s homeless

Terrion Brown holds the Bible, a belonging he keeps that is important to him. Brown, age 27, lives in a makeshift tent on skid row.

Terrion Brown holds the Bible, a belonging he keeps that is important to him. Brown, age 27, lives in a makeshift tent on skid row.

(Los Angeles Times)

No one likes seeing sidewalk encampments. In our experience, no one likes living in them either — if they have any other real choice. In Los Angeles, there are enough shelter beds for less than one-third of homeless people, the lowest percentage of any large city in the country. That leaves nearly 18,000 people — an increase of 18% in the last two years — to fend for themselves on the streets. Every human being must at some point lay his burdens down. But in Los Angeles, this is soon to be a crime.

The City Council has passed and Mayor Eric Garcetti is expected to sign into law by July 6 two ordinances that would allow the Los Angeles Police Department to impound any and all possessions the homeless have that they cannot wear or carry on their backs. Violators face the loss of nearly everything they own, criminal prosecution, jail and fines they cannot pay with money they do not have.

These ordinances command seizure of not only tents, tarps, bedding and sleeping bags but also “clothing, documents and medication.” The inclusion of these items demonstrates extraordinary callousness and hostility toward the poor and disabled.

“Documents” would include the military discharge papers of some of the 4,000 homeless veterans on our streets, as well as identification papers of every description. “Medication” includes drugs that, if stopped abruptly, could cause grave medical harm. Although there has been talk of amendments to eliminate these items from the list of what police can take and to drop the criminal penalty for violations, Council President Herb Wesson indicated that the ordinances could go into effect before that happens.


Under the ordinances — one covering streets and sidewalks, the other parks — if the police cite a homeless person for having possessions on public property, the person must move them within 24 hours. But they cannot move their possessions to any public property within the 486 square miles of the city. Where else can they take them? The city says it will provide storage (a 60-gallon garbage can), and argues that therefore the possessions are not really lost. But those facilities are located only in skid row, and not easily reachable for some.

What makes the local government’s inaction especially galling is that Los Angeles has done less than most major cities to end homelessness through the only proven technique: “housing first.” Under that model, advocates place homeless individuals into apartments, not temporary shelter, and provide them with customized services. In more than 85% of cases across the country, even the most disabled stay housed and off the streets.

Not only does housing first move homeless people and their possessions off the streets, scores of studies across the nation and here in Los Angeles show that this strategy — and not criminalization — is the most cost-effective approach. The cost to taxpayers of people living on the streets and randomly ricocheting through expensive emergency rooms and jail cells ranges from $35,000 to $150,000 per person per year. The cost of housing these same individuals would range from $12,000 to $25,000 per year, even in pricey Los Angeles.

Cities across California are implementing housing solutions and seeing homeless numbers decrease and cost savings increase. San Jose just reported a 14% decrease in homelessness and significant cost savings. Fresno reported a decrease of 50% in homeless people on its streets since 2013. In fact, every community in Southern California other than Los Angeles that reports homeless figures reported a decrease from 2013 to 2015.

Los Angeles’ decision to invest in force and intimidation is guaranteed to fail. And it won’t be cheap. As Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana reported to the City Council in April, about $87 million of the $100 million per year the city spends on homelessness already goes to law enforcement. Do the math: That leaves just $13 million to actually help homeless individuals, or less than one penny per day for each person in L.A. And much of that small sum goes to outreach efforts rather than housing and treatment.

The mayor and 14 members of the City Council (Councilman Gil Cedillo is the exception) seem to think they are on the right path. If you disagree, we’re sure they would love to hear from you.

Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA, has been an advocate and researcher on homeless issues in Los Angeles since 1983. He helps lead a partnership with the Veterans Administration to end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles. Phillip Mangano, the executive director of United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in the Bush administration, is president and chief executive of the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness.

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