It’s no surprise that officials are struggling to deal with the proliferation of homeless people in Los Angeles and their plastic bags and shopping carts and bulky belongings, not to mention their cars, tents and castoff furniture. As homelessness becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the day-to-day battle to manage the problem — balancing the rights of people living on the streets with the need to maintain a clean, safe, livable city for the rest of L.A.'s residents — is of course heating up.
Last week, the immediate question was what to do about homeless people’s belongings. On Tuesday, the City Council cast a preliminary vote to give homeless people 24-hour notice before confiscating their property from sidewalks and public parks and moving it to a city storage facility.
The city and county have also had to address whether police may roust homeless people sleeping on the streets, and what to do when they camp out in parks. In Sacramento, legislators considered — and ultimately did not pass — a bill that would have guaranteed homeless people the right to eat in public. Soon, the Los Angeles City Council will consider an ordinance to regulate or possibly ban people living and sleeping in their vehicles overnight.
Such debates are inevitable. But let’s be honest: These policies will not solve the problem. Rather, they are indications of failure — Band-Aids, feeble attempts to regulate the behavior of people who are becoming an eyesore and a headache and potentially a health threat to the rest of the city. Taking away shopping carts and rousting sleepers from park benches does not end homelessness. The measure the council voted on last week, for instance, is not likely to have much effect because homeless people will evade sanitation workers at one location by simply moving to another within 24 hours. Besides, the city lacks space for homeless people to store their belongings voluntarily anywhere other than downtown.
And homelessness is not just downtown. It is everywhere. The 2015 biennial homelessness count for Los Angeles County revealed a 12% increase in the number of homeless people, from 39,461 in 2013 to 44,359 this year, rising in a majority of City Council districts and in every county supervisorial district.
And homeless people are more visible on the streets of the city and county. According to the count, 12,226 homeless people are sheltered at night in the county. But more than twice that — 28,948 — are unsheltered. And there was a staggering 85% increase in homeless encampments. In culverts, near freeway ramps, on sidewalks in industrial areas, in tunnels and under bridges and overpasses, arrays of makeshift tents and lean-tos are springing up, some outfitted with mattresses, chairs and even desks in a simultaneously clever and desperate attempt to create a home.
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that 44,000 people sleep on the streets and in shelters each night in the County of Los Angeles. Of course, homelessness is a complicated and bedeviling issue, and no urban government in the country has successfully eliminated it. Nonetheless, L.A.'s city and county leaders won’t begin to make a dent in these numbers until they declare homelessness a public crisis and prioritize it when it comes to funding and services.
There are certainly indications that city leaders are getting that message. The City Council recently established a new ad hoc committee on homelessness, and at its first meeting on Thursday, council members rightly decried homelessness as an epic crisis that the city can’t police its way out of. Co-chair Mike Bonin called homelessness in Los Angeles “as great a crisis as the drought is in the state of California,” and Jose Huizar, chairman of the committee, promised a strategic plan of action within six months.
Good. Now let’s see some follow-up. Many of the most effective policies are already known; what’s needed at the moment is a sense of urgency. The strategy of “housing first” — meaning not waiting until homeless people are off drugs or getting mental health services before putting a roof over their heads — is now considered the most successful way to get and keep people housed. More caseworkers are needed on the streets. Los Angeles needs to address the dearth of affordable housing as well as the lack of “permanent supportive housing” for chronically homeless people who need social services as well as a roof. City and county officials need to redouble their efforts to secure state and federal funds to pay for these expensive programs.
In the short term, Mayor Eric Garcetti needs to push developers for more affordable housing. Councilman Gil Cedillo, who is on the homelessness committee, wants to encourage the use of micro-units of housing, some as small as 300 square feet. Bonin has suggested looking at city-owned property — such as vacant lots — that can be leased long term for free to nonprofit organizations that build housing for homeless and low-income residents. With the land secured, builders would be in a better position to put together funding for nonprofit housing ventures.
In the longer term, the California Supreme Court’s recent decision on “inclusionary zoning” might help address the affordable housing crisis.
The city and county must do a better job of coordinating to get the right services and housing to the people in need of them. The nonprofit group Home for Good has launched a program called the Coordinated Entry System that major service providers throughout the county now use to log into a database every homeless person who comes through a service provider’s door. The idea is to assess each person’s needs, see if he or she can be matched up with available housing services, and track that person.
All these ideas seem promising. But unless city and county leaders push hard to provide more types of housing and provide them faster, the sidewalks will continue to be filled with people whose homes are tents and whose vehicles are shopping carts.