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Editorial: Money for homeless services should go to the homeless, not sheriff’s deputies

Residents of a homeless encampment under the 1st street bridge go about their daily lives in Los Angeles, Calif., on May 31.
(Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the allocation of more than a billion dollars to fund much-needed services for homeless people over the next three fiscal years. The funds, generated by the Measure H sales tax increase, will go toward rapidly housing for homeless people, preventing others from falling into homelessness, expanding outreach to the homeless and other services. One thing the money should not fund is law enforcement.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had wanted $1 million to create a sheriff’s homeless outreach services team of six deputies, one sergeant and one lieutenant to expand what is currently being done by two deputies and one lieutenant dealing with homeless people on the street. The Measure H planning group was divided on whether to recommend the request to the Board of Supervisors. Now, Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger have introduced a motion to fund the Sheriff’s Department request not out the Measure H money but out of the county’s own reserve funds for homelessness services. The board should say no to both sources of funds.

Both the Measure H funds and the county’s homelessness funds are specifically set aside to provide desperately needed services to a homeless population that grew a staggering 23% this past year to nearly 58,000 in the county. The purpose of this money is to reduce homelessness.

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Sheriff Jim McDonnell notes that his deputies who interact with homeless people are often doing a lot more than traditional law enforcement. They connect homeless people with service providers; they coax them out of dangerous riverbeds to safer locations during rainy weather. He says the deputies often know the names of the homeless people in the territory they patrol. And they do more familiar law enforcement work as well, such as clamping down on the drug dealers who prey upon the homeless. All of these are important and commendable, and we encourage the Sheriff’s Department to do more community policing on the streets where the homeless live.

But it should be funded by the department’s own budget. The money set aside by the county for homeless services ought to be paying for professional outreach workers and counselors with years of experience as well as for the services themselves.

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