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Opinion

Editorial: It’s time to take a stand against homelessness in Los Angeles

Skid row, downtown Los Angeles
Tents line the sidewalks along 5th Street in downtown L.A.'s skid row on July 5.
(Los Angeles Times)

No resident of this city, regardless of where he or she lives, can claim to be unaware of the growing catastrophe of homelessness in Los Angeles.

Few of us have not stepped over a homeless person in recent months or brushed past a panhandler or given a wide berth to a mentally ill street person wrestling with unseen enemies in a public space.

It is impossible now to ignore the burgeoning tent cities and sprawling encampments. In subway cars and Metro stations, at freeway off-ramps and in shadowy underpasses, human misery and desperation are on continuous display. Figures wrapped in blankets dot the grass in public parks each night, except when it rains, when they take shelter in tunnels and doorways.

It will not end homelessness once and for all, and what relief it will bring will not come overnight... But it is essential that the measure be passed.
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There are 28,000 homeless people living in the city of Los Angeles, up 11% from 2015, which in turn was up 12% from 2013. More than 2,000 are children. Nearly 3,000 are over age 62. Thousands are mentally ill, substance abusers, disabled or domestic violence victims; hundreds are AIDS sufferers or transgender people. A recent report highlighted the extraordinarily high rate of sexual assault among the growing population of homeless women in skid row; a report two years ago ranked California as 48th out of 50 states in the risk and extent of child homelessness.

On Tuesday, voters will face an extremely long and complicated ballot, filled with important questions on issues from the death penalty to mass transportation to healthcare financing. But near the very bottom will be Measure HHH, which ought to be a top priority for every Angeleno. It is a proposal by the city of Los Angeles to raise $1.2 billion to create 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing and affordable housing for homeless people. It is not a panacea, it will not end homelessness once and for all, and what relief it will bring will not come overnight. Its success will be dependent in part on hopes and promises and a measure of experimentation — and on government’s ability to provide the people it houses with the social services they need.

But it is essential that the measure be passed.

There’s nothing new about homelessness in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times wrote about “vagrants” in the city as early as 1883, two years after the newspaper was founded. In the years that followed, The Times ran stories, some callous and some compassionate, on “homeless waifs” and “beggars” and “tramps” and “hobos” and “bums.”

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In the modern era, the homeless were often hidden in plain sight in parts of the city — especially downtown’s skid row — that many Angelenos had no reason to visit. Sometimes the homeless were directed there by police or dumped there by hospitals, or they gravitated to the food, shelter and other services concentrated there. As long as they remained out of view, it was possible to pretend they didn’t exist.

But these days, downtown is being gentrified, buildings are being rehabbed, farmer’s markets are flourishing — and the homeless are finding themselves squeezed out, dispersed.

What’s more, they’re now to be found beyond Venice and Hollywood and Northeast L.A. Driven by ever-higher rents and the dearth of affordable housing, the lack of needed services and the difficulty of re-entering the workforce after prison or jail, the homeless are now scattered through every part of the city.

As Mayor Eric Garcetti recently acknowledged to The Times editorial board, the city and county have spent too many years addressing the homelessness issue reactively, mostly in response to lawsuits. Policy, as a result, tended to focus on the short-term problems: May homeless people sleep on the streets at night or can they be moved along by the police? Can the authorities confiscate tents, shopping carts and other belongings if they are left unattended? May homeless people block doorways? Where should they go to the bathroom? Can they be arrested for aggressive panhandling?

But now — impelled in part by the visibility of the new encampments and data showing that homelessness is exploding beyond its traditional borders — the city and county have come together, overcoming years of non-cooperation, to try to address the longer-term issues. If Measure HHH is passed, the city will be authorized to sell $1.2 billion in bonds over 10 years to build the 10,000 new units; the county, in turn, is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city to guarantee that social services will be provided for all the housing built.

The measure incorporates the best known solution to the problem of chronic homelessness: a policy of “housing first” (providing shelter immediately rather than waiting for homeless people to become drug-free or to be stabilized on their medications) in long-term units with intensive on-site services for residents, aided by caseworkers who match people with the help they need. For the average Los Angeles homeowner, the cost of Measure HHH would be $32.87 per year, according to city administrative officer Miguel Santana.

Of course, this will not “solve” the problem fully or permanently. Programs will still be necessary, for example, to help those who are not chronically homeless, but who have fallen on bad times and need transitional housing, rapid-rehousing and other assistance. It will be a long road and even at the end there will be more to be done.

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But that’s no excuse for complacency or inaction. Some day, the world will look back in horror on a period when the people of Los Angeles were stepping casually over the homeless on the streets, ignoring mothers with children begging in the subways and averting their eyes when streets were used as toilets. How is it possible to become inured to suffering on such a scale?

Let’s not allow it to be said, when history looks back, that the people of this city were unwilling to spend $32.87 a year to address a human catastrophe of this magnitude.

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