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Editorial: Getting homeless people off the street doesn’t mean forcing them into shelter they don’t want

A homeless camp near City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
A homeless camp near City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

Providing shelter and housing for homeless people in Los Angeles has arguably been the city’s most complex task in the last decade. There is not only a shortage of shelter beds, but also of shelter sites where homeless people will want to stay long enough to get services and work with providers to find the right housing.

Here’s what will not work: forcing homeless people to accept an offer of shelter and, if they refuse, making them pack up their belongings and move along from wherever they are camped.

But that’s what the Los Angeles City Council has been discussing — a proposed ordinance that would outlaw camping within 500 feet of a site of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s shelter program, A Bridge Home, or any other new shelter site or within 500 feet of a freeway underpass. Under the proposal, those in encampments would have to be offered shelter first. If they refuse, they would have to move on from the prescribed locations. A decision on the ordinance has been put on hold pending more discussion in the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee.

The proposed ordinance is a result of the pressure put on council members from constituents, who are understandably frustrated by the burgeoning encampments in their neighborhoods, and from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who wants to move thousands of homeless people out from under freeways.

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There is no law that forces homeless people to stay in a shelter. If they don’t like it, they will leave. If they are ordered to move their tents from one neighborhood, they will decamp to another. And who would enforce moving homeless people along? L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore made it clear this week in an interview that he would prefer his officers not have the task of making homeless people move from an off-limits area near a transitional shelter or freeway. Moore believes that should be the duty of outreach workers or other social service providers.

Officials from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority say their outreach team members would inform homeless people about city rules. But the team “has no enforcement authority and does not want enforcement authority,” said a spokesperson.

Nor should it. As LAHSA officials point out, enforcement would impede their ability to build the trust necessary to place people in a shelter or housing.

Frustration about crowded and squalid encampments is entirely justifiable. But the solution remains more housing and more shelters — not a threat of being compelled to leave. The latter simply won’t work.

People will not leave their dogs behind and some will not travel a far distance from where they are camped. In a few cases, homeless people often have jobs near where they have a tent. Sometimes an entire encampment becomes a community. Service providers have had some success moving entire encampments together into a shelter or interim housing.

Instead of concentrating on how to clear the sidewalks, the city should be concentrating on creating the kind of shelter people will stay in. That means shelters with a certain amount of privacy. Even many of the Bridge Home shelters — which offer residents their own cubicles and storage and space for a dog — don’t offer completely private rooms. They should.

There are numerous roadblocks to overcome in providing more shelter. For starters, there is no centralized, real-time tracking of the number and type of shelter beds available at any moment across this vast city.
LAHSA has the technology for an app that would provide real-time availability. But the agency has to get all its partner agencies (including the county Departments of Mental Health and Health Services) to agree to use the same tech system. (LAHSA says it’s working on that.) And shelter operators, apparently, don’t have enough staff who can spend time manually entering intakes and exits throughout the day as they occur. That’s something LAHSA officials need to work with them to fix.

Furthermore, the pandemic has wreaked havoc with the ability to tally overall capacity. Shelters have been ordered to reduce capacity to lower the risk of coronavirus transmission. And when there is even one case of COVID-19 in a shelter, intakes into the shelter stop for two weeks while everyone staying there is quarantined.

To be sure, it’s frustrating that some council members have suggested sites for shelter or housing in their council districts only to have them rejected by city officials, including the city administrative officer. Councilman Gil Cedillo says his office has suggested numerous city- or county-owned and private sites, which were rejected for reasons varying from the grade of the land to the need for improvements.

Los Angeles is an increasingly expensive city with a large and growing homelessness crisis. It will take time and investment to reverse the trends. But shuffling vulnerable people along against their will, during a pandemic, is not the right approach.


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