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Opinion: Campgrounds for homeless people? Fine ... for a while

A tent in an asphalt parking lot with green lawn behind
Homeless veterans set up camp on the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on April 8.
(Los Angeles Times)

As homeless people in tents have proliferated on sidewalks in cities, some officials have seized upon the idea of moving homeless people to sanctioned campgrounds.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Moving homeless people and their tents off the sidewalk to, say, an empty parking lot solves homelessness about as much as you putting a rain catcher on your backyard deck solves the drought. What it mainly accomplishes is moving them out of sight of the residents and businesses complaining about them being on the sidewalks.

However, safe campgrounds can be a good option for some homeless people. My Times colleague, Ben Oreskes, takes an interesting look at sanctioned campgrounds in San Francisco and what works about them and what doesn’t.

A sanctioned campground offers (or should offer) the autonomy and privacy that tent dwellers on the sidewalk prefer over the presumed comfort of an indoor shelter, where you must share space with dozens of other people and follow a lot of rules. At the same time, a campground run by a service provider can offer security, toilets, showers, regular meals and some lighting. (No more dangerous bootlegging of electricity.) And service providers should be working with people to get them into interim housing with walls and doors.

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In West Los Angeles, the Veterans Affairs campus supports a sanctioned encampment of eligible veterans on sprawling, grassy grounds that are surrounded by wrought iron fencing. If you’re going to camp somewhere, you’d be hard pressed to find a more scenic urban location.

The drawback to all these campgrounds is the possibility that they become, purposefully or inadvertently, long-term housing solutions. They are not. And to the extent that they siphon off money and energy from real housing alternatives, that’s bad.

Oreskes’ story notes that a recently opened campground on a parking lot in East Hollywood is costing the city of Los Angeles about $2,600 a month per person, according to city documents. This city has a severe shortage of affordable housing, but for $2,600 a month you could even get a not particularly affordable apartment somewhere. Sure, there are hurdles to getting homeless people into apartments beyond the cost, but for that price, the city could work on those issues.

Campgrounds are fine in the interim but not indefinitely. And I worry that we’re focusing only on the interim.


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