Los Angeles has the largest number of homeless people in the nation — nearly 26,000 in the city, more than 44,000 in the county. For years it’s had the troubling distinction of being America’s “homeless capital.”
With two new restrictive Los Angeles City ordinances, the City of the Angels might soon become known as the nation’s number one enemy of the homeless.
The laws, which will take effect July 18, make it easier for the city to confiscate the personal belongings of homeless individuals left on sidewalks and in parks, to tear down homeless encampments and to issue misdemeanor criminal citations.
After 24 hours, instead of what used to be three days, the police are now authorized to seize homeless people’s belongings, and either give them a ticket or charge them with a crime, even if they’re present to claim the items. Smaller possessions will be impounded for 90 days at a city facility on Skid Row. Bulky things that don’t fit in 60-gallon trash bins, like mattresses and larger tents, as well as hazardous items can be confiscated without any warning.
Before 2012, authorities had a fairly free hand with the homeless in L.A. But then a federal appeals court stopped the police from taking and destroying their possessions. Also under court order, homeless people have been allowed to sleep in the street from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. But then their tents and tarps must come down and be stored somewhere.
The not-so-subtle reason for the new laws, according to most homeless advocates as well as many city watchers, is to restore the ability of city authorities to clean up Skid Row and homeless encampments at other locales in a litigation-proof manner.
n‘It’s everywhere now’
So why is all this happening right now?
Back in mid-May, LASHA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a joint city-county agency) released its required biennial street census of the homeless. An op-ed piece in The Los Angele Times called the findings “unambiguously depressing.”
For both the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, the homeless population jumped 12 percent between 2013 and now. Even more startling, the number of homeless encampments and vehicles occupied by homeless people skyrocketed 85 percent to 9,535. The report meticulously documented with a digitalized map the locations of these camps spread throughout the county.
“It’s everywhere now,” said L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, where homelessness has been an issue for years.
And while there was a 6 percent decline in the county of homeless veterans to 4,343, the figure rose 6 percent in the city with 2,733.
What’s mind-boggling is the double-digit percent increase of homeless people in Los Angeles, together with the explosion of homeless encampments, while the city has been spending more than $100 million annually trying to manage homelessness.
That amount comes from a scathing report commissioned by the City Council’s housing committee.
How can that possibly be?
Maybe it’s the fact that 87 percent of the $100 million is earmarked for the police patrolling Skid Row and making arrests, with only about $13 million actually going towards mental health intervention and housing efforts.
“It’s an embarrassment what’s going on in Los Angeles,” said Philip F. Mangano, president and CEO of the American Round Table to Abolish Homelessness. “Instead of investing in solutions, they’re spending money on what will not bring a solution, which will only demoralize the police, demoralize public policy makers because you’re just going to see the same problem over and over and over again. It’s the recycling of the problem instead of solving it.”
Mangano should know. In 2002, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to head up the federal government’s anti-homeless effort. His mission was to travel the country changing the mindset on homelessness from simply serving homeless people to ending their homelessness as well as learning more about successful programs.
“The punitive police approach never gets the job done — ever — reducing homelessness,” he reported. “There’s no correlation between the punitive approach and the reduction of homelessness. The only thing that solves homelessness, and it sounds like a totality, is the simplest thing you ever heard: providing housing. That’s what mayors, city councils, county executives who are successful in reducing homelessness are doing.
nPutting housing first
The Housing First approach, which began in the late ‘80s, emphasizes stable permanent housing as the primary strategy for ending homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Its focus is getting both chronic and newly homeless people into rental apartments as quickly as possible. On an as-needed basis, support services are then offered to keep that person or family housed.
Los Angeles has some small private Housing First efforts, including Skid Row Housing, GETTLOVE and Step Up On Vine. Mangano applauds those programs. But he says city officials are still headed in the opposite direction by increasingly taking even harsher punitive measures against the homeless.
So why doesn’t Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council — whose members all voted for the ordinances except Councilman Gil Cedillo — get that?
“I think they’re functioning in old-school thinking,” Mangano pointed out. “It’s hard for people to understand that even on the issue of homeless efforts have been updated. Even in homelessness, there are innovative ideas that replace the old breadline and church-based shelter ideas.
“And the key antidote is a place to live.”
He likened it to typing on a Smith Corona or looking for a pay phone today. He reports that some of the most innovative housing ideas have been offered to the most vulnerable homeless, such as addicted or mentally ill persons who have been on the street for years.
“And the bonus in housing the homeless is that there are sufficient cost benefits. It’s been demonstrated conclusively that housing that vulnerable person is less expensive to the public purse,” said Mangano.
“So it’s cost effective and consumer preferred. Because homeless people want a place to live despite all of the stereotyping and the myth. If you ask homeless people what they want, they never say a pill, a program or a protocol. They always want a place to live.”
nCreating a new crime
Retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, who currently is special counsel at Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, has been studying and advocating for L.A.’s homeless since 1983. Earlier this month, he co-authored an op-ed piece with Mangano for the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Stop punishing and start helping L.A.’s homeless.”
“Not only will [the new laws] make it easier to cite or arrest homeless people, they will create an entirely new crime: the crime of having more possessions than you can carry on your back,” he said in an email interview. “A person who has been cited for having possessions on public property cannot legally move those possessions to any other place in the entire 486 square miles of the City of Los Angeles.
“That is because all property is either private or public. Putting possessions on private property without permission constitutes trespassing. Public property is the only other choice. A homeless person can escape prosecution by carrying her things to another city. But she will face similar, but not quite as harsh, laws in those cities.”
Blasi points out that the new laws, which will take effect July 18, can only be described as an attempt by City of Los Angeles leaders, with the exception of Councilman Cedillo, to banish homeless people from the city. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles are long-time Angelenos.
“Through my research as a UCLA law professor (now emeritus), I am familiar with anti-homeless laws in cities across America,” he reported. “I am aware of none as callous and cruel as these laws.”
Later in the interview, he points out that local religious leaders haven’t taken note of, never mind protested against, the anti-homeless statutes.
“Other than through some charity, the faith community has never been more silent,” wrote Blasi. “I don’t think that silence reflects a change in values as much as a lack of accurate information. I hope the silence ends.”