By LA City Councilman Mike Bonin.
In recent years, Los Angeles has seen more progress in combating homelessness than it ever has – yet the problem is still getting worse.
Since 2011, the region has housed more than 23,000 people – a record number even by national standards. Yet homelessness is on the rise. Encampments are proliferating in our neighborhoods throughout the City. There are villages of tents on sidewalks from Venice to Van Nuys, and shantytowns in neighborhoods from Skid Row to San Pedro.
How is this possible? And how can we fix it?
The problem has roots in Los Angeles’ failure to provide sufficient housing and shelter. In 2006, the city got slapped hard by federal courts, which ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to forbid people from sleeping on sidewalks if there was not sufficient housing or shelter. In response, the city made a long-term commitment to build more housing, but effectively said to people without shelter in the meantime, “Okay, we’ll let you sleep on the sidewalks,” and enshrined that policy in a legally binding agreement.
Predictably, the stock of available housing has come nowhere close to meeting the demand. As a result, each night, there are nearly 20,000 people in the city without shelter. That’s nearly 75 percent of the city’s homeless population — and they are going where the confluence of law and the lack of resources is telling them to go: sidewalks, parks, and canyons.
While it must have been a tempting way for to city to wash its hands of the legal issue, this policy has been a disaster. The impacts have been as harmful as they should have been predictable: Encampments are increasing. The unsheltered homeless are falling deeper into chronic homelessness and mental illness. Neighborhood quality of life is being damaged. No one wins.
The ultimate solution to homelessness is providing housing first, with supportive services as needed. But even if we start spending ten times more money and building ten times more housing, we will have tens of thousands of people without shelter for years. That’s not acceptable.
We are spending a tremendous amount of time and money dealing with the fact that there are so many people living in encampments, but we are focusing very little attention to the question of how to give them an alternative to the sidewalks. We can’t wish the problem away. We can’t ignore the problem. And we can’t pretend that our current system – while markedly better at providing housing than anything we have done before – is addressing the problem. Housing first cannot mean housing only.
Allowing our growing numbers of unsheltered homeless people to live in sidewalk encampments is nuts, and we need to replace the practice with something dramatically different. We need genuine menu of options between our sidewalks and our far too-scarce permanent housing. That includes shared housing, bridge housing, sobering centers, transitional shelters, and even emergency shelters. We need options that keep people off the streets, out of risk, and engaged in case management and services unavailable on a sidewalk. We need to create and invest in a continuum of care rather than in our current policy of malignant neglect.
We must do better than a system of bare-bones, one-size-fits-all shelters that feel like prisons, and become permanent warehouses for people. That might be better than sidewalk encampments, but only marginally so. We need specialized, welcoming centers or shared housing for couples, for families with children, for teenage runaways, for veterans, and others. New York has begun to move toward this model. Agencies there have begun to implement a new “safe haven” system of shelters to lure the chronically unsheltered and service resistant from the streets. Officials are creating a series of round-the-clock “drop-in” centers. Churches and synagogues are opening small overnight “respite programs.”
We should do that here. To make sure people use the facilities, we’ll need to distinguish between the service-resistant and the service-reluctant. For instance, I have met an elderly couple in Venice who have lost everything in life – except for one another. They refuse to accept shelter if they will be separated into different, gender-specific facilities. It runs counter to their survival instinct. But they very well might accept an alternative to the sidewalks if they could stay together. We need to craft a system that recognizes and removes the barriers that prevent people from moving out of encampments and off the streets.
The issue of the unsheltered homeless population here in Los Angeles is daunting. Citywide, 73% of our homeless go without shelter, and countywide 65% are unsheltered. Addressing this problem will require significant investment from and partnership with other levels of government. We will need financial support from the state, and from the County of Los Angeles, and its health, mental health and social service agencies. We will need plenty of partners from the private sector and from the faith communities. And we will likely need to change or suspend some land use regulations to make it easier to create more housing and shelter options.
This will be challenging. It will cost money and political capital – neither of which is unlimited, and both of which are needed to build permanent supportive housing. But we need more of both. We cannot ignore the enormous gap between our small supply of permanent housing and our tremendous demand. And we cannot ignore the costs and consequences – to our unhoused and unsheltered neighbors and to our neighborhoods – of the City of Angels being a City of Encampments.
Mike Bonin represents the 11th Council District on Los Angeles’ Westside. He is a member of the City Council’s Committee on Homelessness. This column was provided CityWatch by Councilman Bonin.