The COVID-19 emergency has disrupted events, schools, businesses, families, and city services, it has also had an impact on homelessness. In an effort to prevent many more people from falling into homelessness, emergency critical policy changes such as an eviction moratorium, a two week paid sick leave mandate and immediate financial aid programs have been enacted. And, in an effort to help prevent the virus from ravaging the homeless population and endangering nearby communities, the City and State are attempting to reduce the density of existing homeless encampments and offer refuge for homeless people by opening up emergency shelters in hotels, motels and at certain Recreation centers. While thousands of homeless people have accepted this emergency shelter, many of the encampments in the 101 underpasses and throughout the City are looking worse than they have previously. While COVID-19 is part of the reason that tents are staying up and more visible, there are several additional factors that are important to understand.
Recently I hosted a COVID-19 telephone town hall with medical and small business experts to explore facts and resources and offer our community an opportunity to ask questions on these topics. Out of the more than 100 questions which were asked but not covered during the limited time of the call, about a dozen were on homeless-related topics. Consequently, I am attempting to answer these questions in this written format.
In short, no one should have to live on a sidewalk under a freeway, it is not a humane way to live. And, no one should have to feel afraid to go for a walk in their own neighborhood or have their sidewalks blocked by tents, clutter and debris. If the City could move everyone into a shelter or into supportive housing today we would do so. If the City could force drug addicts into drug treatment programs or force very mentally ill people into treatment, it would. The Courts have told us that once there are enough housing or shelter beds available for most of the homeless in the City than we can then enforce the anti-camping laws that are on the books that currently they do not allow us to enforce. And, the County Public Health Department which is the lead during the Pandemic (the City doesn’t itself have a health department or health programs) has determined that it is safer for everyone not to force people to take down their tens during the daytime, but to leave them where they are as the moving them around during this pandemic risks a faster spread of the virus.
Hot spot encampments like the 101 underpasses persist even though we go out with LAHSA to meet with homeless people to offer services and shelter. Sanitation comes for trash pickup but has a very limited ability to remove bulky items. A very recent Court case (Garcia) made it extremely impractical to remove couches, mattresses and other bulky items from encampments which used to be removed routinely. Although we work with LAHSA and law enforcement to try to get people off the streets and enforce ADA compliance (3 feet passibility on sidewalks), there are still too many unsheltered people on the streets throughout the City and in my district.
Why are some Rec Centers being used as homeless shelters and will they return to normal after the crisis?
In March the Mayor ordered that Recreation centers throughout the city be converted into temporary homeless shelters because the city needed facilities to give unsheltered people sanitary conditions to live through the COVID-19 emergency. It is extremely difficult to shelter in place, if you have no place. His selections were based on ADA accessibility and facilities with hot showers. The Woodland Hills Rec Center is the only one in my district and it is hosting 35 people in the gym and ten more in FEMA trailers in the parking lot. The trailers are being used for seniors (age 65+) and people with underlying health issues who are not infected by the Virus. After the pandemic, the Rec Centers will transition back to being Rec Centers. They need to be Recreation Centers because of the important role they play in our community and because the City Charter requires it.
Are these Shelters for people from around the City or for the local homeless?
I insisted that for the Woodland Hills Temporary Recreation priority be given for proximate homeless people. Consequently, prior to the shelter being open a bus was driven around the third district to all of the major homeless sites urging local homeless to take refuge at the shelter. The bus was sent out several more times to the same locations to offer refuge. Most of the people staying at the shelter are indeed locals.
Will the people in those Centers just go back to the street?
Hopefully not, but right now there is not a concrete plan to insure that they don’t. My team and I are exploring many different emergency avenues to shelter these people who have accepted a bed, some saying yes to services for the first time. There is currently efforts being made to find funding to allow for longer term usage of many of the hotel/motels that have been repurposed. Also, after the pandemic has ended, the existing shelters will be allowed to re-density. The pandemic necessitated that they’re capacity was greatly reduced. The homeless crisis will continue to be severe, but Bridge Housing opening later this year in Canoga Park and other long-term solutions in the works will help make a difference. I believe we are at a crossroads and that we need to be open to all options for temporary shelter including barracks, group housing, and even sanctioned encampments as is currently happening at the Westside VA. I have written about this crossroads moment in an Opinion Piece in the Daily News. Click here to read the article, or here to read the unabridged version of it.
What can we do to assist unhoused people who are still living in the streets, especially to provide them with PPE or how we do protect them?
Per the Mayor’s executive order, Sanitation installed portable sinks and toilets throughout the city, including several locations in my district near existing encampments. LAHSA and other service providers are handing out masks and continuing to offer social distancing and hygiene guidelines. But these are guidelines, not an enforceable rule so people are not arrested if they remain close to others.
Why aren't you doing anything about the encampments, especially at Shoup and Winnetka and the 101?
I am just as frustrated with this situation as you are. During this crisis, LAHSA and service providers have been conducting outreach in the district to connect with homeless people. Almost all the people currently staying at the Woodland Hills Rec Center were brought by these providers directly from the streets in the West Valley.
At the Shoup underpass, the CARE Team went out twice last week, but there are still people living there and their belongings are still on the sidewalks. This remains one of the most persistent encampments in our community and the Garcia ruling last week by a federal judge, makes it even harder to remedy. See my Op-Ed in the Daily News for more information about the federal courts role.
This does not stop the focus that my team and I have on helping people off the streets and cleaning up our community. Several year’s ago we tried putting up ‘no loitering’ signs, but the signs were deemed to be unenforceable by our City Attorneys. I tried to move a motion giving special status for critical transit corridor sidewalks, but that proved to cast too wide of a net for acceptance. And, recently I had prepared to push a motion that would single out one stretch of Winnetka Blvd under the 101 underpass. My team was working with the City Attorney’s office as such a motion, if passed, would invariably become the target of a lawsuit. Last week, I toured Judge Carter, the Federal Judge currently presiding over a homelessness related case, through our worst underpasses. He agreed that they shouldn’t look the way that they do and we discussed the possibility of a district specific consent decree that might enable us to enforce our anti-camping laws.
I also hear often from constituents that this isn't a housing crisis, rather its mental health and drug crisis. While I agree that the mental health and drug crises is a major driver, the homeless crises is also very much linked to housing. Mental health and addiction services are greatly needed to help people succeed in housing, and we don’t even have enough housing for the non addicted and non-mentally ill people who are seeking it. However, the legal reality (a result of Federal Court rulings) that we are faced with is that we cannot enforce the anti-camping and clean-up laws until we are able to build thousands of housing units throughout the City. Now, it may be possibly to enforce our laws in this district via the type of district specific consent decree mentioned in the above paragraph. We will need to build more housing before we can enforce the laws that would get people off the streets— but whether we have to succeed across the entire city or just in our area is an open question.
As I said in a recent post, we do not know how long the pandemic emergency will last, and are doing everything we can to increase testing, support local hospitals, and meet the needs of seniors and families during this crisis. All levels of government are working together to keep everyone in our community safe and this includes getting homeless people off the streets and into our shelters.
Please continue to stay at home, abide by social distancing and be kind during this difficult time. This is an unprecedented challenge and it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to flatten the curve and save lives. We are still seeing incredibly high rates of infection and death, now is the time to double down on our efforts.
If you have further questions you can email me at Councilmember.Blumenfield@lacity.org or call my office at 818.774.4330 about this issue or any other city related business. My team and I are working every day to help our community through this.