Published with the Valley News Group on June 25, 2020
In the first three months of 2020, Woodland Hills made the most 311 service calls related to homelessness in the City, even though it has fewer homeless people than the vast majority of LA’s communities (see here). The best way to reduce calls is moving people off the street, and the key to that is building new shelters in the West Valley. Whether people like the idea or hate it, we simply must create more beds in our communities in order to move people off the street and have some ability to enforce anti-camping laws.
I understand why people are calling, frustrated by the growing encampments — especially under freeways. I’m frustrated too. Despite sending City CARE teams to the underpasses every week, personally going to these sites with LAHSA workers, the attempts I’ve made to enact special high transit corridor legislation, and offering every underpass dweller in my district refuge at one of the temporary COVID Rec Center shelters, the underpasses are still encampment hotspots.
Like so many of my constituents, I’m tired of it, of people not receiving lifesaving services, and of being told that Court decisions prevent the City from moving tents, bulky items, or having much control beyond briefly enforcing ADA access. It’s not right for nearby communities or for the people living in squalor, breathing the exhaust.
Hope for positive change is on the horizon. Because of a new agreement reached between the County and City of Los Angeles, two major stumbling blocks to progress are being removed. Of critical importance, this agreement is being overseen and will be enforceable by a Federal Judge, David Carter. He is the Judge that presided over homeless cases in Orange County, is presiding over the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights v. L.A. case, and has spent months meeting with local leaders grappling with the real world impacts of homelessness.
The first stumbling block is money for services. Prior to the new agreement the County was only willing to pay for the mental health and treatment services of 600 City run shelter beds. Now they will pay 60 million per year for five years for such services — 6,000-plus shelter beds. The City will still have to find funds to build these shelter beds and pay for half of the operations.
Second, in the past when the City provided shelter for someone beneath the freeway, someone else could immediately camp at that spot. Judge Carter has promised to help prevent this cycle. While the method of enforcement still needs to be negotiated with all of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit (and it’s complicated), the Judge has been steadfast that enforcement has to be allowed once shelter has been offered. Talking and meeting regularly with the Judge for several weeks, I believe he genuinely wants to help make this happen. This hopefully will unify those who want to help the homeless with those who want to clear the underpasses.
Opening new homeless shelters in the West Valley is controversial and complicated, but it’s the only way to get people the help they need and restore clear transportation and pedestrian corridors. The Judge has also made it clear that ‘shelter beds’ can mean anything from a sanctioned encampment on a public lot to the ideal supportive housing to anything in between — shared dormitory housing, tiny homes made out of recycled pallets, safe parking, or bridge housing, etc.
I have identified several possible locations for such options and am confident that we can house everyone in the underpasses in the district and many at risk homeless seniors, potentially in a few City owned sites, a Metro lot and possibly leasing private locations. I recently introduced a motion to negotiate a possible lease with the Knights of Columbus.
In the ideal world, we would create beds for all the unsheltered people. Judge Carter is trying to quickly move to a lawsuit settlement that will require each Council district to provide shelter beds for a specific percentage of its homeless population. The settlement would also enable that district to enforce anti-camping laws once they do so. I have written about this idea in the past and I continue to believe that it is a bargain that can finally bring progress to this intractable problem.
Because the 2020 LAHSA Homeless Count shows 704 homeless people residing in District 3 (the fewest of any district), finding enough shelter beds is doable and is a top priority. Sufficient beds would be fantastic for the newly sheltered and for the district’s overall quality of life.
However, until we deal with the structural problems that are actually causing homelessness such as a lack of affordable housing, drug addiction, income inequality, health care access, etc, any success we have will be short lived as even more people will fall into homelessness. These fundamental problems are ones that the City can help with, but that ultimately require State, Federal, and philanthropic focus and resources.