Letter Regarding Homeless Living in Underpasses

Thank you for contacting me about homelessness encampments in several of our underpasses – particularly Winnetka and Corbin. 

I understand and share your frustration at the number of encampments on the street and debris piling up and impeding access through the underpasses. I agree that it is unacceptable to let people live in squalor as it poses a health and safety risk to them and everyone else. I agree that the trash left behind by folks is not only inconsiderate but the cause of blight and health problems. And, I agree that it is unacceptable to have critical pedestrian passageways blocked — especially near a school. Everyone should be able to safely and securely use our sidewalks, and ADA access should always be enforced. 

I am constantly sending out the City Care teams to the underpasses. Recently, (August 10, 2020) I requested that the City CARE teams literally visit the sites every day as necessary to significantly reduce trash, debris, clear the sidewalk for ADA access, and conduct social service outreach to connect folks with housing, family reconnection, substance abuse treatment, and mental health services. I also went out (as a regularly do) personally to the underpasses and successfully got another person to accept drug treatment. Two weeks ago I made a video about one such underpass visit.

I am also aware of the rise in suspected crime, possibly stolen bikes, narcotics, and more troubling suspicions. This week, the LAPD will conduct additional enforcement to investigate these credible allegations at the Winnetka and Corbin underpasses. While the Courts have made it almost impossible to legally enforce anti-camping laws, the police need to enforce criminal laws and ADA access. Also, I have been assured that the porta potty that was blocking ADA access in the Winnetka underpass has been moved. As you may know, the porta-potties were placed throughout the City at underpasses and other homeless hotspots by the Mayor’s executive order as a means to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus. I did not choose the sites. Especially as local businesses that used to allow the use of their restroom facilities to be used by homeless folks are closed, the porta-potties have become one of the only sanitary alternatives for folks living in the underpasses.

Many people have written to me urging me to just “get them out of our City” or to “move them somewhere else.” I wish it were that simple. The Courts will not allow the City to forcibly remove people — even when they are clearly on drugs — as they have ruled that it is unconstitutional unless you have a shelter bed in close proximity for them to go to. A recent court case, even prevents us from removing bulky items in an encampment as we used to do. And, despite my pushing our State Representatives to loosen the conservatorship laws so that we could force more people into treatment who are clearly suffering from mental illness and drug addiction, it is still extremely difficult to force someone into treatment unless they pose an immediate threat to themselves or someone else.

This is not an excuse for the intolerable situation, but rather the context. I agree that there are way too many people on the street and way too many are addicted to drugs or are mentally ill. The Courts have made it clear that unless we have alternatives/shelter beds in close proximity to where the homeless are camped, we will not be allowed to enforce our anti-camping laws. We have fought these cases in Court and lost on multiple occasions. These laws apply to the entire City, and I cannot choose to have them enforced differently in our community.

Consequently, I am pushing for local shelter beds in part so that we can regain control over our streets. Up until recently, getting control of the streets was based on needing to get enough shelter beds for all of the City’s homeless, but a recent Court case has opened up the possibility that we might be able to do this on a district-specific basis. Such an opportunity would be amazing for our area since we have the fewest number of homeless people compared to any other district in the City — providing enough shelter for all or a percentage of the 704 homeless people in our district is achievable. I wrote about this possibility in an article, you can read here. Also, you can read about our Bridge Shelter that is opening on December 31  or about pallet shelters.

You have probably read about how I have been pushing for additional, but controversial cleanups and should know that I am doing everything I can to get folks off the streets legally. I have also recently gotten LASHA to initiate a pilot program that will hopefully help clear the Winnetka underpass over the next few weeks. We officially announced this pilot project on August 14. I worked with and pushed LAHSA to conduct this pilot program to identify the needs of every individual living at the Winnetka underpass and immediately implement a plan to get them off the street by addressing those needs.

Additionally, I believe that the State and County can do more to build the infrastructure to reestablish mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities. A critical issue is the lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities. Although the City does not manage these social services (per City and County charters it falls exclusively to the County), I helped establish a program with Tarzana Providence Hospital to deal with this lack of service (see here). I wish we could force people who need it into treatment programs. State and Federal laws prohibit this, and we currently do not even have enough treatment programs for those who would willingly accept such services.

While I will continue to do everything I can at the local level, the City alone cannot stem the flow of people into homelessness nor provide all of the services to rehabilitate people living on the streets. The root causes of homelessness — poverty, opioid crisis, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, etc. — are complex. The long-term solution to homelessness will require all hands on deck. I encourage you to reach out to your County Supervisor, Shiela Kuehl  as well as your State and Federal representatives about homelessness. They each play an important role — whether it is providing mental health and drug addiction services (County), passing laws defining who is eligible to be forced into treatment via a conservatorship (State), or not cutting critical Federal housing dollars.

These are trying times but we will get through them. Thank you for contacting me. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Take care.