When my staff and I were doing community outreach for our new transitional Bridge Housing site ‘The Willows,’ we promised the neighbors and local business owners that if they welcomed this needed project, the streets and sidewalks around the site would receive extra care and cleaning. This is a promise I will keep. However, for transparency, decency, and building trust within the unhoused community, the protocols for clean ups within these “special enforcement and cleaning zones” (SECZ) around Bridge Housing sites need to be clear, predictable and about cleaning up, not about making an already difficult living situation even more difficult for an unhoused person.
Many areas have not had a comprehensive cleaning in over a year. This is true for the SECZ around the Willows that will become officially operative on Monday. A comprehensive cleaning, unlike a standard spot cleaning, requires that an unhoused person remove all of their possessions, including their tent, prior to the cleaning. Possessions that are left behind during such a clean up are either labeled and stored by the City or thrown away if the Environmental Compliance Officer (ECI) on site determines they are soiled or hazardous. SECZ near bridge homes can provide notice to folks by having signage that indicates when the clean up will occur.
I regularly visit the people who live in the encampments within the Willow’s SECZ. Some of the folks keep their areas clean, but others do not and I have seen vermin within layers of trash on a regular basis. This is inhumane and while we are building more and more housing, I don’t think the answer is to allow encampments to become an unmitigated health and safety disaster in the meantime. There must be balance between cleaning our community and the humane treatment of unhoused Angelenos.
From my outreach with Pastor Huck on Friday morning (2-26) discussing upcoming cleanups with unhoused residents near the Bridge Housing SECZ.
One of the biggest issues is the confusion around what is an SECZ for both the housed and unhoused communities. Although the Willows SECZ hadn’t taken effect yet, a few weeks ago there was a situation where City departments were conducting a spot cleaning and started moving belongings of a man who recently moved into bridge housing. There were red flags with the operation, one of the most blatant ones was the limited communication with the person. That day no mobile showers, restrooms, or other benefits that normally come with an SECZ were offered, such as LAHSA exchanging damaged or contaminated tents for new ones. And, most importantly, there was no notice given to the individual so that he could expect an extensive clean up.
Notification, clear communication, and relationship building are the keys to reducing trauma and completing an effective clean up. Without notice, a clean up can become what some call a “sweep.” While I think clean ups are important, I don’t ever want there to be “sweeps.” For now, these zones require a simple permanent sign warning of weekly clean ups before the Departments of Sanitation and service providers can go in. However, they don’t actually have the resources to clean everywhere in a SECZ on any given day. So, many people prepare for the clean up, but never actually have to move their stuff.
Consequently, I’ve spoken to some skeptical unhoused people who doubt that a clean up will actually occur and they do not prepare properly. Then, when crews arrive they feel as if they had no notice and are given just minutes to move all of their possessions. This is a recipe for disaster. It means that they are unprepared and may have valuables thrown away or stored, it can lead to police confrontations, and it can be traumatizing and unfair to the unhoused person. Also, it means that neighbors who desperately want to see their neighborhood get cleaned up get frustrated because areas they think will be cleaned, are left untouched.
So, I‘ve asked for some protocol enhancements to be immediately put in place for the Willows SECZ. While there are signs posted letting folks know they are in an SECZ, we will push for more communication and outreach so that unhoused people are fully aware exactly where the Enhanced Clean ups (where people have to temporarily move their tent and all belongings) are happening. Also, we’re going to have outreach staff try to give people personal notice as well when a scheduled clean up is coming and exactly where it will be. We will make sure that they only conduct comprehensive clean ups that can actually be carried out and, if the crew finishes those locations with extra time in the day (since we would be scheduling a more modest, but doable program), they will spend the remainder of the day doing spot clean ups in the SECZ. I will insist that the benefits that come with SECZ clean ups such as mobile showers and tent exchange are maintained. Ideally, this system will not only be more humane and more predictable but it will provide serious cleaning for health and safety near Bridge homes.
At the end of the day, many more temporary housing units are being built right now and my goal is to have a bed or unit for every homeless person in my district. But as more shelters open, we must figure out how to balance cleaning our communities with humane treatment of the unhoused. It will take at least a week to make these SECZ changes, so in the interim we will just do spot cleaning in the Willows area. This will avoid the inevitable confusing incident where someone only gets 15 minutes to gather their belongings and claims they weren’t aware the clean up was really coming.
Again, I am laser focused on creating and incentivizing more supportive and homeless housing in our community, as well as growing our available outreach tools so we have more diverse services at our fingertips. While we need transitional housing, we really need more permanent housing so that there are places where people can ultimately transition to. As more programs open, we can't let down the communities that have welcomed these projects. Again, there must be a balance between cleaning up our streets and sidewalks and more human treatment of unhoused Angelenos that we all deserve. We need real clean ups, not “sweeps.”