Los Angeles, CA

Competing Strategies to End Homelessness in L.A.

Carolyn V. Murray

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Image by Avi Chomotovski from Pixabay

When you first heard of the billion-dollar proposal to end L.A.’s Skid Row homelessness by October 2021, what was your reaction? Skeptical? Hopeful? Irritated? Relieved?

I both loved the announcement and at the same time, had to question – is this really doable within six months and if so, why on earth wasn’t it done five years ago? Ten years ago? Twenty years ago?

One simple answer is that the billion dollars weren’t at the city’s disposal twenty years ago. But in 2016, the citizens of L.A. County approved bond measure HHH which provided these vital funds.

You can do a lot with a billion dollars. Perhaps you can’t house every homeless individual in L.A. County, but you can sure provide housing and a wide array of social assistance to the 4,757 people who were unhoused in L.A.’s Skid Row as of 2019 (updated 2020 numbers are not available because of the pandemic.)

2016 was a long time ago – why hasn’t more been done?

That’s the crux of the current debate. There was a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles for its perceived ineffectual response to the homelessness problem, with activists, business owners, and members of the homeless community as plaintiffs.

The HHH funds were supposed to be used to construct or develop 13,000 units of housing. Thus far, only 489 have been completed. It’s a very legitimate question and criticism to wonder why this is taking so long. It’s unlikely that the people who voted for this measure in 2016 could have anticipated that five years down the road, less than five percent of those housing units would be available.

Judge David O. Carter says “enough”

This federal judge presided over the lawsuit and ordered that one billion dollars be put in escrow immediately for the purpose of offering housing to every individual living on Skid Row. Furthermore, he wants an audit of all funds spent on the homelessness issue, as well as an accounting for every company that received development money from the HHH funds.

The L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, the plaintiff in this case, has asked for $300 million dollars from the HHH funds for temporary and emergency housing. However, Mayor Eric Garcetti doesn’t believe that the federal judge nor the plaintiff has the right to dictate what is done with these state and local funds.

He has his own recently unveiled billion-dollar plan, which involves building, buying, and renting more housing. It also may include providing low-income families with a guaranteed income of $1,000-2,000 a month, for one year.

Two different billion-dollar plans. Two officials who seem genuinely concerned about the plight of the homeless and the necessity of solving this problem. But at the same time, these two key figureheads and skeptical of one another’s game plan. Is a consensus ever going to be possible?

The future of L.A. is also at stake

The citizens of Los Angeles are heavily invested in the outcome of this dilemma. Firstly, there is the issue of compassion and the powerful desire to alleviate the worst of human suffering. But one could even be indifferent to the plight of the homeless and still recognize this as one of Los Angeles’s biggest social priorities.

Homeless tent encampments have taken over stretches of sidewalk, beaches and boardwalks. Tents have been planted across from apartment buildings and commercial businesses, frightening residents and deterring foot traffic and customers. No tourist really wants to see the Hollywood Walk of Fame if it involves navigating a gauntlet of people sleeping on the sidewalk, to say nothing of the trash and needles and human excrement. People relocating away from L.A. often cite the homeless encampments as a major contributing factor in their decision.

For L.A. to reclaim its status as a pleasant, desirable place to live, the homeless have to be provided with housing. (And everyone else needs to be provided with much more affordable housing, but that’s a somewhat different story.)

Fast versus slow, temporary versus permanent

This is at the heart of the clash of strategies. Mayor Garcetti’s approach is long-term and focused on providing permanent housing, with subsidized rents and on-site social services. Shayla Myers, a senior attorney with the Housing and Communities workgroup is in agreement. She stresses that this billion dollars is a rare opportunity to solve the entrenched disaster of homelessness, but if it’s wasted on temporary solutions, then in future years, the city and its residents will berate themselves for not eradicating homelessness when the means were available.

Judge Carter and the plaintiff say that an excessive focus on the long-term is allowing too much short-term tragedy to occur. At least 1,000 people died last year in Skid Row – some estimates place it at 1,300. All homelessness is problematic, but Skid Row is probably its most disease-ridden, crime-ridden, violent, destitute, and hopeless manifestation in the Los Angeles area, if not the entire country (although I’m sure San Francisco and New York City are also top contenders for this wretched distinction.)

Housing that’s available in two years, three years, four years…will be of no use to those who died waiting for it.

No one’s entirely wrong

There are obvious merits to both arguments and I can only hope they’re able to see that. What I appreciate most about Judge Carter’s approach is his insistence on immediacy and accountability. Of course, the public should be able to see an audit of these funds – their taxes paid for it.

And both sides need to put their heads together and figure out how to accelerate the long-term housing. If you triple the number of contract workers preparing this housing, can it be ready in one-third the amount of time? What about using five times the workers? How long does it take to put up a barn? If you’ve seen enough Westerns, you know it only takes one day – because everyone in town is working on it together.

Whatever is being done can almost certainly be done faster.

Is there money for both approaches?

There may not currently be funds to dedicate a billion dollars each for both temporary and permanent housing. But they need to at least make the effort to strategize on how to finance both priorities. Can state funding be re-allocated – for example, it costs $81,000 to house every California inmate? I know it sounds simplistic, but can we release some of the nonviolent offenders and put them in a $43,000 tiny house for a few years while they get back on their feet?

The Giving Pledge, signed by over 200 of the world’s billionaires currently has a commitment of $600 billion dollars pledged to it. If the purpose of this charitable fund doesn’t include housing and protecting the homeless, then I don’t know what better use they could have had in mind.

But aren’t some people beyond help?

Is there widespread drug addiction and mental illness in the homeless population? Unfortunately, that’s quite true. But an addicted person in secure housing and on-site support has a chance at getting better. An addict on the streets will be overwhelmed by the stress, isolation, and danger of the streets and are unlikely to pull themselves out of the addiction. In addition to this, addicts living in the streets can pose a significant threat when crossing paths with the general public.

A home and food are first priorities. A shower. A lock to protect their possessions. And then we can do our best to coax them into treatment.

Mayor Garcetti – the world is watching

Right now, the mayor is taking all the measures he can to appeal the court’s orders and deny the legitimacy of the lawsuit. I don’t know if he’ll be successful with that goal. But he and his homeless plans have been challenged in a very public way. The pressure is on for him to succeed (and to inject some serious urgency in his programs.) If that leads to a roof and security for tens of thousands of L.A.’s homeless, then I can only applaud the pressure and hope that it stays on full force.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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