The Point in Time homelessness count is the most important data that has been produced in Los Angeles this year. LA County saw a 12% increase from 2018, meaning that 58,936 of our neighbors are sleeping without permanent shelter on any given night. LA City was worse, seeing a 16% increase with 36,300 of our neighbors living without permanent shelter. These increases came despite gains in housing people. Our leaders are pushing sweeps as the solution, when what our neighbors need are services.
Our housing crisis is killing us.
The evidence is everywhere. On Skid Row in Los Angeles, 14,000 homeless persons were arrested in 2016, including for urinating in public and other “quality of life” offences, while overall arrests in the city were declining. For those wondering what the problem is, the answer is not hard to find. In 2016 there were only nine public toilets available for some 1,800 homeless individuals on Skid Row. The resulting ratio of one public toilet per 200 individuals would not even meet the minimum standards the UN sets for Syrian refugee camps. – Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
In 2018, Los Angeles was able to house more than 21,000 people. This is a big increase over 2017 when 17,000 people were able to transition into housing. But this isn’t enough to keep up with the number of people who are losing housing.
This crisis has a body count. 918 people died on the streets of LA last year. That’s 2.5 people per day. In the span of your work day one person will die, needlessly.
Living without shelter guarantees that you will have contact with the police. Overall crime and arrests have dropped in the last decades. Except for people without housing. Arrests of the unhoused increased 30% in 2018. Overall, LAPD made 14,000 arrests of unhoused Angelenos in 2018. To make matters worse, 30% of LAPD’s uses of force were against people who have no place to live.
The city of LA has a population of about 4 million. 36,300 (at the minimum) live without permanent shelter. That’s 0.9% of our population. And yet LAPD targets them for harassment, violence, and arrest more than anyone else.
Race plays an outsized role in this crisis. Black Angelenos are about 11% of the city’s population, but 38% of those without permanent shelter. This mirrors the racialized policing tactics that we see across the city. LAPD is far more likely to arrest or kill someone if they are black than any other demographic.
Instead of offering help, our politicians play the blame game.
Sensational headlines spanned the globe last year when a typhus outbreak was reported in downtown Los Angeles. Initial reporting linked the disease to large encampments around downtown, specifically the community of Skid Row. Despite the fact that this chain of events made no sense, politicians sprung into action to call for more sweeps, more harassment, and more arrests.
Once the initial shock wore off the real facts surfaced. Typhus infected fleas had infested city hall, carried by rats who took up residence because of LA’s poor maintenance of its own buildings. In fact LAPD was recently fined for failing to maintain a clean and safe office. At least one LAPD employee was sickened and one City Hall employee is suing the city because of her illness.
This “medieval” outbreak didn’t come from Skid Row, it came from City Hall’s negligence. But there is a public health crisis on the streets of LA. Tens of thousands of people are left without basic hygiene facilities. Showers, toilets, garbage pick up, food storage, basic first aid, clean clothes, laundry facilities; the list of needs goes on.
Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited Los Angeles while studying homelessness in America. His report back to the UN is a scathing indictment of how LA is handling this crisis. Our lack of compassion is clearly visible in places that would not even meet the standards of refugee camps in war zones.
We demand services, not sweeps.
Los Angeles currently uses a complaint driven model that privileges people who own property over those who are unhoused. Using the city’s 311 system business owners, homeowners, and tenants can call to give the location of encampments and bulky trash. These calls trigger a multi-part process. First, the Bureau of Sanitation sends out a team to the location to confirm the report.
If they confirm an encampment, then the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) conducts outreach. This outreach is supposed to offer housing and health services, but result in very few placements in permanent or temporary shelter. A notice is posted in the area announcing that a sweep will happen sometime in the next 24 to 72 hours. Last, Bureau of Sanitation workers, accompanied by armed police officers, arrive to clean the area.
Reports from DSA-LA Streetwatch have shown that this model rarely matches reality. Sweeps can be unannounced. Often, the cleaning only serves to throw out people’s possessions, leaving the sidewalks unwashed. Private capital like scooters are left in place, despite blocking access and creating obstacles for ADA access.
When the targets of these sweeps complain they are threatened with arrest. If they have more possessions than can fit in a 60 gallon plastic bag, the police and sanitation workers will arbitrarily decide what they can keep. Tents are supposed to be left alone, but unattended tents will be thrown out. Sanitation workers will use discarded food as an excuse to declare a tent a health hazard, giving them cover to throw out someone’s only shelter.
Under an agreement with the federal courts in Jones v. Los Angeles, the city is supposed to make sure that they are not throwing out vital documents or medications. But we know that this happens all the time. Joe Reyes lived on the streets of Koreatown, where he worked odd jobs to earn money.
He was a longtime resident of the neighborhood before high rents forced him out of his apartment. While away from his tent, a sweep was conducted. Workers threw out his possessions, including medications that he needed for a heart condition. Two weeks later, Joe was dead from his heart issues.
This complaint driven model is inhumane and deadly. The City of Los Angeles, as well as every other city in the state, must adopt a service driven model.
But what does this model look like?
Showers, both permanent and temporary installed in areas with proven need.
Empty trash, much like you receive weekly trash pickup.
Restrooms, both permanent and temporary.
Vector control, to stop the spread of illness through rodents and insects.
Internet, access to communication and information are human rights.
Cleaning supplies, so that people can maintain their space and retain their dignity.
Electricity, to provide a basic standard of living.
Sharps containers, to keep individuals safe and provide basic medical access.
Until the city adopts a policy based on dignity and compassion people will die, every day. Police and sanitation workers are not qualified to offer assistance. Destroying possessions and making arrests further traumatizes people already under pressure. We know what will solve this crisis: housing and services.
At the state level, we see anemic solutions. Governor Brown pledged $300 million to homeless services, less than 15% of what LA County and LA City pledged under Measures H and HHH. Governor Newsom has empaneled a new commission that simply recreates work already being done. We need real solutions. There are simple steps that can be taken now to lessen the suffering.
Groups like Koreatown for All, Nolmypics LA, Shower of Hope, Invisible People, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), Ground Game Los Angeles, and too many others to name, are working on the ground now. They need the support of our government and they need our help to reclaim the narrative. Human dignity must come first.