DEEGAN ON LA-The day of reckoning is less than 90 days from now: Primary Election Day, March 3, 2020. This is when several incumbent City Councilmembers will have had to convincingly explain to voters just what they have done about the number one issue across the city:
the homelessness crisis which is now not just a housing issue, but a hygiene and public health issue. They must say how they have eased the homeless crisis in their districts and the city and be able to win an election over challengers who may think they can do a better job.
No matter what stats and charts are offered, there’s no refuting the fact that we still have thousands of homeless people sleeping on our sidewalks.
The challengers -- untested when it comes to the homeless crisis -- can promise whatever they want with their campaign trail rhetoric. But right now, they have no skin in the game, with the major exception of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is termed out and now running for CD 10. Ridley-Thomas has a long history of advocating for the homeless at both the County and State levels.
There are many ways to measure success or failure in how the city and incumbent politicos have handled the growing homeless crisis. It’s a problem that has been expanding rather than shrinking, despite the matrix of solutions at play.
There is a useful common denominator that shows how the incumbents running for re-election have each met the challenge set out by Mayor Garcetti in his “A Bridge Home” program, announced in April 2018. This is to look at his homeless housing chart. Spurred by what has morphed from a Skid Row problem to a community crisis -- and leavened by the Mayor's promise of cash and extra city services -- the Mayor and the Councilmembers can claim some success in placing two homeless housing projects in each council district.
Another useful guide to progress is the United Way’s Everybody In program that shows huge success in providing supportive housing for the homeless.
What’s frustrating, and reflective of the decentralized approach to housing the homeless, is trying to synthesize “A Bridge Home” with “Everybody In” so that, instead of having competing silos of information, we have a master plan spelling out everything in one place at one time.
Sarah Dusseault, the Chair of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told the LA Times, in a recent article, “As L.A.’s Homeless Crisis Worsens, No One Is In Charge,” that “There are times where it’s very unclear who is the lead, and when there’s no clarity around that or the goals, we are not going to be successful.”
Our “almost a homeless czar”, Peter Lynn, just resigned his near quarter-million-dollar a year job as Director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a perch from which he saw the number of homeless rise 33% in his five year tenure. While not directly attributing the blame to him, the LA Times noted what everyone already knows: there have been “millions of dollars of new tax revenue but also growing frustration with the lack of visible results” when it comes to solving the homeless crisis.
This is why the colorful charts provided by A Bridge Home and Everyone In don't connect with the public, which measures the success or failure of the city’s plans to help the homeless by looking at the uncolorful visuals of the homeless who are found on every doorstep.
Money has failed to solve the problem. And so has the jawboning by politicos. Leaders like Lynn have bailed out. City Councilmembers have worked hard at providing solutions, and now several challengers are saying they can do better.
Silos have segmented the chance for citywide success. Central leadership, whether the Mayor, the City Council, the LASHA leadership, or a rising politico has yet to capture the public’s imagination as being “the one” who can solve the problem by utilizing all programs and people in the City who are desperate to find solutions.
A Homeless Czar from the private sector, incentivized by a bonus plan, is about the only thing not yet tried.
With incumbents being challenged in all seven of the even-numbered Council Districts, there will be plenty of time and energy spent on the homeless issue. While the incumbents have the decided advantage, the challengers may provide a recharge of the conversation. Now that every sidewalk is fair game for a homeless encampment, many more community activists may engage in the debate. In fact, many of the challengers identify as “community activists.”
What hardly any politico has done, except in a very stage-managed photo-op setting, is to be seen talking to homeless people, asking them what they want, and hearing first-hand how the city is failing them. That could be a first and may take a hungry challenger to pull off, but it would be a useful addition to the conversation on how to help the homeless. We need to put a personal face on what are otherwise invisible humans – people we walk around and complain about instead of finding a way to engage with them and find solutions for their dire problems.
(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.