The Homeless Crisis: True Leadership Demands Action

AT LENGTH--Recently, I attended the 24th Annual Empowerment Congress Summit at USC sponsored by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas of the Second District.

He is the first politician, either black or white, to call the “homeless crisis” not only the challenge of our time, not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a “civil rights” issue. He is perhaps uniquely positioned to voice this perspective, as some 47 percent of the homeless living in the county are black – that’s out 9 percent of the general population that is black. 

Ridley-Thomas’ address to the Empowerment Congress took on the sing-song quality of a sermon by a Baptist preacher, reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King, as he outlined the challenges of homelessness in Los Angeles County. 

“With more than 44,000 homeless [people] on any given night and many more perhaps just one day away from homelessness, Los Angeles County is mired in a crisis of massive proportions,” he said. “Compounding this problem is the fact that there is a local shortage of 500,000 affordable housing units. The combination of surging housing costs, plunging incomes and diminished opportunities has left one in four Angelinos living in poverty with few prospects of a better life.” 

The county has only recently completed some 1,900 low-income units regionally. 

Clearly, Ridley-Thomas’ view of the problem is a more holistic one compared to some of the members of the Los Angeles City Council, who are more focused on implementing and enforcing anti-vagrancy laws. 

Councilman Joe Buscaino of the 15th District, in contrast to Ridley-Thomas, has emphasized enforcing the onerous Municipal Code 56.11 rather than working on increasing the number of available emergency shelter beds in either the city or his district. 

His leadership has been about as effective as his cleanup of the homeless encampment surrounding the San Pedro Post Office on Beacon Street on Christmas Eve. 

Leadership in this context demands action, not more excuses for why we still have homeless people living on the streets at the beginning of the El Niño winter season. 

Leadership demands a critical response to residents and business owners who object to encampments littering the streets and sidewalks of our communities – the need for something other than temporary enforcement of a municipal code that has been repeatedly challenged on constitutional grounds. 

Leadership also demands swift action, not repeated closed-door discussion of the facts and data of the homeless problem or the oft-repeated narrative that the majority of the people living on the streets are “shelter resistant.” 

The facts are that we have 44,000 homeless people in the county and the Los Angeles County Grand Jury claims there are only 2,772 shelter beds. What leadership demands is the opening of emergency shelters. 

In the greater Los Angeles Harbor Area, only one emergency shelter exists -- the Long Beach Rescue Mission. There are no emergency shelters in San Pedro, Harbor City, Lomita, Harbor Gateway or, God forbid, in Rancho Palos Verdes. Wilmington’s Beacon Light Mission, with its combined total of 20 beds for men and 20 beds for women for seven days, is not considered emergency shelter. There are non-profits that provide assisted housing like Harbor Interfaith Services and Harbor View House if a potential client qualifies under their program guidelines. But most of our 1,500 destitute neighbors in the 15th District who lack shelter don’t qualify for one reason or another. The causes are many, but the solutions are few. 

Everyone who has read the City of Los Angeles’ report on homelessness, or looked at the statistics, knows how daunting a problem this is. However, our political leaders also know how and have the power to act in a crisis. 

Locally, the California National Guard Armory on 13th Street has historically been used as an emergency shelter. I don’t understand why the council office has not acted to open it at this time.

Moreover, there have to be hundreds of vacant or underutilized government owned properties throughout this district, if not in the city and county of Los Angeles, that could be commandeered by executive action to immediately address this crisis. 

These temporary emergency shelters would address the suffering of the homeless on the streets, and immediately redress the blight and complaints of the community, while giving social service workers a focal point to start addressing the underlying causes and conditions of homelessness. 

If this were any other kind of crisis, like an earthquake or a tsunami, there would have been an instantaneous “all hands on deck” response. Emergency resources of the city would have been triggered, the Red Cross would have been activated and the National Guard would be called up -- something would be done. 

Yet, what we have here is a political, bureaucratic stalemate with elected leadership arguing over the shape of the problem, the terms of the solutions and the enormity of the costs. This is one of the great moral conflicts of our time and it not only takes great courage but true leadership to command real solutions -- both of which seem to be truly lacking in some parts of Los Angeles. And, homelessness is a problem the LAPD can’t arrest its way out of. 

In honor of one of our greatest moral leaders whose birthday was celebrated this week, I’ll leave you with this one last thought:

“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”—Martin Luther King Jr.

(James Preston Allen is the Publisher of Random Lengths News, the Los Angeles Harbor Area's only independent newspaper. He is also a guest columnist for the California Courts Monitor and is the author of "Silence Is Not Democracy- Don't listen to that man with the white cap--he might say something that you agree with!" He was elected to the presidency of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council in 2014 and has been engaged in the civic affairs of CD 15 for more than 35 years. More of Allen … and other views and news at: randomlengthsnews.com )  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.