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It’s a Public Health Crisis Not a Crime Scene, Joe

RANDOM LENGTHS NEWS - South Beacon Street in San Pedro overlooking the Port of Los Angeles is certainly not anything like Skid Row, but you wouldn’t know it by the actions of Councilman Joe  Buscaino.

His latest campaign move was amending the Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.18 to make it illegal to camp on a sidewalk. Additionally, he added 161 addresses in CD15 to which to particularly apply this restriction — the highest number anywhere in the city. A group of them are on or near Beacon Street. He’s treating them like they’re a crime scene.  This street has the storied history of being the site of where the battle over tiny homes first emerged a decade ago, and even earlier was known as one of the toughest streets on the entire West Coast, but that’s another story.

The year before Joe announced his candidacy to become the mayor of Los Angeles, there were as many as 50 tents along the park and street that now overlook the supply chain congestion at the Port of Los Angeles. There’s a kind of hypocrisy at play when you look out from this parkway onto the billions of dollars in trade stuck at anchor and then notice the destitute conditions on this street. I often wonder about the correlation between the two and wonder if there’s a nexus between global trade and poverty on the streets of LA.

On the week he traveled up to the Venice boardwalk to point out the homeless problem there (and announce his run for mayor) there suddenly was a mass exodus of unsheltered people from the street across from the grand U.S. Post Office. Suddenly after years of benign neglect with the homeless sheltering in the shadow of the federal building and with the subsidy for Project Room Key the denizens of the street actually had shelter, if only temporarily. That program ended last month and it’s uncertain how many of these people found permanent accommodations. Some few have now filtered back.

Gabriela Medina, Buscaino’s district deputy, reports that, 40% of those experiencing street homelessness in CD15 have found interim and permanent housing over the past year. The truth is that in all of CD15, there’s somewhere around 2,257 souls experiencing homelessness — only a quarter of this number are in San Pedro. That’s like .01% of our population and doesn’t even come close to the tragic numbers in other parts of the city. Yet team Buscaino boasts a 40% success rate while ignoring the other 60%, never considering what will happen next after the pandemic.  And now he’s pimping the no camping ordinance.

This is like a “back to the future” moment where Buscaino after following Mayor Eric Garcetti around for nine years, comes up with an idea that sounds strangely like his first idea: Let’s chase the homeless off the public right of way.  Hey, it’s only going to cost a couple million to post signs. We all know how much the poor like to read signs. 

If he’s that concerned about the public right of way, might I suggest fixing the buckled sidewalks and the crumbling curbs along this stretch and then getting the developers who bought the historic YMCA building (once used to house the mentally ill) to actually renovate the place. If they aren’t going to do that, we could house the vast majority of San Pedro’s homeless people right there, right now.

 It’s a useless enterprise chasing homeless encampments. Even the Los Angeles Police Department’s leadership admits that they can’t arrest their way out of this crisis.  Nor are they particularly trained to do the social work that comes with it. And even if we could use law enforcement to “clear the streets,” we don’t have the jails to place people in for the crime of being poor.

What we do have in Los Angeles County is the largest mental health facility in the nation, it’s called the Metropolitan Jail, run by the LA County Sheriff’s department. Even Sheriff Alex Villanueva will tell you his department shouldn’t be in charge of the insane.  Even though some percentage of our homeless suffer mental illness, putting them in jail for whatever infractions they incur, LAMC 41.18 enforcement will ultimately be more expensive than treating them, or the addicted, the sick, the abused and others. This is a public health crisis — not a crime scene. (The three biggest mental health centers in America are LA County, Cook County, Ill. Chicago and New York City’s Rikers Island jail.)

Los Angeles’ anti-encampment law is now in place and the city council recently voted 11-2 to spend $2 million to manufacture and post signs to notify unsheltered individuals that an area is off limits to them to sleep or otherwise occupy as stated in the newly updated section of the Municipal Code. Two city council members, Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman, were the only dissenting votes. They should get the Profile in Courage award. I doubt that this expanded ordinance will survive judicial review.

What has been hidden from the citizens of LA these past years is that the city council has been spending more tax dollars on sanitation sweeps than they do on offering the unsheltered either trash cans or bathrooms. This, while many people complain about the trash. And what hardly gets noticed is that in a very few locations safe campsites and the tiny homes are the cost effective success for beginning to address this crisis.

Sure, you can have a long-term goal of building 20,000 permanent supportive housing units or probably double that in a decade but it’ll take that long to get them built. What happens in the meantime?  When you analyze the projects either being built or in planning, the city isn’t even maintaining its own standard of requiring 15% of new construction to be “affordable.” And with housing prices escalating every year, it’s a typical Catch-22 scenario and Buscaino isn’t up to figuring it out.

If he somehow were to get elected mayor of Los Angeles, the city would spend the following four years chasing homeless people off every street corner and sidewalk in the city and never curing the root causes that are endemic to LA housing.  And that my friends would be a crime worse than the cure.

(James Preston Allen, founding publisher of the Random Lengths News, Los Angeles Harbor Area’s Leading Independent Newspaper 1979- to present, is a journalist, visionary, artist and activist.)