WHO WE ARE--Recently, a homeless woman, making her point by shaking a can with a few coins in it, knocked on my Mid City neighbor’s door and asked for a donation. Bold? Desperate? The start of a trend?
Today, more and more homeless people are squatting in sidewalk homesteads in neighborhoods all over our city. Makeshift tents, lean-tos and unprotected bedrolls have been “transitioned” to residential side streets. Quieter streets where there are less cars driving by to ignore them. And where there are more people around to connect with…even by going door-to-door to ask for money.
The sight of people who are experiencing homelessness is everywhere in our city: no neighborhood is immune. It is not a black and white issue; many shades of grey make it a very challenging issue to resolve.
City leaders acknowledge that there are 22,000 homeless people in Los Angeles. But there is no plan yet to move them from the streets into permanent, sustainable and supportive housing. Although some good efforts are being attempted, not enough is being done to find a model that works. The lack of affordable housing, another city-wide crisis, is exacerbated by wide-spread evictions followed by booms in the building of expensive housing -- and not enough affordable units to replace what has been demolished.
A complicating factor in this challenge is that many homeless people have mental health and substance abuse issues that need to be addressed. They require more than kind words and a free lunch or some spare change.
The mentally ill homeless must be made a top priority because they need immediate access to medical help. They cannot “self-help” themselves into recovery.
A very serious commitment on the county level would be a good start. County Supervisors Solis, Ridley-Thomas, Kuehl, Knabe, and Antonovich have the ability to fill the leadership vacuum and order immediate help. They have the financial and program resources; only a majority of three is needed to expedite triage for our mentally ill homeless.
The Supervisors are a powerful class of public servants with vast experience dealing with mental health issues. The County Department of Mental Health is the largest county mental health department in the country. Los Angeles City has nothing compared to it -- in size, scope, funding or experience.
So how can LA find new solutions for helping the homeless? As the city “builds out,” we see towering construction cranes across the cityscape. Why not require developers to help mitigate the plight of the homeless the same way they respond to NIMBYs that want traffic and parking mitigations for projects built in their neighborhoods? A slice of every development project budget should be allocated to fund street-level solutions for the homeless -- such as access to hot water and portable restrooms, and designated spaces for temporary outdoor urban encampments.
Providing this financial resource could become part of a developer’s cost of doing business -- just like obtaining a building permit. Let’s institutionalize it and price it.
This segment of the private sector can play an important role because cash is a developer’s natural solution for many things -- unlike the political rhetoric that is the coin of the realm for elected officials.
Let’s also try a new paradigm in the political sector of the city -- one that breaks through the tense gridlock of politicians’ good intentions and bad results. Sure, elected city officials want to show sensitivity to the issues of homeless people. But it may be better for them to leave management of the homeless issue to the professionals and to the street-level volunteers who know their clients by name and by needs. This is not the place for politicos.
The official city response to the homeless crisis has been worse than feeble: pathetic is not even a strong enough word to describe it. It has been reported that about $100 million has already been spent (mostly given to the police) in efforts to solve this problem. But this has not made a dent. One report suggests that the homeless population has not diminished, but has grown by 12% since 2013. Another piece of bad news is the vaunted plan to house homeless veterans in VA facilities, a goal that has had its target date pushed back. All these failures have been reported in just the past several weeks.
Unbelievably, against that list of disappointing results, our political leaders have just declared a “state of emergency” and plan to devote another $100 million to the homeless crisis. The initiative was launched to show that the city is serious. And maybe this time, the funding will go to street-level service providers that are often the mom and pop, grassroots volunteer-driven groups that work directly with homeless people.
Councilmember David Ryu (left) came into office 100 days ago pledging to listen to the community before making decisions. He has a chance to stake out a leadership position in council chambers by insisting that they hold public hearings on how to use this proposed $100 million – before the LA City Council spends another dollar on the problem.
Ryu brings to the conversation his experience in community health care; and he says he knows something about chronic homelessness. Since he is fresh on the job, has prior experience, and a willingness to stand up to the issue, he may offer the best chance for insuring that street-level service providers and the people they help get a fair hearing. These people need to be part of the decision on how these funds are spent.
Many in City Hall, in the executive suite and around the council chamber horseshoe, are anxious to be seen doing something about the homeless situation. However, they seem like multiple emperors mounted on their horses -- but without any clothes. A cavalry of confusion.
Are the politicians really that clueless about what to do? Do they think that by issuing press releases and wantonly spending tens of millions of dollars that their brio and bucks will solve the problem?
At the rate they’re going, this spending spree will see them allocate almost a quarter billion dollars to this problem in a very short period of time. If private enterprise were to spend that much with almost zero return on investment, their leaders would become jobless.
How can we move forward? Developers should be brought in to finance street-level services, the County Supervisors should fund help for the mentally ill homeless, the street-level service providers should be better supported, and many city politicians should be taken out of play.
Then what about the rest of us?
As individuals, we cannot oscillate: too much is at stake. Homeless lives matter. Homelessness in a City of Gold has dulled its shine and the reflection on its leaders is tarnished. The time has come to either bolt our doors and turn our backs -- or unlock our hearts and open our arms.
If you choose to get involved and help make a difference, you can volunteer at one of the many street-level groups across the city that help the homeless. Here are just two that do good work. There are many others.
The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition. I volunteered with them for many years. On a gritty street corner in an industrial section of Hollywood, this organization feeds the homeless a hot, nutritious dinner 365 nights a year. They help provide supportive housing to their clients, and, in partnership with the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project, there is a health clinic run by the UCLA Schools of Public Health and Medicine that comes weekly to the food line. They provide free health services to the homeless.
For over three decades, through the tenure of several mayors and dozens of city council members, the Food Coalition has survived -- and with almost no attention from any of them.
Midtown Los Angeles Homeless Coalition. This is another important organization. The group implements the Coordinated Entry System (CES), a countywide program that emphasizes the need to “know”, “assist” and “refer.” The CES system is being used in other parts of the city, such as Hollywood, Northeast LA, Silverlake, Westlake and Koreatown. Some funding comes from the United Way of Los Angeles. The focus of the Midtown initiative is connecting two homeless sub-populations, the chronically homeless and homeless veterans, to permanent supportive housing.
We have seen some of what works (and lots of what does not) in the struggle to address the needs of homeless people and the issue of homelessness. So let’s try this: say yes to developers -- yes to individuals working in street-level programs … and no to politicians. This formula could work. We just need to remove the political middlemen.
If your heart is ready to help, then that will be your compass, finding a path, a way to do the most good. And the best part is…you can start today.
(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Vol 13 Issue 79
Pub: Sep 29, 2015