Just before 5 a.m. on Wednesday, December 6, flames raced up the hills adjacent to Los Angeles’ 405 freeway, shutting down one of the nation’s largest traffic arteries, destroying and damaging 18 homes, and scorching 422 acres.
Americans were awed by the fire-and-brimstone videos that morning commuters posted on social media. Angelenos were stunned by the smoke clouds pouring into the skies above their city.
Six days later, the Los Angeles Fire Department announced that the blaze was sparked by an illegal cooking fire at a homeless encampment next to the 405, in the ritzy neighborhood of Bel-Air.
The revelation brought increased attention to what city and county officials acknowledge is a homelessness crisis, and what Mayor Eric Garcetti called the “moral issue of our time” in his April 2017 State of the City address.
The figures are grim: According to the official Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, done every January by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), in 2017, on any given night, there were 57,794 people experiencing homelessness, 42,828 of whom, 74%, were unsheltered.
That total number was 23% higher than 2016’s count, which itself saw a 6% jump from 2015. In those two years, the percentage of the total homeless population unsheltered on any given night was 74% and 70%, respectively.
Unsheltered, as in sleeping in tents, on sidewalks, beneath highway overpasses, and anywhere else that may provide some respite from the elements. Even in Los Angeles, nighttime temperatures routinely drop into the 40s and 50s.
As the nation’s second largest city, and one with a pleasant climate, it’s no surprise that L.A. has the second largest homeless population, behind New York City. Or that L.A. has a higher percentage of unsheltered people who are homeless than nearly any other city in the country.
In New York, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any given night that January, 96% of the city’s 70,685 homeless were sheltered.
Why the stark difference?
The answer is simple: As much money as L.A. spends on homelessness, policymakers have no intention of providing enough homeless shelters to put a roof over homeless people’s heads. That means it has no mechanism to increase capacity when homelessness spikes, as it has in recent years in large part due to skyrocketing rents and a low vacancy rate.
A Los Angeles Times review of federal data found that while the nation’s 402 “homeless service areas” have about three beds for every four homeless people, L.A. has only one for every four, one of the nation’s lowest ratios.
Neither the city nor county builds or operates shelters, with few exceptions. Instead, private charities raise funds to operate shelters, and contractors bid for a shrinking pie of local and federal funds.
But the cost of running publicly-funded shelters has steadily increased, due in part to the county’s requirement that they provide more services than just shelter, including case management and rapid transition into permanent housing.
Peter Lynn, LAHSA’s executive director, told the paper that there were zero bidders last year for the agency’s shelter funds.
The result? In 2017 LAHSA counted 16,600 shelter beds. But removing beds that are only available seasonally, ones not available for drop-ins, and the cash payments for motels and rent that are counted as beds, there are only about 5,000 “on a moment’s notice, year-round” shelter beds available for over 57,000 homeless people. And while the latter figure keeps growing, the former keeps shrinking. There are fewer and fewer beds available for more and more homeless people.
(Makeshift tents house the homeless on a street, November 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California, home to one of the nation's largest homeless populations. -FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
This has caused not only a crisis for the homeless, but for the city as a whole.
Homeless encampments and tent cities have spread beyond their usual location in Skid Row, an area of downtown that Angelenos and their government have long accepted as a homeless neighborhood.
A shocking video posted online last month showed footage of Skid Row on Christmas Day captured by a car’s dash cam. As the Daily Mail described it, “Rubbish bags piled up by the pavements and littered across streets. Tents erected in clusters where people have camped down for the night. Dozens of directionless residents congregating by the roadside and wandering into the road.”
But a drive through neighborhoods like Westlake, Hollywood, or Venice will also reveal areas — sometimes spanning entire city blocks — of shopping carts packed with clothing, rows of tents, and other makeshift shelters. Homeowners, business owners, and pedestrians in L.A. are left to deal with the various forms of disorder that inevitably follow.
A 'FEMA-LIKE' CRISIS
Conditions at homeless encampments have become so unsanitary that the city has installed toilets, handwashing facilities, and mobile showers at some sites. In September, county officials even declared an outbreak of Hepatitis A, a liver disease contracted through close person-to-person contact or in places contaminated with feces.
LAHSA’s 2017 homeless count showed that from the year prior, the number of tents and makeshift shelters jumped from 4,797 to 5,858 on any given night, a 22% increase. A Los Angeles Times report from June 2017 said L.A. public works crews have cleaned “16,500 homeless encampments since 2015, removing more than 3,000 tons of trash,” part of a $14 million cleanup effort.
A $14 million cleanup effort not designed to move homeless people into shelters or remove encampments, but to remove trash from the streets. Trash including litter, feces, drug paraphernalia, and weapons. Some cleanup sites are so hazardous that biowaste personnel spray the area with disinfectant.
After the crews disappear, the encampments often reappear in the same spot or set up shop nearby.
Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, told me Los Angeles should view its homeless problem as a “FEMA-like, Red-Cross-like crisis” that the city needs to address by providing more emergency shelters.
The Union Rescue Mission, located in Skid Row, is Los Angeles’s oldest, and one of the country’s largest rescue missions. It provides emergency services like shelter and meals, health clinics, therapy, job training, and Christian ministry.
They house over 900 men, women, and children every night, and serve over 3,000 meals every day. Their mode of operation is to help someone change their life, then help them hold down a job, then help them find a permanent place to live.
Right outside the mission’s entrance is a small tent-city, with homeless encampments lining the sidewalks for several blocks and homeless people wandering the streets. It’s a tragic sight to behold, just blocks from the downtown financial district, L.A. Live, and Staples Center.
Bales is diplomatic in his criticism of how Los Angeles has (or has not) handled its unsheltered homeless crisis, but he’s very clear.
“It is a no-brainer that we should provide space for everybody in need,” Bales said. “Leaving someone on the street for one night could alter their lives in a very negative way.”
Leaving someone on the street for one night could alter their lives in a very negative way.
-Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission
Bales proposes that the city builds or funds a sufficient number of shelters and beds to house all of Los Angeles’ unsheltered homeless people, similar to New York City’s approach.
Failure to do so, he said, will all but consign many of Los Angeles’ temporarily homeless to the ranks of the chronically homeless.
By the time a man or a woman or an entire family gets to Union Rescue Mission, Bales said, they’ve gone through hell. Skyrocketing rent or a job loss pushed them out of their apartment. They ran out of cash staying in a hotel. They wore out their welcome sleeping at a friend’s or relative’s. They slept in their car until it broke down. They stayed on the streets until it broke them.
“By the time you’ve endured any one of those issues and you’ve spent time on the streets you are going to have mental health issues,” Bales said. Many of the people experiencing homelessness, he added, become drug addicts on the streets. It’s a form of self-medication to escape the reality of their despair.
Bales says many people experiencing homelessness in L.A. would “just need a short stay somewhere, and they can pull it back together in 60 days to 180 days to even a year.” But that timeline can get longer and longer for anyone who spends one night, one week, one month, or one year on the streets.
“They are going to be tomorrow’s chronically homeless adults,” Bales said.
HOW DID THINGS GET THIS BAD?
In retrospect, Los Angeles’s crisis seems all but inevitable, given its high cost of living, its decision to not provide enough shelters, and the city’s de facto acceptance of homeless encampments.
Encampments in Skid Row and beyond only became a recurring problem in recent years, but it stems from L.A.’s 2007 settlement with the ACLU.
The civil liberties group sued L.A. for arresting people who sleep on sidewalks, which is illegal according to section 41.18(d) of L.A.’s municipal code.
After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled Los Angeles’s enforcement unconstitutional, the city settled with the ACLU, agreeing to not enforce the law between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m until another 1,250 permanent housing units were constructed.
That number was reached in 2015, but the city still doesn’t enforce the sidewalk law between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and routinely not between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. either. Even if it did, though, without enough shelters, enforcing the law would just mean turning Los Angeles’s jails into unofficial homeless shelters, which, to a certain extent, they already are.
For at least three years, there have been innumerable speeches, committee hearings, and photo-ops from the city’s and county’s politicians — the Mayor, the City Council, and the powerful County Board of Supervisors.
(Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti attends the United Way Celebrates 11th Annual HomeWalk To End Homelessness IN L.A. County at Los Angeles Grand Park on November 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. -Greg Doherty/Getty Images)
See Mayor Garcetti’s groundbreaking of a new publicly funded housing development that will provide 122 new units of what officials say will be permanent housing.
Or Councilman Gil Cedillo’s excursion with a local eyewitness news team to Elysian Park, home to several homeless encampments.
Or Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’s op-ed in the Huffington Post, in which he calls on Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for California’s homeless, who are “living in unspeakable conditions and under peril of illness, violence and death.”
“Leaving people unsheltered is costly to taxpayers, impacting law enforcement, health services, property values, and more,” Ridley-Thomas wrote.
With the exception of LAHSA and the office of Mayor Garcetti, no city or county officials — including every member of the City Council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee — provided an interview or comment for this story, despite repeated requests.
Tom Waldman, LAHSA’s Director of Communications, said solving the homelessness crisis is “at the top of everybody’s list.”
“I don’t know that they can do anything that they’re not currently doing,” he said of policymakers. LAHSA is the largest local provider of homeless services, and carries out the policies implemented by voters, the City Council, and the County Board of Supervisors.
“Seeing a reduction in numbers [of homeless] is our goal,” Waldman said. “We have the resources in place to ... achieve the results that people are going to expect.”
Los Angeles’s homeless budget ballooned from $18 million in fiscal year 2015-2016 to $138 million in fiscal year 2016-2017 to $180 million in fiscal year 2017-2018 — a 900% increase in two years, but still a fraction of the New York Department of Homeless Services budget of $1.4 billion.
In that same period, the number of homeless on any given night in Los Angeles went from 44,359 (31,025 unsheltered) to 46,874 (34,701 unsheltered) to 57,794 (42,828) — a 30% overall increase and a 38% increase in the unsheltered population. The sheltered population actually dipped 9% from 2015 to 2016 but, encouragingly, jumped 23% from 2016 to 2017.
Beginning last year, a portion of Los Angeles’s homeless budget for the next decade or so will include significant amounts of funding from two ballot propositions that voters approved, both of which are centrally focused on building permanent housing and providing homeless services.
As Waldman said, describing Los Angeles’s official position, “The best way to attack homelessness is to get people into permanent housing.”
Measure H, which passed with 69% approval, authorized a 0.25% sales tax over 10 years to “fund mental health, substance abuse treatment, health care, education, job training, rental subsidies, emergency and affordable housing, transportation, outreach, prevention, and supportive services.”
The tax should raise over $350 million annually, and the funds will comply with the L.A. County Homeless Initiative’s “Approved Strategies to Combat Homelessness.” The 130-page booklet outlines 47 strategies, one of which is to “enhance the emergency shelter system.”
Measure HHH, which passed with 77% approval, authorized the city to issue $1.2 billion in bonds ($1.9 billion with interest), mostly to build about 10,000 permanent housing units for low-income and chronically homeless people.
But as city controller Ron Galperin wrote in a September report, it will take years for Measure H and Measure HHH to have their full impact, and the permanent housing “won’t in and of themselves be sufficient to house all of our residents experiencing homelessness.”
In an August interview with sports commentator Bill Simmons, Mayor Garcetti said traffic and homelessness — L.A. leads the nation in both — are his “top two priorities” and “crowns we can lose.”
But can we?
Are the large, complex, long-term programs policymakers favor, like H and HHH, the most effective way to end the unsheltered homelessness crisis?
The “housing first” philosophy that L.A. practices may be laudable, but will it be effective? This approach premises that ending homelessness begins with providing permanent housing, whether someone’s homelessness is the result of something temporary — an illness or lost job — or something chronic and recurring, like substance abuse or a mental illness.
(A man pushes his belongings in a cart on a street, November 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. -FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
“Housing first” is increasingly popular nationwide. It’s even the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) official policy, championed by Secretary Ben Carson.
While proponents say “housing first” has proven to be the most effective way to end chronic homelessness, the results don’t paint such a simple picture.
Even Utah, the poster state for the movement’s stated success in reducing chronic homelessness to at or near “functional zero,” has been criticized for overstating its accomplishments, in part by using very technical terms like “chronic homelessness” and “functional zero.”
The working definition of “chronically homeless,” HUD’s definition, is to be homeless for a year or more, or to have at least four homeless episodes within three years. But the chronically homeless make up a small percentage of the homeless population in Utah, and under 25% nationwide.
“Functional zero” in the context of chronic homelessness is when at least as many chronically homeless people are being placed in homes as there are new chronically homeless people. So a city can reach functional zero chronic homelessness but still have thousands of people living on the streets.
Andy Bales says housing first advocates have done a good job “marketing” Utah’s stated success story, but that the idea that the state has solved homelessness is an “absolute lie.”
“They absolutely altered the facts and they went around the country saying, ‘Look how we solved it,’” Bales said. “If you don’t believe me just go visit Salt Lake City on the streets and you will see that that was absolutely marketing.”
“Since we made the change to housing first, people around the country say we’ve reduced homelessness. I don't see that at all,” Bales said.
He doesn’t reject “housing first,” but says it’s not the right solution for many homeless people. And it’s the wrong one when it crowds out resources for emergency shelters. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, has slashed funding for homeless shelters.
But those shelters, as Bales pointed out to the Los Angeles Times, “put a roof over people’s heads while they wait for the housing to be built.”
They think, ‘Well we got a plan and that plan will eventually address it and that's okay.' That’s not okay.
-Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission
That will take years in Los Angeles, and still won’t come close to housing the city’s unsheltered population.
The City Council is exploring a plan to temporarily house about 67 people in three trailers on city-owned downtown lots. But the trailers won’t be ready until the summer, and they will cost $2.3 million in the first year, and $1.3 million annually after that. The cost of $19,402 per person is more expensive than annual median rent in many L.A. neighborhoods.
Anna Bahr, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said Los Angeles is “moving as quickly as possible to simultaneously build permanent supportive housing and create emergency shelters that house homeless Angelenos while they wait for new apartments to open up.”
“The shelters the City is focused on are specifically designed to serve as bridges to permanent supportive housing. The shelter opening on Lot 5 is supplied with intensive case management services — ranging from mental health to drug and alcohol treatment — that will help homeless Angelenos stabilize and move into permanent homes as quickly as possible,” Bahr wrote in an email to The Daily Wire.
Nevertheless, as evidenced by their actions, Los Angeles’s elected officials are not going to be able to solve the unsheltered homelessness crisis in the foreseeable future.
As the head of the L.A. County Homeless Initiative, Phil Ansell, told the Los Angeles Times in September, “The simplistic response of saying, ‘Why don’t we put 47,000 people into shelter?’ — we’re not going to do that.”
That decision, though, means that Los Angeles may spend well over $1 billion in the coming years to solve homelessness, but that the crisis of tens of thousands of people living on the streets every night may remain a crisis.
“They think, ‘Well we got a plan and that plan will eventually address it and that's okay,’ ” Bales said. “That’s not okay.”