After many months of embracing some of the most punitive anti-homeless laws in the country, Los Angeles city hall has unexpectedly shown a measure of compassion toward the many thousands of homeless women, men and children living on our sidewalks, in parks, under freeways or in cars and vans.
I was surprised when Mayor Eric Garcetti and seven members of the city council announced on Tuesday they would declare “a state of emergency” to try to attack homelessness and promised to spend up to $100 million on some sort of a program. In my weeks of reporting for a three-part series on homelessness for the web site Truthdig, I found only one member of the council who completely opposed laws that generally ban the homeless from leaving their possessions on the street. That was Gil Cedillo, the only vote against the punitive legislation.
It may have been a coincidence, but the official’s announcement came a few days after Truthdig completed running my series. However, as I blogged on Truthdig today, “The public officials, of course, didn’t need our web site to alert them. All they had to do is look down the street, or better yet, walk there to see the tents and tarpaulins of the homeless encampments on Skid Row sidewalks or to check them out in parks and under freeways throughout the city. There is hardly any place in this rich city without women, men and children living on the streets or in cars and recreational vehicles.”
It will be up to Garcetti to pull the many elements of the government together to have a program that will succeed. Finding $100 million is a first priority. He’ll have to work with the numbers guy, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who has warned that at least $100 million goes down the drain, wasted on jailing the homeless and treating them at public hospitals.
Only seven of the 15 council members joined Garcetti in his announcement. Some members of the council seen to wish the homeless “would die and decrease the surplus population,” in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge. The mayor will need more votes. Garcetti will have to make sure that the city and county umbrella agency for homeless care, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, finds housing and care in a faster and more efficient way than it has been doing. Garcetti will have to get the county supervisors on board. The county has a large number of homeless. Finally, he will have to work with state legislators for measures that will help finance construction of housing for the homeless. It will do no good to ask Congress. The Republican majority has sharply reduced the amount of federal funds for homeless housing.
“It’s getting people into housing with support services,” Garcetti told me. “We went to a 95 percent success rate with Hollywood Forward (a housing program). We know how to do this successfully.”
“A lot of people say don’t talk about homelessness and don’t talk about ending homelessness because there is no political upside, the problem is intractable even if somebody cares about it,” he said as we talked in his city hall office. “But I have worked on this issue ever since I was 14 or 15, when I was in junior high school. I used to come down and volunteer on Skid Row That’s one of the reasons I’m mayor.”
He told me about what’s being considered for the homeless program he is expected to unveil, hopefully soon.
“We first have to start with outreach workers, “ he said. “We have eight teams, 16 people for the entire county of Los Angeles. In the budget, I doubled this. The city has never done this before. I put another 10 teams or 20 people out. If we are going to be serious about housing about 10,000 people a year, we probably need 500 outreach workers over the next two or three years.” Then housing and medical and mental care must be found for those contacted by the workers.
I asked him about the punitive legislation passed by the city council. “You’re a liberal, progressive, humanistic person,” I said. “How do you feel about presiding over a city hall that has all of these repressive homeless laws? Does that bother you?”
“Yes,” he said, “that is the reason why we won’t be implementing the the new ordinance,” he said. “(We) need to keep the sidewalks clean, no question. But until they change the penalty and the type of property seized we won’t prioritize that enforcement, we won’t do it. I want to change the debate from how are we going to enforce to how are we going to house. That is something the city has not done particularly well.”