Can L.A. Shrink Its Homeless Encampments?

That's roughly how much stuff homeless people will soon be allowed to have.EXPAND
That's roughly how much stuff homeless people will soon be allowed to have.

Los Angeles has a new policy for dealing with its homelessness crisis: containment. 

Not contain as in, keep more people from becoming homeless by building more housing. Contain as in, making sure homeless encampments don't become veritable sidewalk favelas

Yesterday, the City Council voted to rejigger the rule on how much stuff homeless people are allowed to keep with them (the council will vote on it once more next week before the rules become final, because government is weird).

The new rule is that homeless people will be allowed to possess no more stuff than would fit into a 60-gallon trash bin (any tents would have to be folded up during the daytime). It also gives police officers greater latitude to cite or arrest homeless people who interfere with the confiscation of their property.

Council members were at pains to depict the new law as a "balanced approach." Councilman Mike Bonin even called it "a lousy ordinance," though he voted in favor of it, saying it was a marginal improvement over the current law, which states that during the daytime, homeless people aren't allowed to have tents or encampments of any size — although that rule is seldom enforced.

Civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who's filed countless lawsuits (most recently, this one) against the city for its homeless policies, says she'll file another lawsuit over this new rule. 

Neighborhood activists and members of homeowner groups say homeless encampments are a growing nuisance — blighting neighborhoods, increasing crime and blocking sidewalk access.

"Right now in San Pedro, sometimes you'll see a train of stolen shopping carts stretching a quarter of a block long," says San Pedro resident Joanne Rallo. "We’ve gone and collected these carts. There's clothes, pillows, rotting food covered with maggots. Kids can’t even walk to school without having to walk past these type of scenarios."

Some people argue that the encampments are actually bad for homeless people, in that they give them a disincentive to seek out services. Rallo's fellow San Pedro resident George Palaziol says: "The encampments actually have been spurred on and helped to grow by outside influences, by enablers bringing in tents and food, keeping the people from reaching real services."

It's true that encampments have been helped to grow by "outside influences." Elvis Summers, the activist who was building tiny houses for homeless people in South L.A. before officials started impounding them, has since started to hand out tents. And Jeff Dietrich of the Catholic Worker buys shopping carts and gives them to the homeless. In 2014, he told the L.A. Times, "Yes, we believe in enabling people living on the streets, people who've been discarded by society, so they can live with as much dignity as possible. I guess that's right, homeless enablers is what we are."

Another complaint is that the encampments have become hideaways for drugs and weapons. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, an ex-cop who represents San Pedro, says the new encampment policy will "end enabling and encourage more housing and shelter. It will help curb sex trafficking, drug use, drug sales and violent crime."

He seemed to be echoing the comments of Officer Deon Joseph, who patrols Skid Row, and who often declares on Facebook that the growing number and size of encampments have made the area more dangerous than ever. As he wrote a few days ago:

People please listen. This is what you won't be told about the tents being up in the daytime. We are finding guns, dangerous drugs and other things that keep the homeless anchored to the street, and puts them, you and us in danger. And not just in Skid Row. It is spreading.

We have to get real about homelessness in Skid Row. Many of the tents are just covers for this activity. This happens in front of drug programs. Near schools, and it is wrong. I understand the tents being up after 9 p.m. We know there are not enough beds. But the tents should at least be down during the day so we can stop a lot of the crime being spurned [sic] from this activity. The truth is you cannot separate poor quality of life from violence and death. They go together hand in hand.

Poverty activists dispute Joseph's account. 

"I don’t think that has a lot of merit," attorney Sobel says. "Senior lead officer Joseph deals in gross generalizations — 'every homeless person is a junkie.' And that’s why the city has failed. The city doesn’t understand that these are individuals, that they have varying reasons why they’re homeless. To take the approach that demonizes everyone just demonstrates the ignorance on the part of city officials."

The new law, Sobel says, "just reinforces the conclusion that the city is incapable of addressing this very serious problem. On the one hand, they declare it to be a crisis and immoral. But the only thing they seem capable of doing is throwing people in jail."

In January, city administrative officer Miguel Santana put out a 219-page report outlining a "comprehensive strategy" (some poverty activists have called it less a plan, more a series of ideas) for dealing with homelessness. But implementing the plan would cost nearly $2 billion. Ideas have been floated to pay that bill, such as passing a new tax. But far more attention has been given to a tax that would pay to expand L.A.'s rail system, and it's unlikely voters would pass more than one tax at a time. 

L.A. Community Action Network (L.A. CAN) organizer Eric Ares says the new ordinance "will only further allow the LAPD and other public agencies to legally cite and arrest the very same people that are supposed to benefit from this comprehensive homeless strategy."


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