What This Insane Photo Says About L.A.'s Homeless Crisis

What This Insane Photo Says About L.A.'s Homeless Crisis
Rich Michalowski

My friend Rich took the above photo in Silver Lake on Sunday.

That's a mural by local artist Dallas Clayton outside Dangerbird Records, at the corner of Sunset and Lucile near Sunset Junction. It's one of those highly Instagram-able pieces of street art that some will find charming and others will find saccharin.

The girl is one of many who've posed in front of it. The homeless man, unfortunately, is also one of many. It's funny what happens when you combine two very common things in one image.

A good photograph tells a story – sometimes more than one. To some, this photograph will tell a story about a rude, insensitive girl. To others, it's a story about the massive gulf between society's haves and have-nots. Or it's a story about the rising decadence of Silver Lake. Or it's a story of Los Angeles' brutal indifference to those without a home.

"Los Angeles is regarded as the outlier, in terms of its backwardness in dealing with homeless issues," says Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA and one of the region's foremost experts on homelessness. "Unlike what happens in most major cities, there’s never been a major effort to solve the problem in L.A."

According to the latest count, there are 41,174 homeless men and women in the Greater Los Angeles area, an increase of 16 percent compared with two years ago. And while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has "declared war" on homelessness, pledging to spend billions of dollars to build permanent supportive housing, Mayor Eric Garcetti stood on the steps of City Hall in September and announced he would declare a "state of emergency" with regards to homelessness. 

Two months later, the mayor, never one to go out on a limb, seemed to suggest that he was waiting for someone else to take action. According to the L.A. Times:

The power to declare an emergency lies with the mayor, not the City Council. Although Garcetti considers homelessness "an emergency situation" requiring substantial resources, he never committed to the formal declaration, Garcetti spokeswoman Connie Llanos said Tuesday.

Garcetti might issue an emergency declaration at some point in the future, Llanos said. In the meantime, his office is waiting on more information from the city attorney.

"It's not about a technical definition of a state of emergency, which he never promised," Llanos said in a written statement. "He stood in support of council's action, which he still supports and will sign when he receives — as we continue to look at all options available.

It was, perhaps, peak Garcetti, somehow finding a distinction between an emergency situation and a state of emergency, while at the same time appearing to be waiting for someone else to take up the authority that he himself was supposed to have. (L.A.'s elected leaders have committed $100 million to combating homelessness, most of it going to the police department.)

The Times revealed yesterday that Garcetti asked Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in December, in anticipation of heavy El Niño rains. Brown's declaration would have meant state money paying for homeless services. The famously frugal governor refused. Garcetti wrote to Brown again, asking him to reconsider, saying: "Thousands of Angelenos are depending on swift action from their government."

Just so long as that swift action came from someone other than Garcetti. And just so long as that swift action was paid for by someone other than Garcetti.

Not only has City Hall shown a complete unwillingness to spend either political capital or actual capital on the homeless crisis, they can't even find it within themselves to stand out of the way and let other people do some good. 

Elvis Summers took it upon himself to build tiny houses for homeless people. Nothing fancy, just little 6-by 8-foot shacks on wheels, with beds, portable camping toilets and solar panels on the roof. People have given nearly $100,000 to Summers' GoFundMe campaign, enough for Summers to build 37 tiny houses.

Then, last month, the city started impounding them. Here's what the mayor's spokesperson told NPR about the action:

Unfortunately, these structures are a safety hazard. ... These structures, some of the materials that were found in some of them, just the thought of folks having some of these things in a space so small, so confined, without the proper insulation, it really does put their lives in danger.

Yes, the mayor's office actually thinks (or, rather, wants us to think) that homeless people are better off sleeping in tents or on the street. 

"It’s offensive," UCLA's Blasi says. "The city should be building those houses, not tearing them down. I’m not a big supporter of building substandard housing, but my general philosophy is if you’re not gonna make things better, at least don’t make things worse. But the government is actually interfering with efforts of regular citizens to provide some kind of solution to the problem."

The city could've done any number of things to help Summers. It could have given him money or maybe assigned him space to put the tiny houses. After all, if the city can turn parking spaces into parklets, as it's done all over downtown, it could certainly turn them into spots for tiny houses. And yes, 37 houses barely even qualifies as a dent in the problem, but this is an emergency, right? All options on the table?

It's not the first time the city has stood in the way of people trying to help the homeless. According to the L.A. Times,  Leo Baeck Temple has been trying for five years to get the city to allow homeless people sleeping in their cars and RVs to park their vehicles in the Bel Air synagogue's parking lot. But so far, no dice. 

"We know what responses to emergencies look like," Blasi says. "This is not that."

We know what we need to solve the homelessness crisis – permanent supportive housing, affordable housing, homeless shelters and more money for mental health services and drug and alcohol dependency treatment. Those solutions are all expensive. 

But there are little things the city could be doing to help, or it could at the very least allow people like Summers to help. But it appears the city would rather just crop the homeless out of its photos, with the hope that they'll simply go away.

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