In October 2018, director Rémi Kessler released his documentary film, The Advocates, a sweeping look at the history and causes of Los Angeles’ current homeless crisis, told from the perspective of the advocates and volunteers who work tirelessly to create better lives for their clients experiencing homelessness. This week, The Advocates will be playing as part of the Independent Visions film series, brought to L.A. audiences by L.A. Weekly in association with Cinema Libre Studio. Here, director Kessler provides a brief account of his opinions on the current state of homelessness in L.A., in anticipation of the much broader conversation he creates in his film.
Three years ago, when I started the production of The Advocates, I felt that communities everywhere were struggling to find real solutions to the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhoods. Every day there was an article in a newspaper, a discussion on public radio, a mention in a news clip, a grassroots organization feeding people… From Skid Row to the Palisades to the Westside, communities throughout the city felt they had to do something, it was like the beginning of a groundswell.
It grew into the passage of Measure HHH in November 2016 and Proposition H in March 2017. Their passage was a game-changer. Everybody was proud to be an Angeleno at that moment, and eager to work together with a commitment to creating opportunities for affordable housing and increasing the housing stock across L.A. County. The city instated the “Linkage Fee,” which collected millions of dollars a year for affordable housing from developers building luxury housing. Plans were being made to spend the incoming funds. The task, for a moment, seemed doable.
I see homelessness in two main categories. The first one includes all the people with mental illness or any type of illness or disability, and definitively the focus is on them. Outreach teams are spreading in the streets of Los Angeles, but they have very few options for the subsidies available. There is a chronic lack of shelters offering a safe space, and finding locations in neighborhoods willing to accept those shelters without concentrating them in specific areas like Skid Row or South Central is a struggle. The second category includes all the people desperately seeking affordable housing: people who have been priced out of a home and whose income just hasn’t kept up with their rent. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, for every 100 candidates with income below the poverty level, there are only 22 units of affordable housing available.
Construction takes time, planning, financing, permitting. Delivery is years away and Measure HHH is limited in its scope. Meanwhile, we’re watching developers continue to build luxury housing without an overall strategy for affordable housing. With the explosion of short-term rentals, many believe the affordable housing stock in communities is receding and that, without an enlightened political vision, it’s going to get worse.
Those same communities that resist shelter options and/or temporary housing slow the process for the frontline workers on the streets. Last year, I heard Councilman Mike Bonin say that the only things more controversial than homelessness are solutions to homelessness.
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But everything is not all bad! The fact that we see more and more skilled and trained multidisciplinary workers is very promising. Angelenos have proven they care and they want a solution. The city and the county are working together to find those solutions, and we are starting to take care of those most in need. But it’s a race against the clock, and as long as we haven’t solved the housing crisis, we will always be scrambling to catch up.
We have to be realistic: It is not because we’ve voted to tax ourselves an extra quarter percent on our sales tax or allowed the city to borrow $1.2 billion that we are going to solve the problem of homelessness in our city. We must also change people’s hearts and minds. People need to understand the underlying issues — they need to see that the lack of affordable housing affects people just like them!
I started making a documentary on this subject because I was interested in understanding how a city like Los Angeles got to this point. But then, as I began to delve into the issues and meet people and know them, I began to care. And caring, I believe, is the beginning of understanding and change.
The Advocates screens Thursday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Royal, followed by a Q&A with the director and some of the advocates featured in the film. The event is free. For more information and to reserve your seat, visit this link.