Mayor Eric Garcetti went against type last week during his annual State of the City speech, offering an audacious promise: “We are here to end homelessness once and for all," he said.
Unfortunately, the city is a long ways off from making that happen. Los Angeles' total number of people experiencing homelessness is 28,464 and rising, according to the most recent count. Garcetti had previously pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Two years later, there are still more than 1,200 veterans living on the streets. And Garcetti has been criticized for failing to treat homelessness with a sense of urgency, declining, for example, to declare the crisis a "state of emergency."
Progress has been made in the last six months. Thanks in no small part to the exceedingly popular mayor, L.A. voters passed a pair of ballot measures, Propositions HHH and H, both of which raise taxes to pay for the construction of housing and services.
For the first time in recent memory, money is not the biggest obstacle to housing the homeless.
"I’ve been working in homelessness for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a moment of time where we have such an alignment of resources, between HHH and H, of both service dollars and housing dollars, and there's flexibility to match them together," says Alisa Orduna, the mayor's director of housing policy.
But another hurdle stands in the way. Voters may have passed HHH and H by large margins, but opposition remains at a neighborhood level, especially from residents living next to the proposed housing sites. A number of residents in Venice are fighting a proposed project that would build around 150 units of affordable housing (housing reserved for people with incomes below a certain threshold) and permanent supportive housing (housing for chronically homeless that includes on-site services such as mental health counselors and social workers). All the way across town in Boyle Heights, meanwhile, residents are fighting a proposal to build 49 units of affordable housing, and thus far have successfully delayed the project.
Recognizing the problem, Mayor Garcetti is trying to build popular support for homeless housing. On Saturday, he met with representatives from a few dozen neighborhood councils to talk about the importance of building new housing. He told KCRW's Morning Edition it's his "YIMBY campaign," as in, Yes in My Back Yard.
"If you keep saying, 'No, I’m for this in the abstract but I don’t want it here,' or, 'This isn’t the right location,' or 'I’m liberal but...', then we’ll never solve the problem," Garcetti told KCRW. "The choice is whether the homeless people that are already in your neighborhood, will they be on the street, or will they be housed and helped?"
According to Orduna, opposition to homeless housing and services isn't overwhelming.
"I wouldn’t say there’s massive resistance," Orduna says. "I would say people are afraid of what they don’t know."
Opponents, however, can be quite strident.
Take Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, who's opposed to that project in Venice, which would add permanent supportive housing on a city-owned parking lot in the median of Venice Boulevard, in a mostly residential area.
"Frankly, what you’re doing is putting an insane asylum in a residential neighborhood," Ryavec says. "And I fully understand any residential neighborhood saying, no, we don’t want that. We don’t want a Soviet-era apartment project — simply three levels of dense apartments over one level of parking. This is not attractive; this lowers our property values."
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Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing, one of the nonprofit developers building the project, says Ryavec's comments are "incredibly offensive."
"The folks with mental illness are able to get much healthier in housing than leaving folks on the street," Dennison says.
According to a 2008 study, supportive housing does not depress nearby property values, and may even increase them.
"People have a lot of misinformation, for sure." Dennison says, but adds that public education isn't nearly as important as the politicians simply approving the projects. "We need elected officials' help educating the public, but we also need them to show political leadership and move projects forward. One way to educate the public is to show that these projects are going to enhance their communities. And we can’t do that unless we get some of them moving."