Homelessness and Hunger in Los Angeles
Homelessness burst its traditional borders several years ago, spreading first to gloomy underpasses and dim side streets, and then to public parks and library reading rooms and subway platforms. No matter where you live in L.A. County, from Long Beach to Beverly Hills to Lancaster, you cannot credibly claim today to be unaware of the squalid tent cities, the sprawling encampments, or the despair and misery on display there.
Today, we are paying the price: The economically homeless are now estimated to make up more than half of L.A.’s unhoused — and it is their rising numbers that are fueling the unprecedented growth in that population. More than half of the people surveyed by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority last year said they were homeless because of an eviction, foreclosure, unemployment or “financial reasons.”
Until the mayor and the members of the City Council treat the building of these 10,000 units of housing with the kind of extraordinary urgency this crisis requires — the kind that the federal and state governments bestowed upon, for example, the rebuilding of the broken Santa Monica Freeway after the Northridge earthquake — they simply will not be built. And they must be built. Supportive housing in particular — which offers not just a place to live but also access to job counseling and mental health and substance abuse treatment, among other things — is the best long-term solution for the chronically homeless, whose cases are the most difficult to solve. A substantial number of these housing units must be located in every single council district. They cannot just be concentrated in poor areas or in neighborhoods with less political clout. Already, a new report shows that even more housing will be needed than was estimated at the time HHH was passed.
The largest psychiatric institutions in the United States are the Los Angeles County jails, the Cook County Jail in Chicago and Rikers Island in New York. L.A. County incarcerates thousands of mentally ill people. The Sheriff’s Department reports that more than 70% of inmates who enter jail report a serious illness, either mental or physical. The county is moving forward with a $2-billion-plus plan to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail with a new facility specifically geared toward mental health treatment — but still a jail. We’re back where we started, but this time even more literally than before: Mentally ill people are prisoners. It’s not that jailers want the new business. It’s a population, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell recently told ABC7, “that I would argue should not be treated in a jail facility.”
Across the city, drivers exiting freeways routinely encounter homeless people on the off-ramps shuffling from window to window requesting money. Libraries, train stations and public parks have become refuges for homeless people. In many residential neighborhoods and commercial districts, encampments have become a seemingly immutable fact of life. As homelessness spreads across Los Angeles County — the official tally shows a 46% increase from 2013 to 2017 — it is drawing two conflicting responses, at times from the same people. There’s sympathy and a desire to help, but there’s also a sense of being invaded and perhaps even endangered — in terms of both physical safety and public health
Yet such a czar would only be as powerful as the mayor who appointed him or her. And in L.A., the mayor lacks legal authority to override City Council members, who can and do frequently say “no” to proposed housing and mental health facilities in their districts. And neither the mayor nor the czar would have control over the county, which supplies the services, or the region’s other 87 cities. Czar-like powers would be possible only if council members were to relinquish some land-use and budget authority through something like an emergency declaration. And remember, they never did that. They gathered together and said they were going to do it, and much of the world’s media mistook that cleverly phrased promise to do it as actually doing it. You’ll find news stories saying they did it. But they did not.
As an individual, there is little one can do against such massive needs. But we can be faithful to what we can do. Like most Angelinos, I voted for Measure H and HHH. I also donate to Union Rescue Mission and Salvation Army and Venice Family Clinic, three organizations that have been providing help for many years.
I'm a research scientist not a social worker. I'd have no idea how to help the people in these situations. Each person and family has a story and hats off to people who have the heart, knowledge, and skills to help them. And so I support the three organizations mentioned above. I'd encourage you to find a group or two to support. And maybe all of us together helping in some small way can begin to help turn the tide of this crisis.