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L.A. develops homelessness strategy, but does it have political will?

By Daniel Trotta

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Justine Gonzalez is a Democratic Party activist and sympathetic to the plight of the homeless. Her brother has struggled with the cycle of going from jail to the streets of Los Angeles. She once lived in transitional housing.

But even her tolerance was tested by a homeless encampment that swelled to some 200 people at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles. The 31-year-old moved from her home near the park after a man living there nearly exposed himself to her 7-year-old daughter and after, while jogging, she saw paramedics remove a body from a tent.

In a city where Republicans are outnumbered and the debate over what to do about homelessness is largely among moderate and progressive Democrats and others further to the left, Gonzalez said some of her friends have called her views bourgeois.

“There comes a point where it’s just completely unsafe. Not just for me or my daughter,” Gonzalez said. “I stand pretty opposed to the idea that the humane solution is have people unsheltered at the lake long term.”

The homeless have left Echo Park Lake, many taking up offers of hotel rooms and other transitional shelter options and support services during an outreach campaign that preceded the arrival of police and park rangers for a March 25 sweep that saw clashes with protesters.

The combination of outreach over months and then police action for the handful of people who refused to move is being heralded by some as a strategy for the rest of the city in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. But amid protests over the use of police force, the approach has political risks.

Homelessness in Los Angeles was already on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic created an economic slowdown that, despite eviction moratoria, has made it difficult for people across the United States to remain stably housed.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority says homelessness was up 13% from January 2019 to January 2020, reaching 66,000 in the greater L.A. area. This year’s homeless census was canceled because of the pandemic, but tent cities in places such as Skid Row, Hollywood and Venice Beach appear to have grown during the health crisis.

COURT ORDER

Los Angeles officials eased enforcement of vagrancy laws during the pandemic, fearing that dispersing people on the streets would spread the virus. The city is also operating under a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that people cannot be punished for sleeping on the streets when there is no place to shelter them.

The city and county of Los Angeles are further guided by U.S. District Judge David Carter, who is overseeing a lawsuit brought by critics of the way officials have addressed homelessness. Carter on Tuesday ordered the city and county to provide enough shelter by October for all those living on the streets in downtown’s Skid Row, the area historically associated with homelessness.

Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday proposed spending nearly $1 billion to address homelessness in the city’s next budget, so more shelter could be on the way.

After homelessness increased in Echo Park Lake and five people living in the park died in 2020, City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell used discretionary funds to hire outreach workers and says he was able to find shelter for 200 people.

Fewer than five people in the park refused to leave on their own, the Los Angeles Times reported. But when word spread that tents and makeshift structures were being cleared, protesters came and clashed with police. The police declared an unlawful assembly and arrested 182 people.

Defenders of O’Farrell’s strategy say a largely peaceful operation was hijacked by activists, who in turn contest the official account and say police were too aggressive.

O’Farrell said drug overdoses, sexual assaults and knifings in the park required action, even if it meant alienating some constituents and allies.

“I will never apologize for successful housing solutions for about 200 people while bringing the park back to its full, high standard,” O’Farrell said.

Across town in Venice Beach, another homeless encampment stretches the length of the boardwalk, stopping just before the border with the city of Santa Monica.

Mike Bonin, the city councilman who represents Venice, said the focus should remain on finding housing before involving police.

“If you are talking about hundreds of police officers in riot gear, coming and taking over a neighborhood, arresting people and closing off a major public park in the city of Los Angeles, then no, I’m not in favor of that at all,” Bonin said.

But Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association and a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, said, “The firm majority of Venice residents would take the Echo Park model, even in its messiness.”

The same factors that have made Venice attractive for people with homes – sun, sandy beaches, seaside restaurants and a Bohemian, tolerant lifestyle – have also beckoned the unhoused.

“It’s a really nice place to live if you’re normal,” said Jack Rivers, who is among those living on the street along the Venice boardwalk. “If you’re on the street, and just have really good manners, then there should be no problem.”