AT LENGTH-Fresh from milking political cows in Iowa, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on April 16 gave his annual State of the City address at City Hall.
These usually pro-forma speeches are often less than inspiring. This one was a little different. Maybe he was inspired by his better angels, or perhaps more likely by the number of unsheltered Angelenos and the related issue of scarce affordable housing. These circumstances have grown to a size that can’t be put off any longer, the mayor laid out the long-awaited vision of a solution — building emergency shelters and adding beds to existing ones for the homeless. This new call was one where more platitudes and hand-wringing were absent. Instead, Garcetti brought two ordinances before the city council the very next morning.
In his State of the City address, Garcetti said:
The cost of inaction is too great. Because when people get left behind, everyone pays for it. Still, there are Angelenos, like so many Americans, who are working harder and longer for less. They can’t save enough to retire, or see their kids off to college… They are frustrated by rising rents, and worried about making ends meet. It speaks to LA’s incredible creativity that the Tesla Model X was designed here… But we also have families sleeping in their cars. We have the best culinary scene in America… But there are people who will go hungry in our city tonight. I’ve often said that we won’t be judged by what we say today, but by what we do tomorrow.
While it has only taken the mayor four years since the prospect of tiny homes lining the streets of San Pedro was exaggerated into a countywide fight over homelessness, Garcetti now appears to have mustered the courage to confront the NIMBY fears. He has stopped short of calling on every department of the city to take action, which he should have. Instead, he called on every city council person to take responsibility. We will see exactly what Councilman Joe Buscaino does now in the 15th District to embrace Garcetti’s vision.
Those who remember Buscaino’s failed Homeless Task Force will recall that it was used to stall the initiatives of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council and intimidate others from addressing this most crucial “issue of our times.” You will also notice that for all the hot air coming out of the council office about development, there hasn’t been one affordable housing unit built in San Pedro for five years and the homeless encampment at the U.S. Post Office on Beacon Street has not dwindled.
Garcetti wants to give every council district $1.3 million for emergency shelters and I would like to invite him to come to San Pedro so that we can show him where these could be placed and challenge all seven of the neighborhood councils in Council District 15 to designate at least one parcel of public land on which to place one of these emergency shelters. What I can tell you is that this relatively small commitment can be matched by LA County services. Our faith communities and our network of nonprofits that have struggled for years with feeding the homeless, helping the addicted, the mentally ill and domestic violence victims, would embrace a cure.
What I am suggesting is that the greater Harbor Area community — and the rest of Los Angeles, for that matter, already has most of the infrastructure for the services and support as well as vacant land for this purpose. What we haven’t had is the courage of leadership to face this crisis. Perhaps now we will.
Bringing them Home
The solution, as difficult as it is, entails both reason without guilt and aspiration to rise above small politics to solve this most basic human condition. The core question is, when do you want to do it? We can start now, we can wait until later or we can pretend that we can postpone it for 10 years while we build permanent housing. Obviously, the latter is just kicking the can down the road.
Here’s the rationale for supporting the mayor’s current plan: Emergency shelters could be quickly set up like triage centers to sort out the needs and issues of the homeless. Sanitation facilities can be set up, social service and health care workers can be brought in to provide centralized care and referrals. In the beginning, Los Angeles’ neighborhood councils should be charged with locating within their 97 districts unutilized properties that are outside of the main business districts and don’t impact residential areas but are close enough to transit lines and services. Obviously, some compromises will need to be made but this should be done at the local level.
By providing safe, sanitary and secure places for our urban campers and people living in cars to live off of the public streets we can then begin the process of making them less homeless. Communities should be prepared for these facilities to be active for at least three to five years, but in the meantime the city should be working on interim shelter. This is where the tiny homes, modified containers and small construction units should be considered while the permanent housing solution slogs its way through the zoning, permitting and financing maze. This is the only way to start working on this problem now rather than later.
In many communities across this nation, the small homes movement has taken hold successfully to stabilize homeless people, create community and solve urban blight. Likewise, architects and designers have created a multitude of concepts for small dwelling units that are far more cost effective (some quite attractive) than standard construction. They can be built and placed onsite in a couple of months rather than years. This could begin the process of taking hundreds of souls off our streets while creating a pipeline to sustainable housing rather than a revolving door to homelessness.
And for those who object that we are giving something to people for “free.” All I can say is that the cost of doing nothing now is only going to multiply the costs of doing nothing later. It costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $35,000 every time sanitation and police are called out to do a “cleanup.” It costs thousands of dollars every time we arrest a homeless person on quality of life warrants and even more if we take them to the emergency room for medical care. Just think of the wasted time our police spend playing “social worker” and not addressing more pressing crime issues.
If we really want our neighborhoods to be safer, healthier and better places to live, we need to bring the homeless out of the cold and start treating them as neighbors who are down and out. I personally invite the Mayor Garcetti to come visit the Harbor Area so that we can start a pilot project. I call upon all of the neighborhood councils to come prepared with their solutions.
The time has come for a cure, not more divisions!
(James Preston Allen is the founding publisher and executive editor of RLnews where this was originally posted. He has been involved in community affairs for more than 40 years in the Los Angeles Harbor Area.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.