The Public Health Crisis on Our Streets
What if we spent $30 million in public funds and got nothing for it? That’s the question I have been asking about the costs and benefits of the city’s program of clean-ups of homeless encampments — a program virtually no one is satisfied with.
Over the past several years, as encampments have proliferated in neighborhoods around Los Angeles, city agencies have developed an ever-expanding program that demands a massive allocation of money and personnel but lacks clearly stated goals and has no metrics by which to measure success.
Some people strongly support clean-ups and insist the city needs to do many more of them. Others strongly oppose them and are calling for the city to stop the practice. Neither side is pleased with the current practice, which the city plans to expand in the next fiscal year, starting in July.
For some, the purpose of the program is to try to make encampments go away, or at least clear the public right-of-way. On that score, it has been a failure. People living on the streets simply move a block away or return to the encampment site within a few hours of a clean-up.
For others, the program is an attempt to reduce risks to public health for people who live in and people who live near encampments. On that scale, it is impossible to tell if it has been successful; no one is measuring the impacts to public health, and the few encampments sites selected for clean-ups are not chosen based on public health needs.
Others feel the programs are a form of anti-homeless harassment, confiscating tents, medicine, and vital documents, and making it harder for people to escape homelessness.
Having thousands of encampments throughout Los Angeles is unacceptable — and until we can house or shelter people at a faster rate than they become homeless, encampments will continue to proliferate. Unless we want to keep throwing good money after bad, we need to engage public health experts, define our expectations, and measure the results. A few weeks ago, I submitted a council motion asking the relevant agencies to do just that, asking the following questions:
- Are we improving public health? Do current policies and programs benefit public health, and how can that be measured? Would other practices be more effective? If so, what would they cost? What best practices have other jurisdictions used? What do public health agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and other professionals in the field recommend?
- Are we helping or hurting efforts to get people out of encampments and into housing and services? Do current policies and programs facilitate efforts to connect people to services, social workers, and/or stable housing? Or do they disrupt those efforts? How effective have clean-ups been at adhering to the City’s “No Wrong Door” approach to connecting people with services? What percentage of people living in encampments have been approached for services and housing, how many have accepted, and how many have successfully moved into long-term housing? What is the view of people who are formerly or currently homeless?
- What is the appropriate role of law enforcement in clean-ups? To what extent do employees of city departments, as well as social workers and outreach workers request or require the presence of law enforcement personnel at clean-ups? How many citations have been issued or arrests made in connection with clean-ups, and what impact has that had on reducing crime, reducing blight, and getting unhoused people into services or housing?
- What is the appropriate level of oversight and community engagement? How can we make sure neighbors can be actively engaged in solutions? Should the city form an advisory committee composed or public health officials, people with lived experience with homelessness, or community-based organizations to help monitor, provide feedback on, and improve programs?
The results of the 2019 LAHSA homeless count make clear — encampments are not going away overnight. The systemic issues that drive people to homelessness — most specifically the housing affordability crisis throughout California — will continue forcing families to homelessness faster than we can create housing for them. The question we have to answer as a city is how we can make sure our neighborhoods are clean and safe — for everyone who lives in them.