Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
"Right now we have a Hollywood moment.”
City of Los Angeles elected officials this week declared a homelessness "state of emergency" and pledged $100 million in funding to tackle the crisis. Homeless advocates say they welcome the funding but are skeptical that Mayor Eric Garcetti or the city council will secure it. They also fault city leaders for continuing the long-running criminalization of homeless people in L.A., which I reported on at length in July.
"Is there actually money?" emails L.A. civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who spends much of her time filing lawsuits over anti-homeless policies. "In other words, I am waiting to see it materialize."
The city has also pledged short-term money, to be focused on rapidly rehousing those losing homes to eviction or other crises. Sobel says that type of funding won't have much impact on reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets, however, if it fails even to keep pace with the estimated 13,000 people on public assistance in L.A. who become newly homeless each month.
Advocates are also skeptical about the city's motive. The city of L.A.'s homeless population is large and highly visible—estimated to be 25,686 this year—prompting loud complaints from business interests and homeowners amid high rents and a difficult labor market. Garcetti wants to present himself as striking a "better balance on the health and safety of the streets with the rights and needs of those forced to live on them." But so far, he has failed to placate either supporters or opponents of a police crackdown.
"A cynic would say this provides a cover for the continuing hostile action," emails Gary Blasi, a lawyer with the Public Counsel law center and a longtime advocate for homeless people in L.A. "Right now we have a Hollywood moment, somewhere between an idea and a concept, maybe even a treatment. But no script, no real budget, and a cast with lousy reviews in their most recent roles."
New ordinances authorizing police to seize and potentially destroy homeless peoples' property on sidewalks and in parks appear to remain in limbo. And Sobel believes that the city is likely years away from trying to undo a legal settlement that bars enforcement of a sidewalk sleeping ban.
But police are using different laws to displace homeless encampments, according to the L.A. Times. Blasi suspects that it is "experimental policing in Skid Row, to work out procedures they will roll out later."
In a statement, the Los Angeles Community Action Network argued that "increases in financial resources towards this crisis will only work if the City abandons what has been its primary approach toward homelessness over the past decade: criminalizing the lives of homeless residents… Let’s be clear—the City has invested millions upon millions of dollars toward homelessness in recent years. But far too much of that money has gone to LAPD to enforce unjust and often illegal laws that simply punish people for being poor and that make it even more difficult to get out of homelessness."
A recent city report estimated that of the more than $100 million various city departments spend annually dealing with the homeless population, as much as $87 million is spent on policing (patrol officers' time not included).
Community Action Network Co-Director Becky Dennison emails that she's not sure what prompted the new strategy, but that "mostly I think the electeds got pretty beat up on the property ban in the media and by unexpected constituencies, so they are scrambling to do something proactive."
Garcetti spokesperson Jeff Millman did not respond to repeated emails. UPDATE 9/30: It turns out that Millman announced in August that he was taking a leave of absence from the mayor’s office to work on the city's bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, thus explaining why he couldn’t be reached via email for this story.
"I think it is a response to many things, including the new strong stand by the feds and the recognition they are going to keep being sued," emails Sobel.
The feds have been taking a strong stand indeed. Last month, the Obama Administration declared its position, via the Justice Department's intervention in a federal lawsuit against the city of Boise, Idaho, that it is unconstitutional to bar outdoor sleeping when people have nowhere else to sleep. Earlier this month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced new requirements that force public-private applicants for federal grants to describe "the strategies… to ensure homelessness is not criminalized."
It's too soon to determine if L.A. has gotten the message or if they are engaged in mere messaging.
"You can't have decades of neglect and then think that this announcement yesterday is even a minor fix," emails Sobel. "If addressing homelessness is a priority, and it has to be, the City needs to act like it is in both word and deed."