Could the prospect of cleaner streets and sidewalks free of homeless encampments be enough to override L.A.'s history of NIMBYism?
That's the hope behind a new plan by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti to spread $20 million worth of emergency homeless shelters across the city — and simultaneously beef up the Bureau of Sanitation resources traditionally responsible for clearing encampments.
Garcetti unveiled the proposal during his annual State of the City address on Monday.
The city has approximately 25,000 "unsheltered" homeless, living in vehicles, tents or in the open, according to the last tally in January 2017. Officials estimate there are nearly 43,000 unsheltered homeless countywide.
The county estimates it needs more than 3,000 more shelter beds to be able to accommodate everyone — and finding sites for new shelters is a perpetual challenge. Neighborhoods simply don't want them.
That has left the need in places like the San Fernando Valley and L.A.'s West Side quite high, said Matt Szabo, Garcetti's deputy chief of staff.
The plan to change that centers around a promise: For any neighborhood that houses one of these new shelters, the city will keep it clear of homeless encampments.
How the Plan Would Work
Garcetti is asking the City Council to appropriate about $1.3 million to each of L.A.'s 15 council districts to construct a temporary shelter.
The area around the shelter would then become a target zone for enforcement efforts by special LAPD Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) teams and Bureau of Sanitation workers who would keep the area clear of encampments. (HOPE teams partner law enforcement with service providers to do outreach and enforcement related to homelessness.)
Teams from the L.A. Homeless Services Authority and L.A. County Department of Mental Health would conduct outreach in the neighborhood in the runup to the shelters' opening to get as many people into services and housing as possible, according to the mayor's plan.
"Once the facilities are open, then those that remain in the encampments will be encouraged to move into the shelter," Szabo said.
In his address, Garcetti said anyone who seeks help getting off the streets will get it.
"Some folks will only stay for a few weeks in our new shelters, where we can connect them to a job or a rapid-rehousing voucher. Once they’ve gotten back on their feet, we’ll be able to turn that bed over to someone else ... two, three, four times in a year," Garcetti said.
"Other folks could be there for six months before they’re ready to move somewhere permanent. But everybody will get the help that they need."
The city would then determine and post a date by which homeless people would either have to move into the shelter or leave the neighborhood, he said.
"When the enforcement begins, the encampment will be removed, and we will not allow for re-encampment in those targeted areas," Szabo said.
Asked if the mayor is confident the plan complies with L.A.'s various settlement agreements regarding the rights of homeless people, Szabo said the mayor's office has been working with the L.A. City Attorney's Office on the plan.
The details of how enforcement would work and what radius around the shelter would be an encampment-free zone is still under discussion, he added.
To fund enforcement, Garcetti is proposing a $29 million boost in homelessness spending related to city departments in the coming fiscal year, $17 million of which would go to the Bureau of Sanitation.
The number of LAPD officers paired with these teams (40 citywide) would remain the same as in the last fiscal year.
What Would These Shelters Look Like and Where Would They Be?
The proposed shelters are intended to be temporary, meaning lasting up to three years, and could take many forms.
"We're looking at tent structures, we're looking at trailers," Szabo said. "There may be some instances where we use an existing building."
The shelters would be administered by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, likely through contracts with community providers. Any on-site services would ideally be paid for by L.A. County, he said, adding that the city is in talks with the county to determine whether funds from Measure H, a new sales tax, could pay for services.
Simultaneously, the city has been working with the state to establish "alternative minimum health and safety standards" to apply to the temporary shelters, which would relieve the structures of some of the need to conform to building and fire safety codes, said Szabo.
The need for such standards and any zoning changes and other red tape would be substantially reduced if the L.A. City Council enacts an emergency declaration regarding homelessness. The council is expected to take up such a declaration on Tuesday.
As for siting, Szabo said no council district or neighborhood would be forced to open a shelter against the community's wishes. Neighborhood councils would be involved in locating sites. And the district's city council representative would still have the ability to nix any project, he said.
But should a council district not use its funds in short order, it would lose access to them, and to the promise of stepped-up encampment cleanups, Szabo noted.
The money could potentially fund up to 100 beds in each council district.
Wait, That's Nowhere Near Enough to Shelter L.A.'s Homeless
"The need is enormous. This is a start," Szabo said.
The city, he said, is hoping for financial help from the state to expand the program.
Garcetti was recently in Sacramento to help lobby for the passage of AB 3171, a bill that would create $1.5 billion in block grants for localities to spend on addressing homelessness.
The measure, introduced by Assembly Member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), is scheduled to go before the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee later this month.
If AB 3171 becomes law, Szabo said Garcetti's plan could work as a model for rolling those funds out in L.A.
'Nowhere Near Enough': Homeless Advocates Respond
Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, said Mayor Garcetti's proposal is a good first step, but that more needs to be done.
"[This plan] is nowhere near what I would hope for, nowhere near what the Urban Land Institute called for," he said. "These are experts from all around the country who came and consulted with the leaders of Los Angeles, and it's nowhere near enough for people who are suffering on the streets."
The Urban Land Institute recently recommended that L.A. build 60 shelters across the city, which would be four in each district, not one, Bales said.
However, building shelters in more neighborhoods would be a positive change, he said, because it could be a step to help get more people into shelters and off the streets.
"Having a shelter in your own neighborhood to go to when you lose your housing rather than having to go to the mean streets of skid row, that would help immensely," Bales said. "And wouldn't we as neighbors rather say yes to shelter and accountability and care, rather than saying no, not in my backyard? Yes to people being under a roof instead of leaving people on the streets to suffer?"
In the past, finding shelter sites has been a challenge around Southern California because many neighborhoods don't want them, so the opinions of residents across L.A. are a potential concern for Garcetti's new plan.
Chris Ko, director of Homeless Initiatives for United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said his organization's polling shows that L.A. residents actually do support more shelters.
"I think people understand that other solutions are just temporary and patchworks. People that we've spoken to, as long as they know that there's a plan and that there's something that is more holistic that will move people inside, that's what our residents are really asking for at the end of the day."
That idea of a more holistic, permanent solution to homelessness is something that should be incorporated into this plan and the shelters being built, Ko said.
"What we need to make sure is that every single bed constructed has a connection to permanent housing. We've started calling these solutions bridge housing because we want them to connect to the next step of exiting homelessness. Unless every bed has a connection to a permanent exit, they become bridges to nowhere."
Ko said that means having enough permanent housing to accommodate everyone in shelters later moving to a permanent home.