Punishing unhoused people will not solve homelessness

Alan Sutton, LA CAN

Amid a public outcry over their failure to alleviate the city’s housing crisis, Los Angeles’ elected leaders are doubling down on a failed policy — criminalization of homeless people. 

On a 13 to 2 vote, city council members this week approved new rules barring homeless people from camping near schools, parks, libraries and other “sensitive” facilities. Broadly written, the proposed ordinance leaves much to the discretion of city departments and law enforcement. Its language is purposely vague in defining where people can exist. Rather than trying to make homelessness a criminal matter, advocates for the poor argue that the council should focus on finding safe places for people to live.

County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and city councilman Joe Buscaino are leading the charge for an aggressive law and order approach to clearing streets, sidewalks and underpasses of tent encampments established by unhoused Angelenos with nowhere else to go. 

Turning public frustration into a blame game, Villanueva and Buscaino contend the crisis is rooted in the reluctance of local governments to crack down on illegal behavior in the encampments, which threatens the safety of law-abiding residents — and which can be punished by arrest or banishment. 

Uprooting unhoused people and issuing them citations for quality of life offenses is a failed strategy. Providing housing is the only way to solve the homeless crisis.

Yet with Project Roomkey, the state and local plan to rent vacant hotel and motel rooms to provide temporary assistance for vulnerable people during the pandemic set to expire, the tenants now face the imminent threat of being pushed back out onto the street when the funding for the program is cut. Instead of stepped up policing, L.A. officials should be using surplus state money to extend the PRK program.

The renewed emphasis on criminalization spotlights how fractured the politics of homelessness are in L.A.

In the halls of local government, battle lines are being drawn over how to address homelessness. Unlike the “tough love” approach favored by law and order champions like Buscaino and Villanueva, other lawmakers including council members Mike Bonin and Nythia Raman believe that housing first is the answer to getting people off the streets. (The latter two face recall threats from constituents who charge they are too sympathetic to the plight of unhoused people.)

A prominent businessman, Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, has entered the homelessness debate. Katzenberg has met with city council members and other people working on homelessness to better understand the issue and how he might help, according to the Los Angeles Times, which noted some of his discussions have taken place as the council voted to impose new anti-camping rules. 

Given his well-known philanthropic efforts, it would be a missed opportunity if Katzenberg’s focus is on enacting limits on where people can sleep. Alternatively, he could use his Rolodex to encourage fellow entertainment industry titans to invest in innovative projects that can provide  housing cheaper and quicker than traditional construction. 

This sort of effort is being undertaken right now at the Los Angeles Community Action Network’s sustainable housing development in South Central L.A. Combining modular-built small footprint residences (275- to 325 square foot, 1BR and 2BR units including a bathroom with shower, fully equipped kitchen, washer-dryer stack and living area) with solar power and other energy performance features, LA CAN’s EcoHood pilot project will provide long-term housing in less time and at a fraction of the cost of new construction without harming the environment.

Approaching the 5th anniversary of Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion homeless housing measure that people were led to believe was going to make a difference in the city’s fight against homelessness, nothing much has changed. Sidewalks across L.A. are still clogged with tents and makeshift dwellings, and policymakers continue to focus on impermanent housing solutions like communal shelters and “tiny homes” villages that don’t help people exit homelessness.

While the status quo is not an option, citing and arresting homeless people for being on the street has yet to solve homelessness, as the Los Angeles Times has editorialized. Instead, the city could set aside its vast inventory of vacant or underutilized parcels in a Housing Trust for low-cost housing developments. 

Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti both have pledged substantial resources for affordable housing, which could be allocated toward low-cost options such as prefabricated and modular units.

Criminalizing poor people is a cruel and ineffective strategy for addressing L.A.’s housing crisis. It has no place in the homeless policy tool kit.

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