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Days After the Los Angeles Homeless Count’s Release, LA City Council Back to Criminalizing Poverty

… and condescending to community organizers.

Since the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) reported its 2019 Homeless Count’s increase across the city and county, Los Angeles’ City Council has only made further moves to punish unhoused residents.

On June 5 — just one day after the count’s public release — the five-member Homelessness and Poverty committee moved to extend an anti-vehicle-dwelling law. Throughout the meeting discussing the measure, council-members seemed more attentive to the complaints of NIMBY property owners and business interests than the voices of organizers and formerly unhoused residents. Despite Mayor Garcetti’s recent adoption of a plan that directly reflects the demands of the Services Not Sweeps coalition (which includes accessible public health basics like restrooms and trashcans, and removing law enforcement from encampment outreach), these impacted groups were scolded by council members for “complaining,” rather than acknowledged as a pivotal force driving a series of potential policy changes.

In “the ZONE,” an enhanced enforcement area surrounding the Mayor’s new “Bridge Home” shelters. Background: LA Plaza Village apartments under construction. Studios start at $1,975/month.

In light of the media frenzy around trash, rats, and typhus, General Dogon of LA CAN cited the state-allotted HEAP (Homeless Emergency Aid Program) funds which have mainly gone to sweeps and city salaries. “We need stuff right now on the streets,” said Dogon. Mayor Garcetti and Controller Ron Galperin both seemingly agree, with Garcetti ranking state homelessness numbers “second” to the San Francisco Earthquake, and Galperin suggesting the need for disaster relief on an amplified scale.

“You know what the best incentive is?” asked Adam Rice of LA CAN. “Fines. Use that money to build housing on those vacant lots, that have been set aside for developers that want to charge $5,000/unit.” As of 2017 there were an estimated 110,000 vacant units in the city, and over 200,000 in the county. A vacancy tax study was put forward last week by Mike Bonin; unfortunately, the city council chose that day to pass two anti-poverty measures. One, LAMC 85.02, specifically prohibits overnight parking in most residential areas, and vehicle-dwelling 500 feet from public parks (often the only place with accessible toilets or drinking water).

Dogon of LA CAN also asked of LAMC 85.02: “What about the towing, all the tickets, what are you going to do about that?” This question underscores the various economic nightmares that parking can pose for housed and unhoused alike. Many of the city’s supposedly-safe-for-overnight “green streets” aren’t accessible for vehicle-dwelling because of additional barriers like valet parking or additional hourly restrictions. Maps of non-restricted streets only exist online, creating yet another hurdle for the 16,528 vehicle-dwellers living in LA County.

This issue is one that affects both housed and unhoused tenants in the city. LAHSA projects 516,946 affordable units must be built in order to support “low-income renters,” and with an infrastructure that currently fails to offer appropriate care, comments emphasized the urgency of renters’ and unhoused tenants’ needs. “The City is building shelters and referring to them as services or housing[…]when they ought to be building permanent supportive housing,” said Craig Roberts from Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), citing the 721,000 severely rent-burdened households in LA County alone. These arguments are not just being made by activists. As LAHSA director Peter Lynn notes, “that’s 950,000-plus Angelenos who couldn’t make an emergency car repair and pay rent.”

At the hearing, demands for public housing and a stop to laws that target the unhoused were peppered with complaints from business owners and loft-dwellers in ‘revitalizing’ industrial areas that benefit from “Artist-In-Residence” zoning. Such comments always feature a but: “I have a lot of empathy, but putting 24 hour parking next to parks businesses and schools is not helping anyone,” Katherine Mullen, owner of Stronghold Climbing Gym said. “I am very sympathetic to the homeless, but[…]we’re bearing the brunt of the impact, and it’s been really hard for business and neighbors. “I know that this issue has lots of sides to it, but I would respectfully request you extend the ban on parking to residential-use zones.”

What Mullen fails to acknowledge is the interconnectedness of these issues. Some of the same campers parked near her business were recently displaced by LAPD and Sanitation crews from a small street near the ill-named “Highland Park Brewery,” at the behest of a Trammel Crow developer for the Chinatown Lofts construction site. Just beside the swept encampment was another dirt lot, the lawsuit-ridden College Station development, unanimously approved by the city council to offer zero affordable housing. These two projects will total 1,043 market rate units.

Eviction sign from developers to unhoused residents.

Like the many incarcerated unhoused Angelenos who are not included in the Homeless Count, the voices of the precarious tenants of this community — those enduring rent hikes and evictions, or consistent harassment from developers and the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) — were not included in the Homelessness and Poverty Committee discussion that Wednesday.

Email from Chinatown BID director to Mayor’s office coordinating sweeps and police presence at encampments. Complaints from business owners like this lead to displacement, tickets, and trashed belongings for homeless residents.

Trammel Crow developer and LAPD look on as Sanitation clears tents and RVs from sidewalk near pending construction site.

Developer and member of Chinatown BID surveys the swept street with construction site in background.

The meeting closed with Peter Lynn of LAHSA’s presentation of the Homeless Count data. But first — a full hour and a half after public comment had been made and to a largely empty room — Councilmembers O’Farrell and Marqueece Harris-Dawson (whose district includes Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills) took the opportunity to rebut some comments.

“There’s just so much misinformation out there,” said O’Farrell, referring to a claim echoed by the City Controller last week, that no Measure HHH-funded supportive housing units have been up and running yet. “We heard some of it here.” The big gotcha? That one HHH-funded housing project is online, with 49 units.

“Experts come out of the woodwork to interpret the numbers,” said O’Farrell, denigrating the work of organizers whose assertions were upheld by the LAHSA report. Instead of listening to the people affected by the city’s affordability crisis, O’Farrell attempted to delegitimize voices like Kei Utsumi’s, who shared his personal experience of regimented shelter life in packed, non-private rooms. The Mayor’s three “Bridge Home” shelters currently offer a total of around 150 beds to unhoused Angelenos. “The rest,” said Utsumi, “are being criminalized by LAPD because the mayor’s program is, once a shelter is built, there will be no encampment.”

Around 15% of unhoused adults report substance abuse issues (LAHSA), but NIMBYs and property owners stigmatize drug use and stoke fears to demand policing and criminalization.

Utsumi reminded council of the police presence and frequent absence of LAHSA outreach workers, the untenable nature of weekly encampment sweeps in so-called Enforcement Zones surrounding the shelters in Hollywood and Downtown. Neither O’Farrell nor Lynn would comment on the unhoused Angelenos targeted by the Enforcement Zones around bridge shelters, including the one in O’Farrell’s CD 13.

Every weekday, residents (many of whom are elderly and dealing with disabilities) living in the Enforcement Zone around the El Pueblo shelter downtown are woken up by LAPD and Sanitation.

Trash left behind after HOPE team (left) and “Operation Healthy Streets” power washing (right) sweeps that regularly displace unsheltered people living around “Bridge Home” shelters.

“There is a good amount of hyperbole,” Harris-Dawson agreed. “There is a specific type of organizing model that I’m trained in that says, go confront people, make outrageous statements about them and cause a confrontation. There’s a place for that, but in this moment I think it’s very serious.”

“Here’s the deal,” Harris-Dawson continued, “history doesn’t get written as, ‘Oh, there were these people over here complaining and, you know, they were the righteous ones.’”

Protest signs against the College Station development opposite encampment sweep site. Photo via Chinatown Citizens for Equitable Development (CCED).

Chinatown BID director George Yu removes signs protesting College Station development, via CCED.

In an apparent attempt to prioritize the grand narrative over “complaining,” Harris-Dawson added, “I’m sure there were plenty of people in Alabama against slavery for the 100 or so years that it went on, but history doesn’t write about them, [it] writes about the society as a whole that allowed this situation and that’s what history is gonna write about us unless we all get busy, all hands on deck, and actually fix the problem.”

A since-removed post from an official LAPD Facebook page, which was spread and supported in private vigilante groups like “Homeless Transient Encampments of our West Valley” before deletion

Meetings at city buildings are notoriously difficult to access if you’re unhoused, or holding down a job. While it’s nice to imagine the possibility of a civil argument, or being “all hands on deck” with our politicians, it’s unclear what Mitch and Marqueece are really offering to volunteers and grassroots organizers when they ask for civility. Their voices are up against classist BIDs and wealthy constituents whose profit motives are constantly prioritized by the same politicians asking for cooperation. The complacency around this imbalance of power is disconcerting, and reflects a more general issue with “both-sides” thinking in establishment politics, especially when one side is talking about human rights issues and the other is using fear-mongering and Othering to create an Us-Vs-Them dynamic. A few months ago when the city was deciding whether to challenge community organizers over another criminalizing-poverty law, Mitch said “this is not a pro-business, anti-homeless rights [issue]. What we’re handling is the very serious business of the scourge of people affected by homelessness.” For a councilmember to demand we “balance the needs” of both unhoused and business interests while keeping an open ear to only the latter constituent seems misguided at best.

The lights went out a couple times during that Homelessness and Poverty Committee meeting and the handful of remaining public, city officials and HOPE team officers erupted in nervous laughter.

“Last call!” said Peter Lynn from the public comment table.

On June 11, City Council voted 11–0 to extend 85.02 and 12–1 (with Bonin dissenting) to oppose State Assembly Bill 516 , a restriction on “poverty tows” that adversely affect low-income residents and especially unhoused vehicle-dwellers. On Friday, a reportback from LA City Sanitation was released echoing many of the demands set forth by the Services Not Sweeps coalition.