Los Angeles finally cracking down on homeless camping

AP Photo/Ben Margot

One issue that didn’t receive much attention from all of the pandemic relief money flooding the country was the homelessness crisis in most of America’s larger cities. The eviction moratorium (for better or worse) prevented an even larger number of people from being sent out into the streets to seek shelter, but there wasn’t much done for those who were already without a roof over their heads. The problem has been particularly nagging in Los Angeles, which attracts the homeless in large numbers because of its favorable climate and generous social services. Progressive legislators there and across California have also enacted new laws and policies in recent years decriminalizing so-called “quality of life” crimes, such as prohibitions against camping or urinating on sidewalks or in other public spaces. The result was just as you would probably have predicted. Enormous tent cities emerged, blocking sidewalks and turning into havens for drug dealing and petty theft. But now it seems that the municipal government has heard too many voters complaining and they’re working to finally do something about it. (Associated Press)

Los Angeles city leaders are poised to pass sweeping restrictions Thursday on one of the nation’s largest homeless populations, making it illegal to pitch tents on many sidewalks, beneath overpasses and near parks.

The measure before the City Council is billed as a humane approach to get people off streets and restore access to public spaces, and it wouldn’t be enforced until someone has turned down an offer of shelter. It would severely limit the number of places where homeless encampments have been allowed to grow and become a common sight across the city.

“There are right ways and wrong ways to disrupt the status quo and improve conditions on the street,” Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, coauthor of the measure, said in a statement.

That all sounds good at first glance, but nothing in the plan appears to address the underlying issues that have allowed the homelessness crisis to grow to epic proportions. The homeless population of Los Angeles is estimated to be in excess of 40,000 people. If these new rules require law enforcement to offer a homeless person alternate shelter before they can be removed, where are they going to put them all? If there was empty housing in LA for that many people, I would imagine they’d already be using it.

Further, simply relocating homeless people from one place to another isn’t going to solve anything. Many of the homeless are dealing with either mental health or substance abuse issues. Many of them will refuse to move into a shelter. Or, once taken there, will simply leave and head back to the streets after getting a hot meal. Perhaps before worrying about setting up more apartment buildings or hotels as homeless shelters, the city should be looking at building a series of new mental health hospitals.

Temporary shelters are all well and good, but as the name suggests, they are only supposed to be temporary. Of course, they’re still better than the tent cities that are blocking the sidewalks today. Those camps are unhygienic and dangerous for pedestrians to pass through. The conditions at Venice Beach are particularly dire. A City Council member representing that area described a situation where residents are afraid to leave their homes or go near the beach this year. Too many people are being robbed or assaulted, not to mention all of the aggressive panhandling that goes on.

Moving the tent cities off of the sidewalks and out of the parks is a good first step. But the municipal government can’t simply stop there. There’s just too much other work left to be done on this issue.