LA’s Homeless State of Emergency Fails to Anticipate Scope, Complexity of Crisis: Expert

LA’s Homeless State of Emergency Fails to Anticipate Scope, Complexity of Crisis: Expert
A homeless encampment lines a street in the Skid Row community on Dec. 14, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. New Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on her first day in office in an effort to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis where an estimated 40,000 residents are unhoused. The Skid Row community is home to thousands of people who either live on the streets or in shelters. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Michael Washburn
News Analysis

The state of emergency announced by Mayor Karen Bass in response to the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles is a commendable first step, but it is unlikely to offer an effective long-term solution to the problem, given the sheer number of people living on the streets, and the logistical challenges of providing short-term housing for them, according to a homeless advocate in California.

Most importantly, the plan fails to provide the many additional services and programs needed to address severe substance abuse and mental health problems among the homeless, the advocate said. While temporary housing can help address some of the immediate problems, experience in other urban centers has shown its limitations in the absence of far-reaching programs to deal with addiction and mental illness.

That’s the view of Zac Clark, an advocate for the homeless and executive director of the nonprofit HomeMore Project in San Francisco, a city which, like Los Angeles, has grappled for years with the question of what to do about endemic homelessness and the impact of social pathologies attendant to homelessness—such as mental illness, public drug use, and rampant crime and antisocial behavior—on the quality of life for the majority of citizens who are not homeless.
On Dec. 13, Mayor Bass’s first official action in her new role was to declare a homeless state of emergency, which the Los Angeles City Council ratified with a unanimous vote, 13-0. The state of emergency will be in place for at least the next six months, provided that the council approves its extension once per month.
Bass’s “Inside Safe” program provides for the leasing of motels to accommodate the homeless of Los Angeles County, who now number nearly 70,000, according to recent Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority figures.

Getting the homeless off the streets and into places of refuge, be they shelters or motels, may be widely seen as a worthy goal. But the experience of San Francisco, which has one of the most acute homelessness problems in the country and many attendant social ills, including epidemics of petty crime and car burglary, shows both the logistical difficulty of such an undertaking and its long-term failure of vision in the absence of resources to curb addiction, Clark believes.

“I applaud Mayor Bass for her immediacy in declaring homelessness a state of emergency on Day 1 in office. As we know, a state of emergency is recognition, not a proven solution,” Clark told The Epoch Times.

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Karren Bass as Los Angeles Mayor at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Karren Bass as Los Angeles Mayor at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Too Little, Too Late?

It is fair to ask why this measure was not taken sooner, given that the number of homeless has been growing steadily for many years and jumped 75 percent, from 32,000 to 55,000, in the six years from 2012 to 2018 alone, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times. This is far past the emergency threshold, Clark believes.

“I believe that anytime there are an estimated 10,000 people who are unhoused, there should be a state of emergency. At my organization, The HomeMore Project, we focus on investing in every root cause and building a personal connection. I am in the community every single day, meeting people experiencing homelessness and learning their stories,” Clark said.

Dumping the homeless into temporary places of residence is not a solution, believes Clark, who moved out of his first residence in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, after many unpleasant and disturbing encounters in the spring of 2020 with homeless people installed in nearby hotels who used the new digs to do drugs and yell obscenities out the windows. To Clark, the situation illustrated the failure of Mayor London Breed’s approach to homelessness, which emphasized providing housing for some, but not all, homeless through the “Shelter in Place” program.

An effective response to the crisis must incorporate a realistic assessment of the sheer number of homeless who seek temporary housing, as well as the numbers who will be in need of more permanent arrangements.

“I can’t speak too much to how L.A. compares to San Francisco. However, in San Francisco, many people I have met have been on waiting lists to receive permanent housing for over a year,” he said, expressing his bewilderment at a system that prioritizes housing for some while leaving large numbers of other homeless citizens without a refuge.

San Francisco presents a microcosm of the logistical snarls that arise when trying to accommodate so many so quickly, Clark pointed out.

“I have met many people experiencing homelessness who have traveled from as far as Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, and other states just for a chance to get on the list to receive housing in San Francisco. Nearly all of them have mentioned that it was not as easy as they thought it would be, and many have returned home,” he said.

Moreover, the plan announced by the Los Angeles mayor fails to acknowledge the problem of recidivism among those who have abused drugs, and the need for a panoply of services that go far beyond housing.

“It is incredibly challenging to help those receiving housing get consistent access to those additional factors. Many revert to old habits, despite having an SRO [single room occupancy] or form of shelter,” Clark added.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Bass’s office for comment.

Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics for The Epoch Times. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”