People sleeping on sidewalks – some sifting through trash and others sometimes barely old enough to drive – may evoke images of war-torn, distant countries, but these scenes have grown more familiar throughout Los Angeles.
Rising homelessness has become a war of sorts for city leaders and homeless advocates who say more funding is vital to get more people off the streets. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the city saw an 11 percent increase in homelessness to more than 28,000 people, according to the 2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count administered by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“It is an absolute crisis,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. “It’s impossible to move around this city without seeing homeless people. It’s just pervasive.”
The city will ask voters on Nov. 8 to support a $1.2 billion bond that would provide permanent housing and services for the homeless.
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While supporters say the bond is necessary to meet the needs of a growing, vulnerable population and would ultimately save money, opponents question the timeline and the cost to taxpayers.
“If it is a priority, how come it isn’t in the budget?” asked Jack Humphreville, budget representative to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council and writer of the LA Watchdog column for CityWatch, a website devoted to Los Angeles public affairs. “They’re saying, ‘Give us the money. We’ll come up with a plan.’… We’re not an ATM.”
He added that he is not against programs to help the homeless, but he disagrees with how the city is spending and managing money.
Jay Handal, co-chairman of the citywide Neighborhood Council budget advocates, said he opposes the bond because he wants to know where the housing will be, when it will be available and exactly how the money will be used.
“Show me a real plan that will get people off the streets this year, not this decade,” Handal said.
Though hardly a new problem, most agree that the city’s and California’s homeless problem has worsened, largely due to a lack of affordable housing, rising rents and the rapid growth of luxury development geared for high-end buyers, experts said.
Harris-Dawson, who is chairman of the council’s homelessness and poverty committee, said the city’s homeless people used to be largely concentrated downtown on Skid Row. Now, homelessness is visible from Sherman Oaks and Pacific Palisades to San Pedro.
The decision to place the bond on the ballot came after months of discussion and is part of a long-term strategy with the county to address homelessness, said Miguel Santana, city administrative officer.
Most of the money generated from the $1.2 billion bond measure would be used to build housing and provide services for the homeless, including substance abuse and mental health counseling. Projections call for the construction of about 10,000 housing units over 10 years.
Based on city estimates, a home assessed at $341,000, the average assessed value in the city, would have an average annual tax increase of $32.87 for 29 years, Santana said. A citizens’ oversight committee would help monitor the bond program.
The measure requires the approval of two-thirds of voters to pass.
Permanent supportive housing is rooted in the idea that the chronically homeless are often dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, a physical disability, illness or trauma – none of which can be treated while they’re living on the streets. A person living in permanent housing might live in a studio apartment, a one-bedroom apartment or shared housing with easy access to care and services.
The aim is to get people in a “stable living environment” so they can receive the treatment and services they need, said John Maceri, executive director of The People Concern, formerly known as OPCC and LAMP Community. The People Concern is a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that provides housing and services for the chronically homeless in Los Angeles County.
“There aren’t really very many options for people,” Maceri said. “We have more people with rental vouchers but no units available. We need to start building but the problem is we’re decades behind.”
The availability of an apartment through OPCC with proximity to a therapist and case manager was crucial to Ronnie Jordan regaining emotional and financial stability. Jordan, 53, became homeless and was couch-surfing and sleeping on buses before eventually moving into permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles about 16 months ago. Now, the professional musician has returned to his composing, performing and arranging.
“I was able to deal with unanswered issues and get back on track,” said Jordan, who was dealing with the loss of his father and coming out of a relationship with a substance abuser. “It saved my life.”
Jordan, who plays keyboards and guitar, performed last year at House of Blues, has started a music production company and is studying to become an audio engineer for film and television.
To help others find constancy and hope as Jordan has, many providers and homeless advocates say the bond measure is critical.
“We’re not building units that can help these people at nearly a fast-enough rate,” said Kevin Murray, president and CEO of the Weingart Center for the Homeless on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
At Weingart, there is a steady stream of people whose challenges began in foster care or the prison system or from bad choices, Murray said. He also cited policy decisions in the 1980s that led to the closure of inpatient mental health facilities and the incarceration of people for minor drug offenses as factors driving the rise of homelessness.
Murray, a former state senator, supports the bond but added that permanent supportive housing “is not the only answer.”
He said transitional or short-term housing also is part of the equation.
The economics of the bond proposal makes sense to Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It is much less expensive to build and maintain permanent supportive housing than to have chronically homeless regularly using jails and emergency rooms,” Toebben said. “The community will save money.”
Whatever the election’s outcome, those sleeping on bus benches and living in encampments abound, said Va Lecia Adams Kellum, president and CEO at Venice-based St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services for the homeless and low-income individuals and families.
“The painful part is so many people living in despair,” she said.
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.