Is There a Homelessness Effect With LAPD Homeless Response?

By | Sep 16, 2015

Photo by Steve Lyon

There was a time when police officers would simply provide homeless individuals with directions to nearby homeless shelters or tell them to move along. At the time, this was enough to serve the needs of both the people experiencing homelessness and the neighborhoods in which they stayed.

This is no longer the case.

Earlier this year, a federally-mandated homeless count revealed that Los Angeles’ homeless population had increased despite the fact that the city and county had housed 10,000 people who were homeless in the past three years.

Especially surprising was the fact that the number of visible encampments in Los Angeles nearly doubled. Survey Angelenos and most will confirm that homelessness is more noticeable than ever, and not just within the confines of downtown’s Skid Row.

Business owners and residents throughout Los Angeles are calling up their local councilmembers adamantly complaining about the makeshift tents, beat-up old vehicles, and tarps set up on sidewalks for all to see.

In response, the Los Angeles City Council created a homelessness and poverty committee, and the Mayor designed a “battle plan” to address homelessness.

What is missing from all these valiant efforts is the creation of an appropriate, modernized role for law enforcement, who are often the first responders with regards to homelessness.

Compounding the problem is the fact that lawsuits and ordinances are becoming the weapons of choice for addressing homelessness. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness are battling with city officials and their proposed ordinances designed to “clean up” the streets.

Ironically, those who suffer most are those the advocates are trying to protect: people who are homeless on our streets. And the officers charged with enforcing law and order on those streets often get caught in the middle.

In the past six months, I have met with numerous leaders within the Los Angeles Police Department to discuss L.A.’s growing homelessness crisis. The common sentiment is one of frustration. Frustration stemming from a desire to help those on the streets, a lack of direction on how to provide that support, and seeing a growing criminal element preying on neighborhoods with large homeless populations.

The result is that law enforcement officials have thrown up their hands, not knowing how to respond in the midst of legal battles over what they should and should not do.

Many argue that the result is lawlessness, at least within the homeless encampments. A “homelessness effect” regarding crime and law enforcement.

California often leads this country in trends, but let’s hope we are able to discover a solution and that this homelessness effect does not spread to other cities.