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Why Don’t We Create Sheltered Neighborhoods?

By | Jul 12, 2018

jon-tyson-660171-unsplashFor more than two decades, I have led a homeless services and housing development agency that was started here in Los Angeles. I have seen dozens of plans, initiatives, policies, ordinances and lawsuits designed to address homelessness. And yet, our communities continue to be inundated with people living on our streets.

Ironically, nearly every stakeholder (business owners, residents, political leaders and even people living on our streets) would agree on the end goal — a community without homelessness. For years, however, our communities have fought over how to reach that goal, proposing such initiatives as arresting the homeless to providing a shelter bed for everyone.

The Jones settlement was a result of this contentious discourse. Simply put, the city of Los Angeles wanted to ban people from sleeping on sidewalks, while advocates argued that people had no where else to sleep given the dearth of shelters and housing units. 

The settlement let people sleep on sidewalks at night, and at the same time the ban was put on hold until 1,250 housing units were built. Eleven years later, there are still 53,000 people who are homeless in Los Angeles County. And while the city claims that the agreed upon number of housing units have been built, advocates are still saying it is not enough.

If we wait another eleven years, while community leaders and advocates fight over how to resolve homelessness, we will undoubtedly continue to encounter homelessness on our streets.

The time to act is now. It is time to shift our approach toward resolving homelessness. With a new influx of billions of dollars through the city’s Proposition HHH and the county’s Measure H, we cannot wait for another lawsuit to be settled.

Right now, Los Angeles is proposing a dual (long-term and short-term) track of building new apartment units with support services (that will take years to complete), along with building quick “pop-up” emergency bridge/shelter beds. But to get thousands of units and beds built, we need neighborhoods to allow it.

I have participated or led more than 100 community meetings to discuss if or how to site a homeless facility or housing development throughout the state. These meetings are long, emotional, honest and contentious. They reveal raw fears of people who own homes or businesses.

During the Jones settlement, the federal appeals court concluded that banning people from sleeping on sidewalks is “cruel and unusual punishment.” On the flip side, in community meetings I hear people say that allowing homeless encampments and vehicles near their homes and businesses is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

We all know that in order to seriously reduce homelessness we need more permanent housing and shelter beds. But most neighborhoods are worried that even if they allow these solutions in their backyard, more people will come and make their sidewalks home. They call it “the magnet effect.”

We are stuck. Advocates insist that sidewalks should be homes until there is enough housing built. Business owners and residents don’t want “homeless housing” built in their neighborhoods because they are worried about the quality of their streets. This predicament directly impacts the developers, who have the resources to build, but are now limited in where and how many units they can build.

But, is there hope? Recently, Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed increasing police enforcement and street cleaning in neighborhoods that allow new shelters. This may well be a creative new start, but neighborhoods want guarantees that their sidewalks will be clean and safe.

So why not guarantee that if a neighborhood allows a shelter or supportive housing development to be built, the city would be allowed to implement a sidewalk ban within the surrounding blocks? This way more housing solutions are built while the surrounding neighborhood benefits.

Furthermore, neighborhoods with existing shelters and supportive housing should have a similar zone. Communities would see that shelters and housing resolve homelessness, but not at the expense of the quality of life of the neighborhood.

With this approach, we would be sheltering both the people on our streets as well as protecting the neighborhoods that host the housing solutions.

With more than 50,000 homeless in our community, and a new stream of financial resources to create services and housing, the urgency to immediately shelter people and to build enough supportive housing apartment units cannot be hindered by our communities’ conflicting views on how to resolve homelessness.