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Its Time to Declare a State of Emergency to Alleviate Homelessness in LA County

By Sheriff Alex Villanueva

    A strange thing happened on June 7th when I took a stroll down the Venice boardwalk. Homeless encampments, transients in various degrees of intoxication, and tents crammed together covered the length of the boardwalk. There was a woman screaming at herself, dragging a heavy chunk of metal by a strand of wire across the boardwalk. She then threw three bar stools at another homeless man who was standing several yards away, one by one, as if to emphasize a point only she understood. Not exactly enhancing the tourism industry in Venice that is struggling to stay afloat.

As homeless encampments encroach steadily into residential communities, business districts, and most noticeably our tourist destinations, the situation has now blossomed into a full-blown crisis that is an existential threat on many fronts. The Venice Boardwalk, Hollywood, and Olvera Street are prime examples of what happens when government refuses to regulate public space. The tourism industry is an $18 billion annual enterprise that sustains hundreds of thousands of businesses and employees across the county. Both city and county government have shown a lack of urgency in the face of this unfolding humanitarian crisis. It is time to declare a state of emergency and to develop a purposeful mission to solve this crisis.

As the elected Sheriff providing safety to over ten million residents, I have been inundated with calls for action by residents from all over the County regarding our homeless crisis. Residents are frustrated with government failures to reduce homelessness and its impacts. Aside from the disastrous public safety and health effects, residents are fed up with the related rise in crime, and the takeover of many public spaces by homeless encampments. I wrote to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, urging them to declare a local state of emergency only to receive a letter from county counsel claiming to already have “robust” programs in place.  

I next wrote to the governor with the same request, to marshal the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). We should immediately expand Los Angeles Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) that has been successful for the last eight years in identifying, assessing, conducting outreach, and securing shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness. They have also coordinated the dismantling of encampments and the cleanup that follows to return these places to their original state. In fact, our HOST team’s operation has become a national model for reducing homeless encampments.

    LA County is failing at reducing homelessness and helping those who desperately need help. Despite spending more than $6.5 billion over the last ten years to address the issue, the homeless problem has grown by over 100%, from 39,000 in 2011 to over 80,000 in 2021. Clearly repeating the same failed policies of the city or county are not going to produce a different result, just ask Albert Einstein! Having the state throw another $12 billion at the failed plan is the same problem on a whole new scale of futility.

Here is what will work. First off, how about treating the homeless crisis like the emergency that it is and stop with the endless studies and blue-ribbon commissions. Like any emergency where the resources are dwarfed by the sheer size of the need, triaging is a particularly important function. But triage cannot be the only strategy, which it appears to be along with another failed approach of building permanent housing, the favorite of the for-profit developers. But permanent housing is a long-term approach, as it is virtually impossible to construct in a timely manner, much less keep up with the influx of homeless from out of state that would be drawn to this benefit.

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Venice Walking & Biking Path

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Venice Beach

Another option we should develop are safe camp sites and RV parking with attendant hygiene stations, trash removal, security, and outreach capacity. The third and fourth options that need to be addressed are both the simplest and the most difficult — removing homeless individuals who refuse to de-occupy public spaces that directly impact residential, commercial, and tourist space and destinations. It can be as simple as telling people to move on if they reject the other options, and then use appropriate enforcement of local laws to address those who refuse to leave. Bottom line is no one has the right to occupy and despoil public space for their own personal use and at great public expense.

    As we are dealing with these options, both county and state government needs to embark on a massive investment in permanent supportive housing for our gravely disabled to make up for the dismantling of government-run mental health institutions. Instead of inviting the nation’s homeless to enjoy the California Dream, now would be the time to start dreaming up some much-needed bed space for the mentally ill who may never become self-reliant.

    Bottom line is that people are tired of being tired about the homeless crisis. Stop the nonsense that we are somehow going to build our way out of our crisis. Stop the paralysis by analysis. As we lose five homeless lives a day due to preventable causes, it’s time for politicians to step up to the plate and act like people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.

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Venice Boardwalk

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