How Do We Help the Homeless?

Notice outside of vacant homes on Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City.

Notice outside of vacant homes on Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City.

If you live in LA, by now you’ve gotten used to the fact that homeless people are part of the landscape. No matter where you go, Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, Van Nuys, you see people living on the streets. It used to be that homelessness was one of those things you could escape by running to the suburbs, but not any more. Nowadays Burbank, Glendale, Encino, all have their share of people living in tents and cardboard boxes. The homeless are everywhere, and there’s no simple solution.

The homeless population in Panorama City has been growing for a long time. For a while there was a large encampment off of Van Nuys Blvd. over by Smart & Final. Not too long ago the City dismantled it, but of course, that didn’t solve the problem. The residents of the camp were dispersed, but they didn’t go away. They just bundled up their stuff and moved it somewhere else.

Homeless encampment near Roscoe and Lennox.

Homeless encampment near Roscoe and Lennox.

Another shot of the makeshift shelter.

Another shot of the makeshift shelter.

At the corner of Roscoe and Lennox there was a row of houses that were empty. A developer had bought them intending to tear them down, but since work on the project hadn’t started yet, the homes just stood there, vacant. It wasn’t long before a group of homeless people decided to move in. The police chased them out, but instead of leaving the area, they simply created a makeshift shelter on the parkway in front of the houses. As weeks went by the shelter grew larger and longer, until it was difficult to pass on the sidewalk.

Vacant houses near Roscoe and Lennox.

Vacant houses near Roscoe and Lennox.

A view from the alley behind the vacant homes.

A view from the alley behind the vacant homes.

I was curious to find out what was going on with the empty houses, so I contacted Councilmember Nury Martinez’ office. I got a call back from her Communications Director, Adam Bass, who told me that the developer had pulled a demolition permit for the houses, though he wasn’t sure when they’d actually be bulldozed. I asked how Councilmember Martinez was dealing with the homeless situation in her district, and he informed me that earlier this year a new program had been launched in CD 6. The Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) initiative brings together the LAPD, the Bureau of Sanitation, and the LA Homeless Services Authority to engage with those living on the streets. While the City still clears away illegal encampments, the idea is to offer assistance to those who want it. Bass told me that since May, the HOPE initiative had helped dozens of homeless people in the Valley, in some cases finding them space in shelters and in others giving a hand to those looking for jobs. Over the summer the program expanded into the LAPD’s Central and West bureaus, and next month it’ll move into South LA.

This is a big improvement over the City’s past efforts. Some of City Hall’s recent attempts to deal with the homeless have been outrageously heavy-handed. Their efforts were so draconian that they were challenged in court three times, and the City lost every time. So the idea of a multi-pronged approach that brings different agencies together to offer assistance is a welcome one, and I’m glad it’s been successful so far. But unfortunately, the problem is so big and so complex that it’s going to take a lot more to bring about real change.

There are no easy answers. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this issue, and everybody’s got ideas, but there’s no consensus. In November there will be a measure on the City ballot to approve a $1.2 billion bond which would pay for construction of permanent supportive housing. At the same time, the County is expected to ask voters to approve a quarter cent sales tax increase which would help provide new services to the homeless. These initiatives could make a big difference, but really they both have to pass in order to make things work. To construct new housing without expanding staff to provide support for the homeless would be a waste of money, and the same goes for offering additional support without getting people off the streets.

And it could be that both of these measures will go down. In this upcoming election, the City, County and State are asking voters to approve billions in taxes and bond measures, and it seems possible that many voters, overwhelmed by the flood of initiatives, won’t be in the mood to approve anything.

As for other ideas on how to help the homeless, some people have suggested that the City use existing vacant housing to provide shelter. My feeling is that without support services, this would be futile. The idea of gathering tens of thousands of homeless together in empty buildings without offering mental health services, help for addicts or counseling seems like a recipe for disaster. Another proposal is to get the state and/or federal government to kick in more money. Garcetti already tried that. It went nowhere.

Personally, I think the most important thing is to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. This probably sounds so obvious you may ask why I’m even mentioning it, but it’s important to keep in mind. One of the leading causes of homelessness is eviction, and thousands of LA tenants have been kicked out of their homes in recent years. In part, this is because the City offers incentives to developers that make it very tempting for them to take advantage of the Ellis Act. If City Hall really wants to make a dent in the homeless problem, our elected officials need to stop rewarding landlords who throw their tenants out. The recent passage of an ordinance to crack down on “cash for keys” scams is a good start, but City Hall needs to do more. If you don’t want people living on the streets, then you need to do everything possible to keep them in their homes.

Demolition of the houses on Roscoe.

Demolition of the houses on Roscoe.

Earlier this month, the homeless encampment on Roscoe was dismantled. Around the same time, the houses that had been standing empty were demolished. But it’s only a matter of time before another makeshift shelter springs up in the neighborhood. This problem isn’t going away any time soon.

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1939 Meets 1984

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Not too long ago I was taking the train to visit some friends. I got to Union Station a little early, so I thought I’d buy a paper to read on the trip. But as I was walking in the direction of the newsstand, I got a small shock. It wasn’t there any more.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

Now, I know people don’t read papers like they used to, so maybe I’m just a dinosaur living in the past. This newsstand did have a pretty good selection of newspapers and magazines, but it’s not like it was a historic landmark. It was just a tiny little shop that sold the kind of stuff you buy when you’re waiting for a train.

But that isn’t the only thing that’s changed at Union Station. In fact, the whole feel of the place is changing, and I can’t say I like it.

Completed in 1939, Union Station was designed by a group of architects led by John and Donald Parkinson. It brings together a number of different styles that were popular at the time, including Streamline Moderne, Mission Revival and Art Deco, and it has the feel of a massive museum devoted to a bygone era. It used to be a great place to chill. I liked hanging out there. I’d show up early if I was taking the train and relax in the old leather chairs. Read a paper. Have some coffee. Watch the sunlight streaming down through the huge windows.

These days it doesn’t feel so relaxing. In the first place, the chairs are now cordoned off and there are guards making sure that only people with a ticket get in. I know there have been problems with homeless people camping out there and asking travellers for spare change. And I still remember the time I was waiting for a train and there was a guy who kept screaming really loud. He sat on the floor against one of the columns while two guards tried to talk to him, and he just kept on screaming. So I know there’s a reason for maintaining some restrictions, but it makes the place feel a whole lot less inviting. And let’s be honest, this approach is typical of the City of LA. Rather than actually trying to deal with the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill, the City just shuts them out. Putting up another barrier doesn’t solve the problem. It’s just a way of avoiding it.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

And what about the bagel shop? There used to be a little mom and pop place that sold a wide variety of bagels, and often when I was taking the train that’s where I’d stop to pick up some breakfast. It disappeared a while ago. What do we have in its place? You guessed it. Starbucks. We lost a little independent business that sold good bagels, and now we have another corporate coffee house. In fact, more and more Union Station has been taken over by chains.

Corporate coffee...

Corporate coffee…

...corporate sandwiches...

…corporate sandwiches…

...corporate snacks.

…corporate snacks.

I used to like hanging out in Union Station, but not so much any more. These days it’s kind of like spending time in a detention center that’s attached to a strip mall. The vibe of the place has changed. It feels colder. More corporate.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Isn’t that what’s happening to the whole country?

Homeless Emergency? Stop Evictions!

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The Mayor and the City Council recently declared that LA is in the throes of a homeless emergency. While I’m glad that our elected officials have finally decided to acknowledge how serious the problem is, they still haven’t offered any concrete plan of action. The promise of a hundred million dollars in funding is worthless until we know where that money’s coming from and how it’s going to be spent.

But I’d like to offer a suggestion on how to combat homelessness, and the people at City Hall should be glad to hear that they won’t have to spend a penny to implement it. My proposal is simple. I can give it to you in two sentences.

Stop Ellis Act evictions.

Stop the destruction of affordable housing.

Now, you may be saying, that’s ridiculous. The City doesn’t have the authority to do either one of those things. The Ellis Act, a state law, gives landlords the right to evict tenants if they decide they don’t want to be landlords any more. And the City can’t prevent a property owner from demolishing rental units if the owner does so within the boundaries of the law.

But the City can stop giving landlords incentives to do these things.

As the housing market heats up again, the potential to reap huge profits has drawn a slew of developers to LA. Speculators swoop into neighborhoods offering wads of cash to landlords, but they don’t just want to buy existing buildings. They’re interested in maximizing their profits, which often means kicking tenants out of rent-controlled apartments and either converting the units to condos or knocking the building down and putting up something larger.

And here’s where the City comes in. For developers to accomplish their goals, they often need to get the City to grant variances. They might ask the Department of City Planning to reduce the required setbacks from the sidewalk or neighboring buildings. Or maybe to relax the height limit. In some cases they ask the DCP to change the way an area is zoned, which could allow them to turn an apartment building into a boutique hotel.

All of these entitlements granted by the City increase the value of the property because they increase the potential for profit. The more money there is to made, the greater the attraction for investors. The more money investors offer, the greater the temptation for landlords to evict their tenants and sell the building. During the last housing bubble, this trend peaked in 2005 when over 5,000 rental units were taken off the market. When the recession hit, property values plunged and evictions dropped. But as the market heats up again, we’re seeing this practice becoming popular once more. In 2013, landlords took 308 units off the market. That figure more than doubled in 2014, rising to 725. And as long as housing prices continue to rise, you can bet that evictions will rise as well. For more details, take a look at this article from the KPCC web site.

Ellis Act Evictions in LA on the Rise

While there’s usually some negotiation involved when developers seek variances from the Department of City Planning, they usually get most of what they want. And as long as the DCP continues to hand out entitlements like candy, developers will feel confident that they can make tons of money by converting existing buildings to condos, small-lot subdivisions or boutique hotels. This means more people will be evicted, and more affordable housing will be taken off the market.

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I’m not claiming that everybody who gets evicted ends up living on the street, but a significant number do. While I couldn’t fine any data on evictions leading to homelessness in Los Angeles, in New York the data shows that it’s a leading cause. Check out this article from CityLimits.

Evictions Are Top Driver of Homelessness

So if the City of LA is really serious aout tackling homelessness, our elected officials need to stop making it so attractive for landlords to evict their tenants. The Department of City Planning needs to start asking if the needs of wealthy developers outweigh the needs of renters on a limited income. Yes, we are dealing with a homeless emergency. The people at City Hall must start looking at the policies that have contributed to this situation, and think about the changes that need to be made.

Building shelters for people living on the streets is fine. But an even better approach would be to prevent people from losing their homes to begin with. As long as City Hall continues to put the needs of developers over the needs of its citizens, the homeless situation will only get worse.

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Criminalizing Homelessness

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Once again our elected officials have shown us how little they really care about improving the quality of life in LA. On Tuesday the City Council passed two ordinances to make it easier to get rid of homeless encampments. Gil Cedillo cast the only dissenting vote. All the others fell right in line.

I totally understand that there are serious health and safety issues with the homeless camps that have been springing up all over LA. I know we have to deal with this. But as usual, the City Council has chosen to attack the symptoms rather than try to address the cause.

The reason people are living in tents is because we have an appalling shortage of affordable housing. The Mayor and the City Council continue to back to developers that want to build pricy condos and high-end apartments, but they seem to have no interest in providing homes for anyone besides the rich. Their meager efforts to build affordable housing are pathetic. LA real estate is being sucked up by developers with deep pockets who only care about maximizing their profits. In the past few years they’ve created thousands of new units that go from $2,000 a month on up into the stratosphere. And these same developers have taken thousands of rent-controlled units off the market as they demolish or refurbish older buildings.

According to the LA Times, the City’s homeless population currently stands at 26,000, a 12% increase over the past two years. This problem is not going away. It’s getting worse. Councilmember Cedillo makes the point that the vast majority of the funds the City spends on homelessness go toward law enforcement. This is crazy. The police can’t solve this problem.

Now you may be asking, can anyone solve this problem? The answer is yes. Follow the link below to an article from the LA Times about how Utah is dealing with chronic homelessness. They’ve made huge progress, and the state is actually saving money by providing housing for people who’ve been living on the streets.

Utah Is Winning the War on Chronic Homelessness

Of course, LA is not Utah. And I don’t mean to imply that there is a simple solution. But we could do a hell of a lot more than we’re doing now. And we need to start by making a serious effort to provide affordable housing.

For more info on the ordinances passed by the City Council, here’s a link to the story in the Times.

Vote Makes It Easier to Clear Homeless Camps

Flags

Image from the booklet prepared for Trinket

Image from the booklet prepared for Trinket

Yesterday a friend and I went down to MOCA to check out Trinket, an exhibition by Chicago-based artist William Pope.L. The centerpiece is a giant American flag, which is being continually buffeted by the wind from four large fans. The space grows brighter and darker at intervals as rows of lights go through pre-programmed cycles. It’s a pretty interesting show that raises lots of complicated questions about this country. I can’t say I felt emotionally engaged, and this is a problem I have with a lot of conceptual art. But it was well worth the trip, and it was cool to see work by an artist who’s willing to really dig into this country’s psyche.

After hitting MOCA, my friend and I went next door to check out the Japanese American National Museum. We spent some time in the galleries that document the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. In a way, it was as though this show was the perfect follow up to the one we’d just seen. Both exhibitions make you think long and hard about this country, and some of the darker aspects of our history.

Then we decided to get some lunch. And this was the scene that caught my eye as we started walking down Central.

Man sleeping on Central Ave.

Man sleeping on Central Ave.

A man sleeping on the sidewalk, almost completely covered by an American flag blanket. An odd coincidence, given the shows we’d just seen, bringing up even more questions about where this country’s going.*

If you’re interested in taking a look at William Pope.L’s work, here’s the link for the show at MOCA.

Trinket

And if you haven’t seen the exhibition at the JANM, I urge you to make the trip down there. Even though the internment happened decades ago, the issues the show raises are absolutely relevant to what’s going on in this country now.

Japanese American National Museum

*
Later it occurred to me that the guy on the sidewalk might actually be a part of the show at MOCA. Even if that’s true, it’s a cool way to bring art out of the gallery and into the street.

Why Do We Have So Many Homeless?

A tent settlement in Downtown LA

A tent settlement in Downtown LA

By now it’s clear to anyone who’s paying attention that the homeless population in LA is growing. Not only is Skid Row more crowded than ever, but we’re seeing people living on the streets in communities all over the county. Burbank is a relatively affluent city, and forty years ago it was unusual to see a homeless person on the street. Now it’s a common sight.

So the article in today’s LA Times about the rise in the homeless population doesn’t come as a big surprise. The number of people living on the streets in LA County has risen 12% since the last count was taken two years ago. The Times article was prompted by a report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). According to the report, one of the key factors driving people out into the streets is the lack of affordable housing.

The cost of housing in this city is too damn high. A recent study from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs found that LA is the most unaffordable rental market in the country. While the cost of housing in New York and San Francisco is sky-high, incomes are also significantly higher. Rental units may be cheaper in LA, but the average income is so much lower that it eats up a larger share of the tenant’s paycheck.

And here’s an interesting comment from Paul Ong, one of the authors of the UCLA study.

“During periods of increasing inequality, the burden has grown even more severe,” Ong said. “Vacancy rates have risen only slightly — even dipping at times when the housing burden has increased. And renters are paying more for the same quality housing, suggesting that neither market forces nor changing housing quality fully explain the increasing rents.”

So if market forces aren’t driving prices higher, what is? Could it be greed? Developers are falling all over themselves in the scramble to build high-end housing in this city. But there’s almost no interest in building affordable housing. In fact, we’ve lost thousands of affordable units in recent years. And because the interests of our Mayor and our City Council are so closely aligned with interests of the developers (campaign cash may be a factor), they’ve made no serious attempt to reverse the trend. The fact that the number of homeless has risen by 12% shows that the City’s meager efforts to create affordable housing are not nearly enough.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the Times article, a link is below. I’m also including the report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. And if you aren’t totally depressed after reading the first two, there’s a link to a press release that summarizes the findings of the UCLA study.

Homelessness up 12%

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

LA Most Unaffordable Rental Market in the Nation

So if you read all this stuff, and feel like you’d like to do something about it, this final link will take you to the Skid Row Housing Trust. These are good people doing good work. They deserve your support.

Skid Row Housing Trust

Putting Lives Back Together

SRHT Main All

LA is suffering from an affordable housing crisis, but there is some good news to celebrate. Thanks to the efforts of the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), formerly homeless people are getting a roof over their heads and a place in the community. The SRHT is using innovative approaches to creating housing in the Downtown area.

Homelessness is a complex problem. It’s not just a matter of giving someone a place to live, because people living on the streets are often struggling with a variety of issues. In the first place, finding a job, which can be tough if you don’t have skills that are currently in demand. Depression, mental illness and substance abuse are also common problems, and these are not solved simply by giving someone the keys to an apartment.

But having a place to live is the first step. And the SRHT offers assistance to people grappling with other issues by creating permanent supportive housing. This means that the residents living in these communities have access to counseling, job training, health care and other services in order to get their life back on track.

The SRHT has been working on two new projects in Downtown. First, let’s take a look at the Star Apartments….

SRHT Star Frnt

The Star Apartments are located near the corner of Sixth and Wall. The project was designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, and they used an interesting approach. The site was occupied by a one-story building, which they wanted to expand to create more units. The solution they hit on was stacking pre-fab cubes on top of the original structure, which in addition to being fast and economical, resulted in a striking piece of design.

SRHT Star Sky 1

You can read more on Maltzan’s web site.

Star Apartments

Next, check out the New Pershing Apartments at Fifth and Main. This project actually combines two structures, the Pershing Hotel and the Roma Hotel, built in 1889 and 1905, respectively. The new design, by Killefer Flammang Architects, preserves original elements of the exterior. In addition to the residential units, the New Pershing will also offer a courtyard, two recreation decks and planters for gardening.

First let’s look at a couple of shots taken while the project was under construction, back in October of 2014. The first was taken from the corner of Fifth and Main.

SRHT Main Const 1

This next photo was taken on Main, directly across from the building.

SRHT Main Const 2

Now let’s look at the finished project.

SRHT Main Frnt

And another shot from Fifth and Main.

SRHT Main Full

Here’s the article that the Downtown News ran on the New Pershing earlier this month.

A Victorian Victory

You can find more information about the SRHT’s activities by visiting their web page. And if you want to support their efforts, I’m sure a donation would be welcome.

Skid Row Housing Trust