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'Indelible mark of shame': L.A. pivots to clearing homeless camps amid Covid surge, housing crisis

“The policy of criminalizing homelessness has never worked,” a social service provider said. “We need more beds. We need more housing.”
Image: A person experiencing homelessness uses an awning from a business in the 14500 block of Victory Blvd. to keep her and her belongings dry from the rain in Van Nuys on Dec 27, 2021.
A homeless woman uses an awning from a business to keep herself and her belongings dry in the rain in Los Angeles on Dec. 27. Hans Gutknecht / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images file

LOS ANGELES — Montgomery Garnett clung to his incense, quietly attempting to convince Los Angeles police officers that he was breaking no law by sitting on the sidewalk. 

Every day he lights incense on the same corner in the heart of the Skid Row neighborhood, less than a mile from the trendy Japanese restaurants of Little Tokyo and the hip haunts of the Arts District. Across the street, a small dog barked as a woman yelled from her tent: “He needs housing!”

Garnett, a Marine Corps veteran who has lived in Skid Row for 17 years, said he lights incense as an offering to his homeless neighbors. 

“I pray for the people here,” he said. “There are a lot of people dying in these streets.”

Residents of Skid Row have long languished amid squalor and neglect as city officials grapple with housing the thousands of people experiencing homelessness. The crisis has only deepened over the years, moving beyond the borders of Skid Row and into gentrifying or affluent neighborhoods where tents clog sidewalks and unhoused people seek refuge in their cars.

Image: An aerial view of homeless encampments in Skid Row on Sept. 23, 2021 in Los Angeles.
An aerial view of homeless encampments in Skid Row in Los Angeles in September.Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

As the problem metastasizes, city officials have zeroed in on a new strategy to clear the unsightly encampments even as service providers warn there is not enough temporary or permanent housing for the region’s homeless population.

“The policy of criminalizing homelessness has never worked,” said Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs at The Midnight Mission, which offers emergency and social services to homeless people. “We need more beds. We need more housing.”

Over the summer, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an ordinance to prohibit people experiencing homelessness from sleeping in specific outdoor locations, including certain sidewalks and parks. The ordinance came with a promise to take a “trauma-informed approach,” such as offering temporary shelter and services to people in need.

Even before the council adopted the anti-camping ordinance, encampments were being cleared by law enforcement officials throughout the region.

Protests broke out in March when activists and housing advocates clashed with police attempting to clear tents and other belongings from a large encampment in Echo Park, a desirable neighborhood near downtown.

"It was the most militarized closure of an encampment I've ever witnessed," said Carter Hewgley, director of homeless initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, adding that he was chased from the site by police.

Activists and supporters of residents of a homeless encampment protest at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles on March 24.
Activists and supporters of residents of a homeless encampment protest at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles on March 24.Ringo Chiu / AFP via Getty Images file

Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva was repeatedly seen over the summer working alongside deputies to sweep encampments from the Venice Beach area, popular among tourists and wealthy residents.

“There has been a groundswell of public outrage but, frankly, when it was just primarily Black and brown people confined to Skid Row, nobody got too upset about that,” said John Maceri, CEO of The People Concern, a social service organization. “As we began to see street homelessness expand throughout the city and county in very large numbers, the public really started to pay attention.”

It’s not the first time city officials have focused on enforcement.

Throughout Los Angeles’ history, the city’s approach to tackling homelessness can be characterized as a “roller coaster,” he said.

In the 1970s, city planners deliberately pushed unhoused people further east into Skid Row and away from the business district under a plan known as the “containment strategy.” The idea was to give downtown businesses a boost by removing signs of blight.

In 1984, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dubbed Los Angeles County “the homeless capital of America,” ushering a new era of enforcement that empowered police and sanitation departments to clear camps, especially around downtown.

According to a January 2021 report by the University of California, Los Angeles, "throughout the 1980s officials failed to comprehend the breadth and depth of homelessness, or to truly consider what its resolution might require."

The enforcement approach continued into the 1990s and early 2000s, but homelessness remained.

City Council member Kevin de León says the current strategy is more nuanced than what was previously attempted.

“This is triage,” he said. “The only thing you can do with this issue is get people inside.”

Affordable housing has long been a challenge in California and most of Los Angeles, where typical home prices are upward of $900,000 as of this week, according to Zillow.

With this in mind, De León, whose district includes Skid Row, set the goal of adding 25,000 units of housing for those experiencing homelessness by 2025. In September, his office broke ground on a new project in the Eagle Rock neighborhood, which will provide 100 beds, adding to the 117 tiny homes already constructed in the nearby neighborhood of Highland Park. 

Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de León in a tiny home at the Arroyo Seco Tiny Home Village in Highland Park.
Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de León in a tiny home at the Arroyo Seco Tiny Home Village in Highland Park.Hans Gutknecht / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

De León was among the majority of council members who voted for the anti-camping ordinance in July and voted again last week to expand it. He recently ran afoul of activists from Street Watch Los Angeles, an advocacy group linked to a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, whom he accused of “bribing” unhoused people to remain on the streets.

Members of the group deny the claims, and said in an emailed statement that the new anti-camping zones near Skid Row are "today’s version of the same racist ‘banish, criminalize, contain’ strategy used for decades."

"Let’s be clear: these options are temporary and carceral, with no clear path to permanent housing on the horizon," the statement read in part.

Council member Mike Bonin, who voted against the anti-camping ordinance, worries the city’s current strategy is more of a "Band-Aid" than a tonic.

“The city is largely pivoting to solve the problem of encampments and not the problem of homelessness,” he said.

“It’s a strategy born of very palpable anger and frustration,” he added. “They’re motivated by a genuine concern for the public health crisis and concern for people living on the streets, but it doesn’t respond to the problem properly.”

Homelessness in Los Angeles has become endemic throughout the generations, becoming a familiar if embarrassing sight for the millions of people who call the region home. 

Fueled by an affordable housing shortage and the dismantling of social services, tents and encampments have proliferated across Los Angeles even as taxpayer-approved initiatives funnel money into new housing options.  

De León said Los Angeles residents have been “very generous” with their money by funding these measures, but “the city can do so much better.”

Nationwide, about 580,466 people were homeless in 2020, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than a quarter of them are in California, or about 161,548 people. Of those, nearly 64,000 live in Los Angeles County.

Ever day, shelters and organizations work to temporarily house people living on the streets, but every day more people fall into homelessness. On average, 207 people are rehoused daily in the county, but 227 people are pushed into homelessness, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an agency created by the city and the county.

“It’s our indelible mark of shame,” de León said.