MY AUDIT - When I was a contract manager, I learned the concept of risk transfer. My city contracted some services because we could transfer the risk from the city to the contractor. If a tree trimming contractor improperly trims a street tree, and a limb falls on a car, the contractor is liable for the damages. Cities also save on human resources costs like managing retirement and benefit programs. As part of a properly managed contract, risk transfer can save taxpayers thousands of dollars.
As with most programs, risk transfer has a dark side as well. It can be used to avoid responsibility and force residents to navigate a labyrinth of procedures if they have a complaint or request service. In Los Angeles’ case, the city has been able to transfer the consequences of its poor homeless policy choices from itself to its citizens. When the COVID pandemic struck, City leaders made a conscious decision to suspend enforcement of many ordinances in the name of public health. RV owners were allowed to indefinitely park where they chose. Renters could suspend payments and allow as many people as possible to live with them. Tent encampments proliferated because the city thought they were less likely to spread the infection than congregant shelters.
None of these decisions would have been a problem in and of themselves, except City leaders forgot a basic premise of politics; once you allow a behavior to entrench itself in the public psyche, its almost impossible to roll it back. This is especially true with something as divisive and politically sensitive as homelessness, where advocates driven by ideology instead of reality control the narrative. Permission to temporarily park an RV on the street becomes a right, to be zealously guarded. Encampments become “communities”, so clearing them is equated with driving people out of their homes. By abdicating its obligation to maintain and enforce equitable societal norms, local government has transferred the consequences of its decisions to the city’s residents, leaving them to deal with the results.
A few weeks ago, a local news station interviewed a woman who had been trying for weeks to have an RV parked on her street removed. The RV occupied precious parking on the crowded street, and regularly emptied its waste into the storm drain system. She called her local Council member and multiple city departments and was told she needed to collect signatures from a majority of homeowners on her street, then submit a petition to the Council office to have the RV removed. The Council member would then submit a resolution for approval, which would then trigger weeks of “outreach” to encourage the RV’s owner to move. Even with a petition, removing the RV was not guaranteed. The woman said she felt the city was trying to wear citizens down by throwing up one roadblock after another.
Likewise, residents have often found the only way to get an encampment cleared is by having many people submit requests to city departments and their Council offices. Response is purely reactive, dependent on the level of citizens’ dissatisfaction with a given camp before acting.
Cities have also transferred the costs of public safety to private citizens and businesses. A recent Westside Current article quoted a Santa Monica business owner saying “…we have had to spend 100k a year to hire a private security guard at Blue Plate [T]aco as our staff can no longer deal with the daily interactions and disruptions of this problem”. All over L.A., in supermarkets, discount stores and restaurants, you can find private security guards protecting businesses from a crisis created by public policies. Nobody knows the cost of guards and other security measures, but it is easily in the millions. In an attempt to lure shoppers back to its decimated Promenade, the Santa Monica Business Improvement District recently voted to spend $1.7 million on a contract for armed and unarmed security guards.
Things can take a far more ominous turn when cities transfer public safety issues to their citizens. Another Westside Current article reported on a homeless person attacking a small dog. Besides kicking the dog so hard it was critically injured, the assailant was accused of hitting a victim over the head with a glass bottle. Residents were forced to act in lieu of law enforcement; according to the article, "Multiple witnesses chased the suspect down and held him until police arrived and took him into custody," [SMPD Officer] Madison said. As of the date of the article—June 18—the costs of the dog’s veterinary treatment were nearly $12,000. This was not an isolated or anecdotal incident. A week rarely goes by without the media reporting an attack or violent incident attributed to a homeless person.
Even more mundane activities have fallen victim to the transfer of the consequences of homelessness to residents. Riders gamble with their safety when they board a Metro bus or train. Shoppers adjust their store choices based on the risk of encountering a disturbed homeless person. Drivers are deprived of the full use of all traffic lanes when encampments spill into the street. Walkers, runners, and bikers alter their routes to avoid tents blocking their paths.
Local governments have also transferred their advocacy responsibilities to the general public. Recently, a staff person for a local elected official told me they realize Housing First doesn’t work for most unhoused people, but HUD and the State won’t fund any other program model. Rather than use the power of the office to advocate for more flexible funding, they simply use the same failed process so they can maintain their funding. Abdication of the moral responsibility of their positions aside, our elected officials have a peremptory duty to advocate for the most effective solutions. By just “following the money”, local governments have left individual citizens to clamor for change, and their voices often go unheeded by civic leadership in the thrall of the No Barrier Housing First lobby.
Local governments have done more than transfer advocacy to citizens; indeed, they have ignored their duty to create meaningful strategic plans for a regional response to homelessness. The City Council’s self-serving agreement to house at least 60 percent of each District’s homeless within that district defies reality and has pitted communities against one another. The 60 percent plan ignores the reality that some districts have far more capacity for shelters and housing than others. Rather than creating a coherent regional plan, Council members abrogated their responsibilities by pitting one community against another, as each seeks to foist the burden of poorly managed shelters on the other. The internecine war of words among neighborhood councils, such as that playing out between the Venice and Westchester Neighborhood Councils, is just one example of how successfully the City Council has ignored its duty to lead the community as a whole.
The most frustrating aspect of the transfer of responsibility from cities to individuals is that we have a legitimate expectation that cities should meet their legal and civil obligations. There are already ordinances and laws prohibiting blocking the public right-of-way, yet the Council insists on piling on new ordinances that achieve nothing but complicate taking meaningful action. Cities should be on the front lines of preventing pollution from derelict vehicles. Public safety agencies should be able to proactively prevent crime. Residents should be able to shop, walk, bike and drive where they choose. As this article in the All Aspect Report describes, by transferring the homeless crisis from themselves to residents, city and county agencies have created a Wild West mindset in many communities. Encampments are fertile ground for gang-controlled drug sales, human trafficking, and astronomical personal and property crime rates. Homeowners and merchants feel abandoned by their government, and either move, close, or hire private security to make staying in their communities tolerable. Worst of all, the unhoused suffer most; within the past several months, the nightly average of deaths among the unsheltered has increased from five to six. Nowhere in this situation does local government play any role, except to insist continuing the status quo will somehow lead to improvement.
In this environment, the only way we can affect change is by forming community-based coalitions to bring reasonable and realistic people together, and begin with our local elected officials, telling them the status quo is intolerable and must change. We must demand this crisis be transferred back to those who are supposed to be leading us towards a solution and hold them accountable when they fail to meet their obligations.
(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program. He focuses on outcomes instead of process. Tim is a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)