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Tue, May

Unveiling the Reality: Hollywood 4WRD's Comprehensive Critique of LA's Homelessness Crisis

LOS ANGELES

iAUDIT! - If you want a concise, accurate, and detailed overview of how Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis has developed, I cannot recommend a better source than a report titled “Frequently Asked Questions About Homelessness in Hollywood” written by the leaders of a local non-profit called Hollywood 4WRD. On its website, Hollywood 4WRD describes itself as “a coalition driven to create systemic change to effectively address homelessness in Hollywood through advocacy, education, service coordination, and innovation. Hollywood 4WRD serves as a highly effective link between a wide range of community stakeholders; with a unique position as the trusted intermediary for everyone working to prevent and end homelessness in Greater Hollywood”. The report is 108 pages long but formatted to make finding specific information easy and quick. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the complex issue of homelessness in Los Angeles. It is also proof that not all non-profit homelessness agencies are corporate bureaucracies more interested in making money than in serving the unhoused. 

The report covers more issues than I can summarize in a single column, but it provides detailed discussions of the legal and administrative matters surrounding homelessness, plus descriptions of various types of shelters and housing, as well as a journey through the oft-byzantine process of getting people off the streets and into the proper living situation. It is a superb critique of how politics and poor management have combined to make homelessness a largely self-created crisis. Hollywood 4WRD works at the epicenter of the crisis; thousands of people flock to the area in search of stardom or freedom from social norms. Many who fail to fulfill their dreams wind up on the streets. According to the report, the incidence of mental illness and substance abuse among Hollywood’s unhoused is much higher than the average. Rents are also higher than other areas, so it’s more difficult for people on the financial edge to find affordable housing. To further exacerbate an already precarious environment, Hollywood is represented by Lyndsey Horvath on the County Board of Supervisors, and Hugo Soto-Martinez on the City Council; they form a dynamic duo of denialism when it comes to homelessness interventions.  Both were quick to support LAHSA’s error-filled report on LAMC 41.18, the city’s anticamping ordinance. Neither is willing to advocate for residents plagued by expanding encampments,  nor do they discuss the crime and public health hazards that accompany them.  Both seem to think it’s better to leave people on the street until “proper” housing is built for them.  Hollywood 4WRD supports construction of more affordable housing, but also recognizes housing alone is not the answer for the many homeless people suffering from untreated mental illness and substance abuse. 

Some of the most important points made in the report include: 

  • The City has broadly interpreted court decisions regarding camping and storing property on public property to the point where clearing encampments is a complex, time-consuming and expensive process (pp. 47-48). LAMC 56.11, the ordinance prohibiting “excess personal property”  is largely unenforced because the City retains the property for 90 days before disposing of it. Many homeless people, especially those with mental health issues, engage in hoarding behaviors, and they can accumulate an astonishing number of items, including trash. Neither the LAPD nor LASAN have the resources to enforce the prohibition on storing items expect in areas designated for 41.18 clearings or CARE+ encampment cleanings, and then only after laborious and expensive outreach efforts. 

Municipal code 56.11 contains a provision preventing storage that creates an ADA violation (e.g. a three-foot clearance on sidewalks), but this, too, is rarely enforced outside other cleanup efforts.  By linking excess property storage to clean-up programs, the City has created a situation where residents are forced to navigate around mounds of trash and other “property” , often by walking in the street, where they are in danger of being hit by vehicles.  Hollywood is especially affected by non-enforcement of 56.11 since Councilmember Soto-Martinez refuses to designate 41.18 zones in his district. 

  • The report provides descriptions of the three main types of encampment site cleaning/clearing programs (language provided by the CD-13 office):

Spot Cleaning is akin to services we all receive at our homes and apartments on a weekly basis, and may involve collecting trash adjacent to encampments. 

CARE (Cleaning and Rapid Engagement) is our mid-level cleaning that includes homeless outreach and a more in-depth clean of the area. 

CARE+ is our deep clean―which includes homeless outreach, power washing, and removal of flammable items, health risks, and other bulky or dangerous items 

The report makes it clear the nature of encampment cleaning and clearings are very much at the discretion of each Council member.  Mr. Soto-Martinez’s strategy—such as it is—is described on page 55: 

We provide LASAN and encampment residents with at least 2 weeks’ notice to prepare for a cleanup. 

We do not seek to remove encampments when assigning and conducting Spot Cleaning, CARE, or CARE+ operations. We do seek to find solutions for encampments through housing, services, and special programs like Inside Safe. Cleanups are not intended to deal with crime or other public safety issues besides sanitary concerns. Instead, for concerns related to gang activity and crime, we utilize violence/gang prevention groups, drug addiction services, and when necessary, law enforcement to address these concerns. 

In other words, it is Mr. Soto-Martinez’s policy that an encampment may be cleaned (at taxpayer expense) indefinitely but will only be cleared if its occupants have been offered and accepted shelter or housing. LAMC 41.18, the anti-camping ordinance, isn’t mentioned because Mr. Soto-Martinez doesn’t like it. Encampments can exist and grow next to a school or other sensitive location unless and until all their residents agree to be relocated. 

  • The voluntary nature of homeless interventions in Los Angeles is a critical weakness. The County Department of Public Health estimates 95 percent of people with substance abuse problems don’t want treatment.  About 50 percent of people with untreated mental illness don’t recognize they have a problem, a condition known as Anosognosia, (p. 22) or denial of a mental deficit. Even the new CARE Court process is based on voluntary participation (pp. 25-27).  Enrolling someone in the CARE system is so complex, only 15 conservatorship petitions were filed within two weeks in the seven counties that opened their programs in late 2023. L.A. County seems overly optimistic about its participation rates, estimating its enrollments at 4,500 in the first year.  Even if the County reached its participation goals, it’s doubtful it could provide the needed services to every client, since its provision of support to current clients reflects a “woeful shortage of such supportive services”. (p. 22). 

The most significant thing about Hollywood 4WRD’s report isn’t its content, since there have been many other articles, studies, and columns about LA’s inadequate homelessness response.  Rather, it is that the report comes from an organization providing services on the ground, in the real world.  The report is free from the spin and meaningless rhetoric we usually see from the City, County, and LAHSA. There are no claims of program success based on skewed numbers (the report mentions the limitations of LAHSA’s Homeless Management Information System-HMIS-and how it does not share common information across all agencies). 

The report also paints a vivid picture of a City (and County) trapped by their own failures. LA has created a vicious circle of self-defeating policies: it won’t enforce existing laws unless it can offer proper shelter for encampment dwellers, but it doesn’t have the resources to offer shelter for most of them and wouldn’t force them to move if it did. Even if enough shelter beds were available, support and restorative services simply don’t exist at anywhere near required levels. 

Hollywood 4WRD’s report offers a realistic assessment of the state of LA’s homelessness programs. It takes neither a strict Housing First position, nor one that would make the unhoused fare for themselves. It is balanced, factual, and based on reality.  If you want a report that won’t waste your time on spin and political posturing, read this one. 

(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.)

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