Recent moves by L.A. officials to address the homeless crisis reek of desperation

The political class is lost, and that means more pain is on the way for residents and homeless alike

DWP water fountains and once-a-week shower facilities for the homeless may be the beginning of a stealth effort by city officials to normalize street living. Photo by Christopher LeGras

The beginning of the end of the Garcetti Era in Los Angeles may be a portable toilet. Angelenos have known that a reckoning was coming to our city’s homeless crisis, that things cannot continue on their current trajectory. We didn’t, however, expect one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse to arrive in the form of a humble, temporary commode. What fate lacks in a sense of humor it more than makes up for with symbolism.

On or around August 19 a work crew from a city contractor called Bali Construction, Inc. began cutting into the sidewalk and pavement on the northwest corner of Venice Boulevard and Globe Avenue in Mar Vista, the start of a two-week DWP project in which the crew will install underground connections for a portable shower that the city will bring in once a week to serve the people who live in a nearby homeless encampment beneath the 405 overpass. The camp already has become a flashpoint in the city’s spiraling homeless crisis. It’s a known location for drug deals and prostitution. Vandalism and other petty crimes are commonplace, and it goes without saying that the site is a public health menace. In February a man was shot in a drive-by.

Yet rather than clean up the camp and remove the accumulated detritus, L.A. city officials are moving to make it permanent. It’s just one example of how the city’s political class is starting to normalize street living. It doesn’t seem to matter that their abject failure to get a handle on the crisis already has pushed neighbors and business owners in the area to the breaking point. They’re pushing even harder.

Part of the new desperation? A work crew works on underground infrastructure for a homeless shower in Mar Vista. Photograph by Christopher LeGras.

The DWP project is no small undertaking: The crew have to cut through the asphalt and concrete then dig approximately eight to ten feet underground to access the city water and sewage mains. They’ll then tap new valves into each, lay the necessary pipes for fresh water and wastewater, then seal the whole site back up and repave the sidewalk and street. The cost is unknown, but according to people familiar with similar projects it easily could exceed $500,000 (The All Aspect Report has submitted records requests to DWP related to the cost).

The new desperation

Officials are overwhelmed. Whether they lack the capacity, the courage, or both the city’s political class resembles a group of blindfolded children swinging at a pinata, desperately hoping to at least make contact. In the process they spin, spin, spin.

Think of the Mar Vista homeless shower as a manifestation of the new desperation. L.A. spent more than $600 million on homelessness last year only to see the population spike by 16%, to more than 36,000. That’s the official number, anyway. Even Mayor Garcetti – not otherwise noted for his vice-like grip on reality – has quietly acknowledged the official numbers are the “tip of the iceberg.” There are likely closer to 100,000 homeless people in the city, with nearly a million more who will experience some degree of housing insecurity in the course of a year. Speaking of icebergs, calling the official response insufficient is like calling the Titanic disaster a mishap.

These overwhelmed officials are starting to panic. Earlier this year, CD11 councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Mar Vista, was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying, “I can’t accept the idea that there is an inextricable link between crime and homelessness. It is wrong, it is not backed up by the data, and it leads to bad policy.” This kind of denial in the face of overwhelming evidence should send chills down every Angelenos’ spine. It takes ten seconds on Google to disprove Bonin’s assertion, with stories from last year and this year consistently reporting massive increases in crime connected with vagrancy. The victims are often homeless people themselves, such as a man who was burned to death in his tent on Skid Row just last night. And again, those are just the incidents that get reported.

Bonin isn’t alone. Mayor Garcetti, who should be running around with his hair on fire, instead delivers anodyne speeches and interviews in which he refers to the need to help our “homeless brothers and sisters.” As if the violent addicts roaming the streets at night just need a little TLC to get back on their feet, maybe a hug and a shower. The lack of urgency is all the more shocking given that Garcetti can look out his office window (where he spends more time since announcing he wouldn’t be joining the clown car known as the Democratic primary) and see the carnage every single day.

To be sure, there’s a superficial flurry of activity, a benighted sturm und drang, signifying nothing. LAHSA and the mayor’s office spew statistics like glitter from confetti guns. Every few months there’s a new initiative, an Office for Homelessness Initiatives here, a multimillion dollar state of the art Unified Homeless Response Center there. The plans inevitably fizzle.

Normalizing street living

If you can’t solve a problem, enable it. At least that seems to be the approach officials in L.A. have adopted. They increasingly seem to be attempting to normalize homelessness and street living. The water fountain and shower on Venice Boulevard are far from unique. For the last several years the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power has quietly installed temporary water fountains near homeless encampments around the city in tihe summertime. In July 2016 DWP installed seven fountains on Skid Row to provide homeless people with drinking water for about a week during a heat wave.

It was, of course, billed as a temporary measure. They are all temporary measures. When an elected or appointed official in L.A. says something is temporary, or a pilot, or a test, there’s an easy translation: They’re slowly normalizing something that would otherwise seem outrageously unacceptable if done to scale. They’ve taken the same approach with bike lanes: So-called “road diets” are wreaking havoc with traffic around the city. Virtually every one of them is billed initially as a “pilot,” with officials promising to listen to community feedback before determining whether to make it permanent. Which is, of course, a bald-faced lie. The showers and drinking fountains likely are just the start of a new wave of facilities that will make it easier to live on the street.

And sure enough, this year the number of DWP water fountains is up to 21. What’s more, according to a July 16 tweet from Mayor Garcetti, six are slated to become permanent. This is how it starts. No grandiose announcements, no blue ribbon commission, no Office of Homeless Initiatives, no Unified Homelessness Response Center (yes, the City really built one of those – it resembles the world’s saddest police command center). It starts innocuously, almost benignly. A water fountain here, a shower there. A few locals may speak out, but they’re easily dismissed as NIMBYs.

You can almost see the workers deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, gazing at their CAD terminals as they point and click locations where they think toilets and showers and water fountains ought to go. A generation raised on SimCity is getting its chance to play the game for real, experimenting on tens of thousands of poor people.

Creating a new class of semi-homeless

Without sufficient housing, without the money to build enough units of supportive housing at $700,000 apiece, it’s easy to imagine the emergency of an entirely new class of dependent Californians: The semi-homeless. They’ll live in tents and lean-to’s and caves and bunkers like they do today. Only the city will provide access to basic necessities like water, toilets, and showers.

Officials are quite literally laying the groundwork for a category of human existence that hasn’t been seen in this country outside a few years during the Great Depression. Tent cities and permanent encampments have become L.A.’s version – Eric Garcetti’s version – of Hoovervilles.

This is the emerging new normal in Los Angeles, the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in human history. Officials constantly seek more money for the crisis but the reality is all the money in the world won’t help.

L.A. is dying, or, more accurately, the political class is killing it.

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