Despite official promises and plans lawlessness remains the new normal in many neighborhoods
While public health orders have ten million Los Angeles County residents hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic, many of the region’s homeless – officially numbering nearly 60,000 in the county but in reality significantly more – are living as though nothing has changed. Encampments remain stubborn facts of life in virtually every community in the Southland, on sidewalks and in parks and public places closed to the general public. Homeless people socialize in close quarters and congregate in small and large groups, sharing cigarettes, food, drink, and drugs. Virtually none wear facial protection in accordance with the most recent orders.
In Venice Beach a group of homeless artists even put up a “permanent” art installation called The Tiki Bar where people have congregated over the last week (UPDATE 4/2/2020: The Sanitation Department removed the Tiki Bar. It will be kept in storage, as the department considers bulky items on sidewalks “not a health hazard” under the municipal code. The department left the remaining parts of the installation intact).
To be sure, the “homeless” are not a monolithic cohort, and people lose their housing all the time and for myriad reasons. Many are deserving of aid and assistance, and many do find it. But this surreal moment is a bona fide holiday for the criminals for whom homelessness is both cover and opportunity, as law enforcement has been ordered to stand down enforcement of all but the most serious crimes and to release thousands of “nonviolent” offenders early. Many L.A. communities were on edge even before the pandemic introduced this new level of risk, and Coronavirus has compounded people’s fear. Last week multiple Venice residents said that homeless people had “been walking up and down Paloma Avenue coughing loudly on all gates and screaming Corona.”
The All Aspect Report spent the last week documenting the situation in several communities around Los Angeles including Venice Beach, Santa Monica, downtown L.A., Hollywood, and Van Nuys. It was clear from the start that city officials are not enforcing stay at home orders against residents of shelters. There’s no enforcement of social distancing requirements in homeless encampments. In fact, from all appearances there’s no enforcement at all, at any level, of any aspect of the homeless crisis. As the pandemic cuts through Southern California, official failure puts everyone in danger, the unhoused themselves most of all.
The danger is no longer theoretical, and officials are running out of time. Last Monday, March 30 the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said two homeless people in L.A. have tested positive for coronavirus. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reported last week that an employee of Union Rescue Mission, the largest homeless services provider in Skid Row, had tested positive.
The Mission’s Executive Director, Rev. Andy Bales, said an entire floor of the nonprofit’s five story shelter is in quarantine. And also as of Monday 24 LAPD officers had tested positive, many from the Central Division whose beats include Skid Row. Given how many 911 calls are related to homelessness it’s possible they contracted the disease that way.
All of this before the virus peaks in California sometime in the next three weeks.
Staff at homeless shelters aren’t enforcing health orders, allowing residents to come and go at will
On February 23 the City of Los Angeles opened a homeless shelter known as “A Bridge Home” in Venice. Mayor Garcetti and the City Council have promoted these temporary shelters as essential to the city’s comprehensive homeless strategy. A total of 30 locations are planned with a dozen open already. The Venice facility, which sits on an old Metro bus repair yard, houses 100 adults and 54 young adults (18-23) in a combination of modular units and a sprung structure.
The shelter’s location in the middle of a residential neighborhood and one block from an elementary school prompted strong community opposition, culminating in a lawsuit that delayed the project by nearly three years. Residents expressed fears that the shelter would attract criminals and endanger the community. As previously reported by The All Aspect Report, their worst fears were coming true before the coronavirus emergency compounded the dangers.
To take one of many examples: In mid-March a Bridge shelter resident was sentenced to 180 days in county jail for threatening two women outside the facility (including a death threat to onoe) and smashing a half dozen cars. The man, known to shelter staff as a problem, was released after just 10 days as part of the county’s coronavirus-related incarceration downsizing. He was allowed to return to the shelter and was only removed by staff when a neighbor noticed he was back and called to complain. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Over the course of several days last week, constant flows of people were observed entering and exiting the shelter. They came and went singly, in pairs, and in small groups. Most used the main entrance, where a security guard let them in and out through the gate, coming into close and in many cases direct contact with everyone. She was not equipped with any protective gear and was not wearing gloves or a mask. She remained on duty and did not appear to wash or sanitize her hands. There also is a second gate farther down the block which some residents used to let people in and out on their own accord.
While Angelenos (a few scofflaws aside) restrict their movements to the “Essential Activities” defined in the state public heath department’s orders, in a single afternoont Venice Bridge residents walked the streets freely and interacted with people living in nearby encampments. They smoked cigarettes and cannabis and socialized in close quarters with each other and shelter staff. They engaged in black market transactions. There were physical altercations and shouting arguments. Suffice it to say no one engaged in social distancing.
An email to the executive director of Safe Place for Youth (SPY), the organization responsible for the shelter’s young adult (18-24) population, was not returned.
The scene was similar at the Bridge shelters at El Pueblo de Los Angeles downtown and on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood. At el Pueblo dozens of homeless people congregated in close proximity in the park and sidewalk near the shelter. As in Venice, shelter residents came and went at will. A pair of individuals walked across the street and into Union Station. Again there was no evidence of social distancing and no washing stations or other prophylactic measures. Also as in Venice there are hundreds of tents and temporary shelters on the sidewalks and overpasses around the shelter.
One of the core premises of the A Bridge Home program is that it targets local hardcore homeless and gets them off the street. Large encampments covered public spaces around all three of the observed shelters.
Officials promised that “A Bridge Home” shelters would reduce street living in communities. The Mayor’s website says, “As the new shelters open their doors, City Sanitation teams will work to restore spaces that were previously encampments into open and clear public spaces.” So far they appear to be having the opposite effect: Encampments are as sprawling as ever in public spaces immediately adjacent to all three Bridge shelters. People live in tents on a lawn directly adjacent the el Pueblo shelter, tents and campers occupy streets and sidewalks around the Hollywood site, and Venice Beach is virtually at war. If anything street living has increased in proximity to the “A Bridge Home” shelters and brought danger with it.
Officials are enforcing public safety orders against everyone but the homeless, endangering everyone
In a pattern that has become distressingly familiar to Angelenos, there are two sets of rules during the coronavirus emergency: One for the homeless population and one for everyone else.
Current emergency orders from the county and state health departments restrict people’s activities to things like grocery shopping, going to the doctor, pharmacy, or veterinarian, caring for relatives or vulnerable persons, and legally mandated activities. It strains credulity to believe that the scores of homeless people at the two Bridge shelters were engaged in these “Essential Activities” even part of the time. The shelters are open 24 hours a day, meaning people come and go at all hours.
Meanwhile, the city and county of Los Angeles shuttered public access to beaches and parks last week. Mayor Eric Garcetti admonished Angelenos, “Too many people, too close together, too often. The longer we do that, the more people will get sick, and the more people will die. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.” He’s threatened to cut off water and power to “nonessential businesses” that violate the city’s closure orders, and encouraged neighbors to report each other. “You know the old expression about snitches?” he said last Tuesday. “Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.”
Yet thousands of homeless people remain concentrated in parks and other public spaces, unmolested by the same authorities threatening everyone else with penalties and fines. The danger to them is palpable, while the danger to the general public grows by the day.
The city’s disjointed and inconsistent efforts endanger everyone, including city employees and contractors
Two weeks ago Mayor Garcetti announced the city would accelerate the “Pit Stop” program that provides temporary daytime (7a.m. to 7p.m.) porta-potties, hand washing stations, and drinking fountains at homeless encampments. Equipment is contracted with United Site Services and some (though far from all) of the sites are staffed by employees of a San Francisco nonprofit called Urban Alchemy. According to its website, the company employs former long-term felons and assists them on their path back into society.
Over the weekend UA employees at two sites on the westside described their responsibilities as part janitorial and part security. One said that in addition to keeping the units clean, “We make sure no one’s doing any funny stuff in there, doing drugs, sexual, anything like that.” They said they had received basic hygiene training and been told to practice social distancing. They were supplied with spray bottles, bleach, and paper towels. One of the workers had just come back from eating lunch in his car. “Takes an extra few minutes now, because I disinfect the whole interior every time I get out.”
All agreed that camp residents are grateful for the services, though one added, “A lot of people want to vent to us. Some are crazy, some just don’t have anyone else to talk to.” As if on cue, a woman walked up to the attendant and demanded to know why the city had closed the bathrooms and showers at the beach. “That’s the only place we got to go, and they’re shutting it down!” She yelled for several minutes as he tried to explain closing the bathrooms wasn’t in his control.
It was difficult not to wonder whether these employees are properly trained and equipped for the tasks they’re being paid $16.50 an hour to do. They are outside for the duration of their shift and are exposed to filthy environments. They wear rudimentary protective gear like standard surgical masks and latex gloves. One of the employees was visibly wearing her mask improperly, and the mask itself appeared to have been reused several times. As coronavirus makes its inevitable way through the homeless population these workers will be a new front line. They do not appear prepared.
United Site Services employees set up the Pit Stops each morning and pick them up in the evning. At the Third Avenue camp on Monday a single worker from United Site Services – who was aware he was being filmed – hauled two regular porta-potties, a handicap accessible porta-pottie, and a mobile sink onto a flatbed trailer, presumably either to be moved to another location or returned to a company facility. He wore no protective gear save for a pair of gloves and had only a standard size dolly to assist him.
He began by emptying liquid from one of the porta-potties onto the sidewalk. The liquid ran onto the street and toward the storm drain. It also immersed the wheels and platform of the dolly the worker was using, and he stepped through it repeatedly. Over the next 15 minutes he loaded the other structures onto the flatbed. He was in direct contact with the structures nearly at all times. Several times he struggled with the weight, rocking the porta-potties back and forth and at one point jumping onto the dolly to tilt a unit backward. Virtually his entire body came into contact with the plastic surfaces of the units. Scientists have determined coronavirus can remain on plastic for two to three days.
An email to United Site Services was not returned.
The city also has set up water fountains at homeless camps. The fountains, which are not tended by UA or other employees, quickly become filthy. Down the street from the Third Avenue Pit Stop a man brushed his teeth at a temporary fountain the Department of Water and Power had connected to a fire hydrant. He repeatedly spat into the sink, washed his hands and face, and touched virtually every surface of the fountain.
City homeless workers not observing social distancing
Even the city-county agency responsible for homeless services has been part of the problem. Members of the Facebook Group Fight Back Venice! captured video of LAHSA workers handing out water bottles and other supplies to homeless people at the Third Avenue encampment. Like the residents and workers at the Bridge facilities, the LAHSA workers did not observe social distancing and came into proximate and direct contact with homeless people. The workers were not wearing protective gear, though one man appeared to have a bandana tied around his face.
A similar video was posted from the boardwalk of homeless people lined up (again in close quarters) to receive bottles of water from a LAHSA worker. That worker was not wearing protective gear or gloves.
Some nonprofit and faith groups also are putting themselves in harm’s way. Two volunteers with an organization called Bread of Life spent Saturday morning handing out sandwiches and bottles of water to homeless people in Venice.
The problem is getting worse, not better
The dynamics of homelessness endanger the wider population as well. A decade ago the chronically unhoused, for better or worse, congregated in a few neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Skid Row in Los Angeles, and north Bakersfield. Things were bad but still manageable, particularly given the billions of dollars in homeless-related public spending.
That’s all changed. These days L.A.’s homeless population is diffused throughout the region, a translucent parallel population superimposed upon communities. Encampments have developed social orders and some even have rudimentary economies and self-government. As previously reported by City Journal‘s Chris Rufo and others, once autonomous encampments are becoming interconnected and even interdependent. Mass transit and the profusion of scooters, e-bikes, bike share, and other “micro-mobility” programs provide ample opportunity for people to move among camps. Bike and scooter chopshops are commonplace in encampments. Last summer a resident of a homeless camp in Lake Balboa told The All Aspect Report that people know where to go to get which drugs and where to barter for electronics, bicycles, clothing, food, even sexual favors
This mobility presents an urgent challenge to public health officials during the pandemic. As the virus’s spread approaches its apex in the southland homeless people will be among the hardest hit: They live already with risk factors like poor sanitation, close contact, substance abuse, preexisting conditions, and compromised immune systems. A study released last week by researchers at UCLA, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that as many as 1,200 homeless people might die of the virus in the L.A. area alone. Unhoused victims could overwhelm the county’s medical resources, yet another source of danger for themselves and the wider community.
Whittier represents a prime example of this new dynamic. As soon as the first coronavirus cases were identified last week on Skid Row those who could began to flee. According to Paul Ramirez, founder of Whittier Town Hall, “Unfortunately, [the homeless] are not following any CDC or Public Health guidelines. They are congregating, sharing sleep areas, tents and needles. Local [homeless] are actually welcoming new arrivals, coaching them on our watch habits and directing them to our parks and vacated buildings. On Monday I spoke to a local homeless man and appealed to him to self-isolate, to seek assistance from his family and to take the Covid-19 crisis seriously. His response, ‘FU – If I die, I die.'”
It is well past time for city and county leaders to treat the homeless crisis with the urgency it requires during the coronavirus pandemic. The anemic response to date, the slow-motion rollout, is no longer acceptable. The challenge is compounded by years of poor planning, waste, and fraud.
Angelenos are doing their part. It’s time for the political class to do theirs.