Measure H funding shouldn’t support homeless sweeps in Venice

By Pia Guerrero

The author is a resident of Marina del Rey and an MSW candidate at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

There are 57,794 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County on any given day, according to this year’s countywide homeless count. That’s more than a capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium.

In the city of Los Angeles, where 34,189 are homeless, there are more homeless military veterans, homeless youth and chronically homeless (on the streets for more than a year) than anywhere else in America, including New York City.

As an MSW candidate, I plan to work on the frontlines to help the homeless connect with services. It’s an issue that hits close to home as I see more and more people in my neighborhood sleeping in cars, tents and on sidewalks.

Homeless people need housing, but they also need to be treated with some compassion while they are on the streets. Instead, we have city “sweeps” to dispose of homeless people’s belongings.

A few Fridays ago on the Venice Boardwalk, I watched three police officers and a sanitation worker load a homeless woman’s belongings into a sanitation truck in less than 10 minutes. She pleaded with them to let her go through her things before they threw them away, but they just ignored her.

Under current law, authorities are allowed to dispose of homeless people’s belongings in this way as long as they don’t throw away medications and important documents. But during the sweep I witnessed, the woman wasn’t even allowed to go near her property.

While it is legal for homeless people to sleep on public sidewalks overnight, they must take down their tents between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., unless the temperature falls below 50 degrees. Walkers, crutches and wheelchairs are exempt, thankfully.

With 24 hours’ notice the city can also impound a homeless person’s “excess personal property,” which means anything that doesn’t fit into a 60-gallon recycling container with the lid closed. Those who don’t comply can be cited or arrested on a misdemeanor charge — draconian measures that put the down-and-out at higher risk of getting an arrest record, which makes it even harder for them to find housing or employment.

Those who are homeless need housing and jobs, not systemic criminalization. However, even voter-approved funding to help the homeless will continue that harmful status quo.

The passage of L.A. County Measure H sales tax increase this spring will soon bring $355 million per year to the table for supportive homeless services, much of it to help homeless people successfully transition into some 10,000 new affordable housing units the city of L.A. plans to build with its $1.2 billion Proposition HHH bond.

There are many people who want to help the homeless, just as long as this new housing — and its currently homeless future tenants — is located somewhere other than their own neighborhood. These so-called NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) cite fears about safety and health. What they fail to take into account is that these homeless people and any related risk factors are already in their backyards, and that housing and services decrease any potential dangers the homeless pose.

While it’s true that no single affordable housing project — or all 10,000 new units, for that matter — will be enough to house all of the homeless, we really do have to start somewhere and these resources have the power to reverse L.A.’s homelessness epidemic. We can’t expect the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents to go without help or hope much longer.

But Measure H funding, as county leaders intend to spend it, would continue to fund not only street outreach but sweeps by local law enforcement and sanitation workers — replaying ugly scenes like the one I witnessed on the Venice Boardwalk.

Instead, Measure H should fund lockers so the homeless can secure what few belongings they have in this world rather than be forced to watch the city haul it off to a landfill.

What the homeless need from government agencies and nonprofits are expanded mobile shower services, drug counseling, mental health services and transitional housing opportunities; what the homeless need most from residents are patience, compassion and action. Call your L.A. City Council and L.A. County Board of Supervisors members and tell them not
to allocate Measure H funds to programs that criminalize the homeless.

How can we claim to be a civilized society if we make it illegal to be vulnerable?

Call L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s district office at (310) 231-1170, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s district office at (310) 222-3015, and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s district office at (310) 568-8772.