We’re back on the record, starting with mental illness and drug abuse in encampments

By Joe Piasecki

Bonin says encampment sweeps have been “ineffective and counterproductive”
Photo by Maria Martin

The Argonaut’s extended interview of Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin about the homeless crisis continues this week amid some new revelations.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published its own analysis of Homeless Count data and a UCLA study suggesting that more than two-thirds of L.A.’s homeless struggle with mental illness and/or substance abuse — that’s more than double the 29% figure reported by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which relied on a much stricter definition for reporting. Nonetheless, the discrepancy appears to confirm what many who live in Venice, Mar Vista and other neighborhoods greatly impacted by homelessness have already seen with their own eyes: public health and safety issues among homeless encampments are much more severe than the powers that be have been willing to admit. Bonin answered two questions about the LA Times and UCLA studies on Monday afternoon; the other questions pick up where last week’s conversation left off. Spoiler alert: Since county (and not city) officials are tasked with social services delivery, Bonin does not waiver in his belief that the city’s primary strategy to remedy homelessness should be housing creation.

Housing creation — specifically permanent supportive housing funded by the $1.2-billion Proposition HHH bond approved by voters in November 2016 — fell under the microscope of a Los Angeles City Controller’s Office audit on Tuesday. In short, the findings support existing criticisms (including this newspaper’s) that Prop HHH-funded housing has been too expensive and too slow to materialize. Bonin said last week that he hopes to shift city housing creation efforts to quicker, less expensive strategies such as shared housing. The Argonaut will dive into details of the audit in future coverage.

The Argonaut: If rates of mental illness and substance abuse among L.A.’s homeless exceed two-thirds or more as LA Times and UCLA studies have concluded, how does this change your perspective and how should it change the city’s strategies?

Mike Bonin: Monday’s Times story was about a lot of things. They reported numbers much higher than LAHSA [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] did about mental health and substance abuse issues among the homeless population, and that understandably is getting a lot of attention. And it strengthens the case for more mental health care programs and facilities and for aggressive drug abuse treatment and prevention for people who are homeless and people who are at risk of becoming homeless.

But since all of those services are primarily a function of the county and the state — the entities that provide health care and social services — the story doesn’t really change the city’s main strategy. The city remains focused on trying to provide sufficient housing and shelter. Cities can provide the physical infrastructure, and the county provides the services. So it means at the city level that we need to keep doing what I’ve been pushing, which is finding more ways and faster ways to get people off the streets and into housing or shelter.

I also think it reinforces the push I’ve been making to overhaul how we deal with encampments. Our outreach needs to be much more focused on providing services at and to the encampments to help people get healthier.

Now, some people are going to read the LA Times headline and they’re going to argue against additional housing. But if you read the whole story and the accompanying research and the UCLA study, the data actually argues pretty strongly for housing. It shows that homeless causes addiction and health issues just like health issues and addiction cause homelessness. And I hope it’s pretty clear to people that it’s a hell of a lot easier to get sober or get treatment for a physical or mental illness when you have a roof over your head than it is if you’re sleeping on the sidewalk.

What would you tell residents of Venice and Mar Vista who feel like they’ve been lied to and ignored about the degree of mental health and substance abuse among encampments? 

If people read the story and were pissed, I don’t blame them. I was livid when I read the story. I’ve been pretty critical of LAHSA lately and the story started my day giving me a hell of a lot of fuel for that sentiment, because I have repeated and relied on the LAHSA data. But as I drilled down and read the story carefully and read the study, the story wasn’t quite as revelatory as the headline made it sound. It took three different sets of data all using different methodologies … and each set had a different definition of mental illness and substance abuse. LAHSA used a very narrow, federally mandated definition of “serious mental health issues,” but the Times used a really broad definition that counted as suffering from a mental health issue anyone who had ever been diagnosed as having depression. That’s a lot of people, including me. … Ultimately I suspect that the more accurate number of how many people need acute and immediate mental health treatment or drug rehab services is probably somewhere between LAHSA’s tight definition and the Times’ broad definition. What we need to be clear on is the percentage of people suffering from drug abuse or mental health issues doesn’t change or reduce our need for housing as a solution for homelessness.

City Controller Ron Galperin’s audit of the LAHSA contract with the city found some pretty major deficiencies. What were your big takeaways from his report?

The controller’s audit looked at one contract with the city — there are several — and what he found actually reaffirmed a lot of things that I have believed in and have been saying. One is that we need more housing. LAHSA is identifying people, is doing outreach, and then they don’t have a place to put them. LAHSA told me the other night that they have identified 30,000 people — 30,000 people who are homeless in Los Angeles County — who are willing to accept a placement and we don’t have a place to give them.

The second thing was that the city’s current policy of sweeping encampments and treating them like trash, instead of being proactive and treating it like a public health issue, is ineffective and counterproductive. What the controller’s audit pointed out is that those sweeps that the city has been doing — we’re blowing $30 million or $40 million a year and doing nothing — are actually creating an obstacle to people being housed. … We need to be focusing more on the aggressive social service outreach — not 9-to-5 Monday through Friday, but 24/7 — to get people out of encampments and into services. When you send in a sanitation truck suddenly and without warning, with a bunch of police officers, that disrupts the whole process.

You were once homeless. How does that experience inform your perspective?

I think I have four different key experiences in my life that shaped my attitude towards this and every other issue. One was my time sort of on the cusp of homelessness. The other was getting sober. Another was losing a lot of people close to me to cancer. And the fourth was becoming a dad.

From living on the edge of homelessness and living on the street for a few days a week —  I was on the beach a few nights, in my car a few nights, in fleabag motels a few nights. From that experience I developed a really deep appreciation for how fragile and broken we all are and how easy it is to fall down.

From my experience of getting sober from alcohol and drugs 24½ years ago, I developed an appreciation for the idea that big, unimaginable change is possible.

I’ve also lost my sister, my friend and predecessor, lots of friends, very young to cancer. A state senator, a state assemblyperson who represented this district died of cancer while in office. And it has really taught me that the only day I have to make a difference is today. I may not have tomorrow, so I have to be digging in today.

And being a dad, I’m constantly thinking about the future and what we’re leaving. … I’m constantly looking at the future and making a decision that short-term sacrifice, is worth the long-term gain if it pays off with a solution for the next generation. So from those four things I get a real sense of urgency and a real determination to make change. And when I wake up every morning that sense of urgency and that determination to make positive change is what pushes me through the day.

Gentrification and homelessness go hand in hand. The city has done much to support and encourage the rise of Silicon Beach — sales tax breaks, mayoral ribbon-cuttings in Playa Vista, Google hosting your first inauguration party — but what is it doing to keep people from being priced out of their homes?

One of the biggest contributors to homelessness is the cost of housing and housing instability, and there are a number of factors to that. There’s an insufficient supply of housing, which drives prices up. There is real estate speculation, which keeps units vacant. There’s the short-term rental industry, which has taken units off the rental market for everyday folks in Venice and other communities. And then there are landlords who are doing illegal evictions. One of the most scurrilous characters, I think, in Los Angeles is the owner of The Ellison apartments in Venice, who has repeatedly broken the law to do short term rentals there and who has [allegedly] harassed tenants out of there. There are a lot of situations like that.

I agree that the city, including me, has been slower than it should have to respond to gentrification. But our response, in part, is slow because you’re dealing with big systemic forces, and it takes a long time to make big systemic changes. There are a number of different things we’re trying to do. One is I am tightening up the Mello Act, which preserves and protects affordable housing in the Coastal Zone. I am working with some tenant activists to invoke a little known provision of the Ellis Act, which would dramatically slow down evictions on the Westside. I’m proposing that we impose a vacancy tax on units that are being held vacant by real estate speculators to put them back on the market. Short-term rental regulations. And I’m trying to promote, in the entire city, inclusionary zoning, which means that you have to build a certain percentage of affordable units no matter what you’re doing — just an absolute given, and not something that has to be fought over.

L.A.’s new short-term vacation rental rules take effect Nov. 1. Is the city prepared to enforce them?

The city better be ready to enforce it, because this is a situation that is causing real pain and real suffering. There are a lot of really good short-term rental houses — mom-and-pops, and they should be protected by the provisions of this. But we need to be cracking down on these rogue hotel operators who are costing us thousands of units of rental housing in the middle of the housing crisis.

I was disappointed the city didn’t kick into enforcement on July 1. And what I’m hearing now is that Airbnb and the short term rental industry are pushing really hard and lobbying up and lawyering up and trying to delay even further. And if they do that, I’m going to raise holy hell.

Metro is investing heavily in light rail, but ridership has been trending down and now the Expo Line is operating with fewer cars. What needs to happen for public transport to succeed?

A number of things need to happen, and I’ve been advocating for a number of them at Metro. Since I joined the board, I have really fashioned the role for myself as the voice of passengers and trying to change and improve the customer experience on rail and on the bus. The system is suffering from a couple different things. One is the service it is offering is not fast enough, reliable enough or convenient enough for people, and we need to change that. It’s also suffering from pretty vicious competition from Uber and Lyft, which are cannibalizing the mass transit system because people find it more convenient. And as a result, people are not using transit; they’re using Uber and Lyft and it’s putting more cars on the road during peak hours. It’s been very counterproductive. So the charge I’m pushing is: make the system more reliable and more convenient. And part of that means adding more cars back on the Expo Line, which is a poster child for people wanting to use the system. The Expo Line is very, very popular. It’s problem isn’t that it’s declining; it’s the problem is it’s too popular. We need to be adding service, not subtracting, and I’m demanding and pushing a Metro to reverse their decision.

The other thing we need is to make the workhorse and the backbone of the system more effective. We need to have more bus-only lanes. Buses need to be able to move more quickly and reliably. Because the Blue Line was shut down for a period of time in downtown Los Angeles, we had a bus-only lane on Flower Street in downtown and it moved 70 buses an hour. And the people who used to ride the train liked the bus better because it was more reliable and faster and more dependable. And if we offer people a good service, they will use it. And we have to, because the alternative is exponentially worse gridlock. If the only viable option people in Los Angeles have is a single-occupancy vehicle, we’re screwed. We’re all going to be stuck in gridlock forever.

We need to find ways that people will willingly choose as attractive alternatives to being in a car. Part of it, I think, is doing sharp fare reductions on the Metro. I would like to see us do certain days of the week that are free, and very steep discounts on prices to get folks onto the system. For the first time in a couple generations, Metro is at my urging doing a reevaluation of the entire bus system, changing where some of the lines go, how frequently they go. You know, Playa Vista didn’t exist when they designed or reevaluated the bus system last. We need to look at employment centers and travel patterns. And one of the things that I think is an imperative as part of that is expanding bus service — not just reshuffling the deck, but actually adding to the amount of lines and the frequency of service. If you provide it, they will ride it.

LAX recently broke ground on its new mobility hub. How will it benefit not just air travelers but local communities?

LAX as a whole is a huge emerging success story. My agenda coming into office was to make LAX into a world-class airport and a first-class neighbor. And at long last we are on the way to that. We have stopped the expansion of the north runway. We’re getting the Crenshaw and the Green lines connected to the airport. We’re building the people mover. We’ve approved a Northside Plan driven by the community that will create open space and park space and neighborhood-serving retail. And we’re creating a lot of good jobs in the process. One of the exciting things is that this will reduce pollution from the airport because there will be more ways to get there without taking a single-occupancy vehicle.

One of the things that really help in, in, in Westchester is the, uh, consolidated rental car service. Right now people drive around looking for wherever the hell Thrifty or Budget Rental Car is. Now there’s going to one very visible central location and instead of having three dozen shuttles all crowding into neighborhoods or the central terminal, there’ll be one.

What other success stories might be getting overshadowed by concerns about housing affordability and homelessness?

No. 1, public safety. Over the past two years we’ve added 600 new police officers to patrol by getting them reassigned from specialized duties. That’s 600 more cops in our neighborhoods or around the city. We have grown back and expanded the Los Angeles fire department. In my district alone we’ve added $63 million worth of LAFD resources. We’ve added resources in every community I represent. We have added two ambulances, one in Westchester and Mar Vista. We’ve added bike medics and nurse practitioners. It’s been a very big expansion of LAFD.

On transportation, I have launched Westside fast-forward initiative, which is providing an on-demand, low-cost neighborhood shuttle for a huge chunk of my district. We’ve done or are doing three or four dozen new traffic signals. We’re doing some game-changing mass transit plans, including the Sepulveda Line that will go from the Valley to LAX. And we’ve done a lot to improve pedestrian safety.

On the environment, we have been aggressively moving to 100% clean energy. We have said that we are shutting down some the gas power at Scattergood and going to clean energy. We are moving forward with recycling all of our wastewater out of Hyperion. We’re moving to 100% electric vehicles at Metro and LADOT by 2030.

And then on homelessness — we tend to hear about where the problem is and not so much wher where the solution is — we have funded 493 units of Prop HHH housing in my district. We are building two bridge housing facilities at the VA and in Venice. We have three safe parking lots, including at both of my offices. We’ve brought in mobile showers and mobile toilets. And we, the city, are actually funding homeless housing for veterans at the VA, because the federal government ain’t doing it.

Other big things: Landmark campaign finance reform, some of the most aggressive in the state. Grassroots candidates now we’ll get a six to one match. It is going to reinvigorate democracy in Los Angeles, and we’ve seen it happening in some of the special elections already. We’ve changed the way we do traffic mitigations on projects in Los Angeles. That’s going to mean you can go back and that you can go back and look at a project and if the traffic mitigations aren’t working, you can make the developer do more. We are updating the community plans in two thirds of my district, which fixes the broken development process — takes it out of the hand of lobbyists and puts it back in the hands of the people. And we’ve also assessed special traffic fees on developers so that we now have an ongoing and regular source dedicated exclusively for the Westside for traffic improvements.

So there’s a lot of good stuff happening that just doesn’t get in in the papers a lot.