Los Angeles became ground zero for America’s homelessness crisis after President Donald Trump visited the city on Sept. 17.
“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump said. They’re ruining the “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings.”
While the Trump administration’s prioritization of highways and buildings over people is far from heartwarming, he does have a point in highlighting L.A. and its homeless problem — but not for the reasons he thinks.
As an expert in homelessness, I’ve studied the many ways Los Angeles has tried to deal with homelessness on its streets. While some plans have worked better than others, I believe the city’s efforts are instructive for policymakers across the country who want to tackle their own homeless problems.
Homelessness in L.A.
The United States’ homeless population is concentrated on the West Coast and in the Northeast, with almost half in California alone.
As a result, homeless encampments have cropped up in every part of the city. An increasing number of unsheltered homeless people in the U.S. — those who are on the streets as opposed to in temporary shelters — live in Los Angeles.
What hasn’t worked
Many of L.A.’s efforts to tackle the problem have actually followed Trump’s approach: Treat it as a nuisance and keep it out of sight and away from where people live and work.
In the early 2000s, L.A. officials tried an approach known as the Safer Cities Initiative with a focus on Skid Row, an area of downtown Los Angeles that contains the largest homeless population in the U.S. It was supposed to clean up crime and community disorder by promptly targeting minor crimes, such as jaywalking or littering.
In 2017, the city banned people from sleeping in their cars in residential areas and near schools and parks. And the city council has been debating limits on where people can sleep in the streets, without being able to come to any agreement.
The city has also tried to clear out encampments, which has resulted in homeless advocates filing lawsuits over the constitutionality of removing people’s belongings.
Exploring other options
Some of the city’s approaches, however, have focused more on addressing the root causes of homelessness and have the backing of research.
One such initiative known as the Coordinated Entry System has brought together the government, nonprofit groups and private citizens to create a database of homeless people that documents their progress in and out of services.
The initiative also helped match people with available housing resources. It is structured to prioritize the most vulnerable homeless people, such as those with multiple health conditions that may be fatal within a year without intervention.
From 2017 through 2018, homelessness decreased significantly in many areas that used this system.
Additionally, there has been an effort to inform policy decisions through data analysis by partnering with universities and to address conditions on the streets by working with encampments to provide shelter tied to permanent housing. Through a recent sales tax increase, Los Angeles area communities now have access to expanded outreach, housing and other resources.
As a result, there is capacity to reach more people experiencing homelessness. New regulations provide incentives to encourage developers to build more affordable housing units, and the city plans to put multiple housing units on the market over the next few years. Units will include homes and apartments.
The city has also made a commitment to addressing the role of race and structural inequality, bringing together the community, scholars and government representatives to investigate why African Americans make up 40 percent of all homeless people but only 9 percent of the total population in L.A.
Although homelessness remains a serious problem in Los Angeles, the city is starting to take steps to address it based on best practices rather than simply removing the problem from sight.
* Brenda Wiewel is affiliated with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) LAHSA Continuum of Care Board, which is an advisory and oversight group for the LAHSA Commission.