Last week LA expanded an effort to clear and clean homeless encampments throughout the city, despite advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow people experiencing homelessness to shelter in place if individual housing is not available.
City officials say that growing encampments pose serious health risks besides COVID-19 to people within and outside them. Officials say the cleanups, which include outreach workers and mobile showers, are meant to provide services to unhoused people rather than punishment.
“We have dual responsibilities in the city to keep sidewalks not only safe [and] clean for people who use them and go by them, but also people who are living on them, unfortunately,” said LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. “[And] to try to find housing and mental health and other care solutions for people who are experiencing homelessness.”
Homeless advocates and at least one LA City Councilmember say that the services offered during these cleanings are inconsistent, and the net effect is moving already vulnerable people from one place to another.
“At the height of the pandemic, to start doing cleanups now, just to force people into congregate settings, is unconscionable,” said Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, who has represented people experiencing homelessness in cases against the city. “There is no public health justification for engaging in these comprehensive cleanups right now.”
In March, at the start of the pandemic, the city (in line with CDC recommendations) suspended intensive encampment cleanups that require people to take down tents and clear sidewalks for power washing. LA also deployed mobile hand-washing stations and toilets to several large encampments.
In the months since, however, those facilities have not been consistently restocked. Meanwhile, growing encampments, trash pile-ups and blocked sidewalks have brought complaints.
So over the summer, officials resumed deep cleanings in some locations — specifically in the “special enforcement zones” surrounding the city’s nearly two dozen “A Bridge Home” shelters. Part of the idea was to bring unhoused people living near these facilities inside, although in terms of public health, it’s difficult to say which is safer.
Homelessness itself poses an increased mortality risk, with an average of four people dying on the streets of LA every day, according to the LA County Department of Public Health. At the same time, at least 18 Bridge Home facilities have had confirmed coronavirus cases among either staff or residents.
Earlier this month, the LA City Council voted 13-2 to expand those cleanings beyond the Bridge Home special enforcement zones, to three encampments in San Pedro and Wilmington.
City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the area and requested the additions, said conditions in these spots have become so unsanitary that residents risk exposure to diseases besides COVID-19. He said his goal is to move people into three new shelters in his district (two Bridge Home facilities and one operated by the county), which are operating at reduced capacity for better social distancing.
He said, “Knowing that we have beds available, it's actually safer for individuals living in encampments, rather than sitting in their trash and their filth,” which could “potentially spread disease like typhus and hepatitis.”
“I think numerous public health experts would disagree,” shot back Myers from the Legal Aid Foundation, pointing to the CDC recommendations. “And from my perspective, those voices are far more important right now in the middle of a public health emergency.”
While disputes about how to respond to street homelessness in Los Angeles are nothing new, the stakes are particularly high at this dire moment in the pandemic. So far, local leaders have opted for a piecemeal approach. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city will continue the intensive cleanings near A Bridge Home sites while letting City Council members decide where else to add locations in their own districts.
“Half are district-by-district so that Council members can respond to those places where they're getting constituents [complaining], and then half of them are citywide,” he said.
Back in July, at an encampment cleanup in San Pedro, Elicia Suarez said while she had no plans to enter a nearby shelter, repeatedly packing up her tent, bike and belongings was disruptive and degrading.
“I’m an individual who is just trying to survive, like anybody else,” she said. “And why are they making us move when it's coronavirus?”
Suarez suggested having a designated camping area with bathrooms, so people who aren’t ready or don’t have an option to go inside won’t have to move. It’s an idea that federal officials are already doing at the West LA VA campus and that some city officials are working on, though it’s not clear when those efforts might come to fruition.