New East Hollywood government-run homeless encampment to offer emergency services, but it’s not cheap

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This parking lot on Madison Avenue, off Beverly Boulevard, has been turned into a government-sanctioned homeless encampment that can accommodate about 120 people at a time in 12-foot by 12-foot spots. Photo courtesy of Urban Alchemy

Los Angeles has opened its first government-run homeless encampment on a quiet, commercial block beside the 101 freeway in East Hollywood. This comes one month after LA officials cleared what was one of the city’s largest encampments — a makeshift community of nearly 200 tents, an outdoor food pantry and a shower stall that spanned the popular near-mile loop around Echo Park Lake just two miles away. 

The new sanctioned campground on Madison Avenue, off Beverly Boulevard, is a pilot program that’s expected to be the first of several across the city. (The federal government already operates a similar site on the West LA Veterans Affairs campus in Brentwood.) It represents a new strategy meant to corral the tents and cobbled-together structures that currently stand in parks, on sidewalks and below freeway overpasses, while providing services to the unhoused.

The idea of providing designated areas for unhoused people to camp, with bathrooms and access to social services, isn’t new. But for decades it was politically unpopular and considered radical. Now, faced with a ballooning homelessness crisis and a federal judge demanding emergency action, LA officials are embracing the concept. But the high public cost of the program — about $2,600 per person, per month — concerns some advocates who worry it will come at the expense of more permanent housing.

Another concern is that more government-approved campgrounds will mean more police enforcement for those who refuse or aren’t able to enter the sites — similar to how the city recently resumed encampment sweeps near shelters, on the rationale that people in those areas have somewhere else to go.

“It can't be the type of offer that leads to criminalization and displacement and the shutting down of other public spaces,” said Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Mitch O’Farrell, the city councilmember whose district includes both Echo Park Lake and the new East Hollywood campground, declined an interview. But another councilmember who plans to open safe camping sites, Joe Buscaino, says enforcement is part of the point. He wants the city to outlaw camping on sidewalks and in parks altogether. To do that legally, courts have said, city officials first must provide alternatives.

“Right now in the City of Los Angeles, it's a free-for-all,” said Buscaino, who is a former LAPD officer. “You can camp, sleep, lie anywhere and everywhere that you so deem.”

He added, “I've connected a lot of people to resources, to housing, and sometimes it was through the booking process.” 

On a recent morning, a couple of days before the parking lot in East Hollywood opened to its first campers, a few unhoused men stood on the sidewalk outside its mesh-covered fence.

“I believe it provides a good service for the community,” said one, who only gave his first name, Eugene. “Give people the opportunity to take a shower, get them off the street, and give them a sense of hope and belonging.”

Another man, DJ Woods, agreed. The campsite, he said, offers a safer place to sleep than the streets. “And then we’ll be out of the way of all the looky-looers too,” he said. “The people that complain and dislike the homeless for whatever reason.”

Inside the fence, the parking lot-turned-campground can accommodate about 120 people at a time in 12-foot by 12-foot spots, marked by white squares painted on the asphalt. Campers can bring in their own tents and whatever other belongings fit inside their assigned space. A half dozen porta potties stand in a row along one side of the lot. The site also provides showers, three meals a day and 24-hour security. Campers get entered into the county’s database for matching unhoused people with social services, called the coordinated entry system.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which operates three similar campgrounds in the Bay Area, has a contract with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency, to run the East Hollywood site. While campers who come into the lot will still be without permanent housing, Urban Alchemy CEO Lena Miller says this type of site can be a first step towards that goal.

“They can go to sleep at night, no one's going to touch them, hurt them, creep in their tent,” she said. “And then you can start planning: What do I need to do to start getting into a more permanent, secure situation?”

Exactly how campers might transition to permanent housing, however, isn’t clear. LA has a well-documented shortage of affordable and subsidized apartments. In general, the county’s coordinated entry system prioritizes people based on a vulnerability index that measures physical and mental health. 

Guests at the East Hollywood site, who Miller says are being found through outreach in the surrounding area, are likely to have a wide variety of needs and backgrounds. And unlike at the West LA VA’s safe camping site, this one doesn’t share a campus with various health care facilities, and campers don’t have access to a special pool of housing rental vouchers like eligible military veterans do. 

While an LA Homeless Services Authority spokesperson says that Urban Alchemy’s contract includes “housing-focused case management,” Miller says that’s not her organization’s speciality, and Urban Alchemy typically partners with other nonprofits for housing navigation.

“We provide a safe community for people to be in, so they're not out on the streets,” said Miller. “In terms of getting to the other side of it, that's not my lane. My lane is this part. And this is not easy.”

According to a report by the City Administrative Officer, the cost of the new East Hollywood campground runs approximately $2,663 per person per month. That’s higher than what a typical one-bedroom apartment rents for in the city, according to the website Rent Cafe. The CAO’s report did not contain a detailed breakdown of costs, but according to city officials most of the budget goes to 24/7 staffing, and maintaining a one to 12 staff to client ratio at all times. Urban Alchemy, a workforce development agency, trains and employs former long-term offenders. Miller says salaries start around $19 an hour, and “I fight really hard to try to give good wages to my people.”  

Some advocates are concerned, however, that even with a $1 billion homelessness spending plan proposed for this coming fiscal year, the city is investing too much in short-term band aids over long-term solutions.

“If you can paint lines on a sidewalk for the same cost that you can give someone the rent for an apartment,” said Myers of the Legal Aid Foundation, “I'm concerned that our city is making the choice to paint the lines rather than actually get people into housing.”

City Controller Ron Galperin said that while the East Hollywood safe camping pilot is expensive, the costs support a professional staff skilled in case management, as well as necessary sanitation and security services.

“And let’s be honest,” Galperin said, “when people are on our sidewalks, that is already costing us money as a city in terms of public safety, police and fire emergency services, paramedic, sanitation, street services, hospitals, jails. So doing nothing also costs a lot of money.”

Audits by Galperin have shown that a yearslong effort to build 10,000 new subsidized apartments for formerly homeless people in the city has been slow and costly, with a typical project taking three to six years to complete and running as high as $700,000 per unit in some cases. One of those projects, a multi-phase apartment complex called Enlightenment Plaza, partly funded by the voter-backed Proposition HHH bond measure, is slated to rise on the very same East Hollywood Parking lot where the campsite now sits.

The developer, a former city redevelopment official and executive with the homeless services organization PATH named John Molloy, is loaning the parking lot to the city for free in the meantime for its safe camping site. By the end of this year, however, he needs it back. That’s when the lot is scheduled to become a construction site. The first apartments in Enlightenment Plaza are expected to open to residents at the end of 2022.