By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
The Sept. 3 homeless forum at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro wasn’t so much about airing grievances and coming up with solutions as it was about de-escalating tensions in the community while gearing up townsfolk for the fight to roll back Proposition 47. The measure reduces many nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors as long as the perpetrator doesn’t have a violent past. Voters passed the proposition in November 2014.
The forum also was about masking inconvenient truths.
The format of the event featured five panelists—including Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Homelessness Policy Director Greg Spiegle, Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Deon Joseph, LAPD Harbor Division Capt. Kathryn Meek, Special Assistant City Attorney Capri Maddox and Harbor Interfaith Services Coordinated Entry System Regional Coordinator Shari Weaver—answering pre-selected questions that were gathered on Councilman Joe Buscaino’s Facebook page. Not surprisingly, most of the questions came from a law enforcement angle, thereby giving most of the speaking time to Joseph, Maddox and to a lesser extent, Meeks.
Buscaino’s office showed video interviews with four of the 76 “success stories” his emergency response team was able to get off the street and into permanent housing. All of them were among the residents of the encampments near the Beacon Street post office and Ante’s restaurant in the past year.
Among them was Denise Vigil, also known as Neecee, whose struggles have been documented in the past year in Random Lengths.
Not long after the forum finished, Neecee was seen outside San Pedro City Hall with her sleeping bag, belongings and her Section 8 voucher in hand. Nora Vela, director of Helping the Homeless in Need, the group behind the tiny houses in San Pedro, took Neecee into her home for the night. The episode called into question either the effectiveness of Buscaino’s Emergency Response Teams or his office’s integrity on the issue. The next day a message was left with Branimir Kvartuc, Buscaino’s communications director, but he has yet to respond.
Joseph repeated his mini online documentary about the police officer who “single-handedly got 150 people off the streets.” Later he mentioned that he helped about 730 people who were in danger of being kicked out of their home.
Joseph prefaced his allotted 15 minutes by saying he wasn’t going to engage in demagoguery against the homeless, but was going to engage in some truth telling based on his 18 years of experience working Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. It should be noted that Joseph had the benefit of a seven-and-a-half-minute Facebook video documentary show before the forum to introduce him and the LAPD perspective on the problem of homelessness. The following is deconstruction of the video:
The Hi-Jacking of the Moral High Ground
Joseph has endless gritty hard luck stories for people accustomed to watching John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted or some other crime drama. Some of his stories are heartwarming.
But his solution to homeless question calls for city residents to “come to a political middle ground between NIMBYs (not in my backyard) and the lefties.” He said the lefties just want to let the homeless stay where and as they are, while NIMBYs don’t want them in their communities. His explanation was simplistic and just not true. Homeless advocates are not proposing to leave people out on the streets, but this is how the entire discussion of homelessness is framed.
“There’s fallout to leaving the homeless where they are,” said Joseph to Buscaino during the video as they walked in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row. “Some of these people aren’t really homeless.”
He said that he gets five contacts per week from family members looking for their loved ones. Yet, who knows if those families were broken or dysfunctional in any way that caused these folks to live in the streets in the first place, or if these families simply didn’t have the wherewithal to care for their loved ones before they turned to the streets.
His narrative stemming from his experience has a way of covering up some of the dynamics that lead people into homeless, particularly if they are dealing with mental illness.
Frequently we hear that there aren’t enough shelter beds to accommodate those who are sleeping in the streets. But because of the framing of the conversation, donated tents and tiny houses are now “dens” of drug abuse and prostitution and an irritant from a law enforcement perspective. In so many words, it makes cops’ job harder.
In the video, Joseph said there are five major missions on Skid Row that collectively provide 9,000 meals per day, in addition to providing clothes, support services for drug addiction, housing and jobs.
Council District 14 includes Skid Row and much else of downtown Los Angeles. According to the last homeless count, there were a little more than 6,000 homeless residents in the district.
“Some people become obese living on the streets because they eat what they want to eat,” Joseph noted.
Homeless advocates would agree with him on the best ways a concerned citizen can help the homeless, which includes providing hygiene kits and perhaps directing them to nearby services. Joseph makes a strong argument about not giving money or buying food for the homeless. Interestingly enough, this is an area in which Vela and Joseph actually agree.
Since Vela began her outreach efforts by handing out 12 tacos, she has been preparing balanced and sometimes vegan meals. She regularly hands out hygiene kits and has gone so far as to build portable toilets and showers for a few individuals. That’s a lot further than many people are willing to go to help another human being, especially in San Pedro.
There’s a reason the LAPD was under a consent decree for 10 years, and it wasn’t because they were interested in community policing. Joseph hints at this a few times during the homeless forum.
During the forum, Joseph categorizes the homeless into four categories:
• Good people doing the best they can under unfortunate circumstances.
• Good people with addictions leading them to criminality, such as theft.
• Bad people with redeemable qualities, such as gang members, who turn their lives around and become assets to the community.
• Predators that prey on the weak.
Joseph uses the example of the Downtown Gangsters, comprised of Bloods and Crip gang members. This group was the target of a 2014 interagency crackdown. Joseph said the gang had co-opted the bathrooms and started charging the homeless to use them while allowing paid drug and prostitution customers to use them free—all happening within blocks of the LAPD’s headquarters, the city attorney’s office and district attorney’s office.
He also called the initiatives such as more public bathrooms and tiny houses noble ideas, but ultimately ill-conceived. He cites examples of how they failed in downtown Los Angeles.
He says these initiatives encourage human trafficking, drug sales and drug overdoses. Joseph spent considerable time in the documentary video discussing the 27 Andy Gump toilets that were installed in Skid Row back in the 1990s. The problem here is that he doesn’t address how to deal with the proliferation of human fecal matter on public streets.
Joseph subtly hints at how the LAPD’s negative perception from the early 1990s politically impacts their work in the streets when he discusses the LAPD’s warning that the Andy Gump toilets would cause crime to skyrocket in Skid Row.
“Of course, we’re the big bad LAPD, so they brought it in anyway,” Joseph said.
But perhaps the biggest issue with this part of the discussion is that San Pedro is not downtown Los Angeles. There are 6,000 homeless people in Council District 14 and about 1,500 in all of Council District 15, and there are only 376 homeless people in San Pedro. The most dominant gang in San Pedro, when last checked, was Rancho San Pedro. There are several other gangs in the Harbor Area, but the Harbor Area is not downtown Los Angeles.
To Joseph, this forum wasn’t just about dealing with the homeless, but about cutting the police some slack in how they deal with the homeless and amending or ending Prop. 47. Basically, he argued that the inability to arrest addicts in possession of drugs in quantities legally labeled as “personal use” is hamstringing the police.
In reference to how the police deal with the mentally ill, he blamed society for not giving them tools other than handcuffs and a gun. He doesn’t elaborate further on the point. At the end of the night, the only apparent solution was more resources for Harbor Interfaith.
Aside from Shari Weaver asking property owners to accept Section 8 vouchers and Spiegle’s discussion about the lack of affordable housing, there was no serious discussion about increasing affordable housing. Buscaino, at the end of the night, noted that there are 311 supportive housing units that were either already available or about to become available at the Blue Butterfly Villa, Vermont Villas 127th Street Apartment and the El Segundo apartments. The question is how many, and how long were these available?
The councilman said he also wrote letters to the mayors of neighboring cities requesting their buy-in in creating supportive housing in their respective cities and forming a South Bay Committee on homelessness to discuss best practices and solutions.
Make no mistake about it, just about all of the initiatives the councilman spoke about that Thursday night are worthwhile initiatives. But, if the bottom line to ending homelessness is securing permanent housing for our most chronically homeless, then he’s essentially saying that the best that we can do in the immediate future is get 311 of our 376 homeless people off the street, give or take a dozen.
The councilman did well to highlight Shari Weaver, the face of Harbor Interfaith Services in its role as the lead agency for Service Planning Area 8 of the Coordinated Entry System. Weaver repeatedly noted that she works with a really great team in reaching out to our community’s most hard to reach and most difficult to help populations.
Spiegel’s discussion of increasing the affordable housing stock and improving transitional care and housing for those being release from prisons, hospitals, and foster care didn’t go unnoticed, but certainly unappreciated.