82,000 People Are Homeless on Any Given Night in LA County
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
I was quite surprised to read the Los Angeles Times article about the city asking for ideas on reuse possibilities for the Lincoln Heights Jail. It’s a vacant property the city has owned since 1931. It sits just north of Chinatown across the LA River.
The jail has been closed since 1965 and has been used in various films like Nightmare on Elm Street and Night Train. The music video for Lady Gaga’s song, Telephone, was shot there.
The jail is also the site of the Bloody Christmas of 1951—an incident that inspired the fictional film noir thriller, L.A. Confidential. It involved seven young Latino and white men who were mercilessly beaten while in the custody of Los Angeles police officers. Eight officers were eventually indicted, 39 were suspended and 54 transferred when news of the beating got out.
The request for proposals for the jail makes me wonder just how much unused property the city owns that could be put to better purposes especially in light of the proposed $1.2 billion city bond measure to address the rising tide of homelessness.
My first response to the article was, “Am I the only one in the entire city who sees the obvious solution?”
Other facts about L.A.’s homeless population:
• The average age is 40—women tend to be younger.
• 33 to 50 percent are female. Men make up about 75 percent of the single population.
• About 42 to 77 percent do not receive public benefits to which they are entitled.
• 20 to 43 percent are in families, typically headed by a single mother.
• An estimated 20 percent are physically disabled.
• 41 percent of adults were employed within the past year.
• 16 to 20 percent of adults are employed.
• About 25 percent are mentally ill.
• As children, 27 percent lived in foster care or group homes; 25 percent were physically or sexually abused
• 33 to 66 percent of single individuals have substance abuse issues.
• 48 percent have graduated from high school; 32 percent have a bachelor degree or higher (as compared to 45 percent and 25 percent for the population overall respectively).
Less than a mile from the old jail is the largest homeless population in the entire county that is getting squeezed out by gentrification. There are dozens of homeless service providers on Skid Row who, with the right amount of funding and a few developers could work up a plan.
It seems like the perfect solution for both the homeless and for those who see homelessness as a crime: convert an unused jail into the next permanent housing project.
Well, not so fast. Even if someone at City Hall recognized the logic of this plan, it would be years before it got rebuilt.
I wrote to City Controller Ron Galperin about my exasperation.
“The city is asking for ‘ideas’ from the community on what to do with this derelict property is kind of amazing since not more than a few miles from this location is the highest concentration in the city of our homeless population. I am shocked that city government can’t see that the first priority for the reuse of city-owned property is to address the homeless crisis. One of the more affordable ways to address this problem would be to use and re-purpose properties that the city already owns and controls,” I wrote. Finding affordable land in the city is going to be one the major challenges in deciding where to spend the $1.2 billion.
I then asked the question, “Just how much property does the City of LA own that could be converted to housing?”
The answer that I received back a few weeks later from Galperin was astounding.
“There are several thousands of properties—though not all suitable for development,” he wrote.
He went on to tell me that the Controller’s Office is just now putting together a report listing all of these properties that the city council should consider. When I asked how much these properties might be worth, he replied, “As to their value—that’s a future project!”
Of course, there are those who would simply just chase the homeless out of their neighborhoods and into someone else’s or perhaps throw them all in jail, because as they say, “The homeless are all drug addicts and pedophiles.”
Yet, every law enforcement expert I’ve talked to says homelessness is not a crime and we can’t police our way out of this problem. And they shouldn’t be asked to. Policing our way out is a costlier burden. And, as you can see, it doesn’t work.
So for those who haven’t been schooled on the problem or who are just complaining about it on Facebook, here are the facts—not from me, but by one of the leading nonprofit agencies that deals with this issue.
According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County during some part of the year and about 82,000 people are homeless on any given night. Unaccompanied youth, especially in the Hollywood area, are estimated to make up from 4,800 to 10,000 of these.
Although homeless people may be found throughout the county, the largest percentages are in South Los Angeles and Metro Los Angeles. Most are from the Los Angeles area and stay in or near the communities from which they came. About 14 to 18 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles County are not U.S. citizens compared with 29 percent of adults overall. A high percentage—as high as 20 percent — are veterans. African Americans make up about half of the Los Angeles County homeless population—disproportionately high compared to the percentage of African Americans in the county overall (about 9 percent).
Let me emphasize the first point: 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County during some part of the year and about 82,000 people are homeless on any given night. That’s the real challenge and it is huge. The nonprofit and government resources that are available don’t come close to solving this problem. What has come out of LA City Council, thus far, is a patchwork of Band Aids and hammers, with a promise of $100 million per year but resources to only fund $13 million. The Controller’s Office issued a report this past year saying that the cost to the city in law enforcement was some $80 million.
Even with the anticipated $1.2 billion city bond, it will be years before the first project gets built or renovated. No matter your take on the homeless, it’s time to recognize one truth, we can either have them living on our sidewalks, sleeping in their cars on our streets or we can push for change. The first step would be to use a few of these thousands of properties that Galperin has discovered and allow for their temporary use as emergency transition centers, you might liken them to triage facilities, for off street parking or temporary shelter where social services can be offered.
This won’t solve 100 percent of the problem, but it beats waiting five years for the first permanent housing unit to be built and it’s better than the continued whack-a-mole enforcement deployed by Los Angeles Police Department in response to community complaints. There is no guaranteed success with trying this solution but we all know what repeating the same action that’s having no effect is called.