What’s WeHo Doing About the Homeless? Here’s What I’ve Learned

Capt. Sergio Aloma, left, and a deputy talking with a homeless person (Twitter @LASD Sergio)

Why don’t Sheriff’s deputies just arrest the homeless people lying on West Hollywood’s sidewalks or sleeping in the parks? And is the City of West Hollywood really doing anything to address the homeless situation?

Those who attended the community forum on homelessness hosted last week by City Councilmember Lauren Meister got some answers to those questions, answers that I found useful and illuminating and that inspired me to do more research to share with WEHOville’s readers. Meister, by the way, is a member of the City Council’s homelessness subcommittee along with Mayor John Heilman.

What impressed me most was the way our local Sheriff’s Station weaves together a practical application of the law with resources that address the mental illness and drug abuse affecting so many homeless people. It tops that off with a commitment, stated by station Capt. Sergio Aloma, to treat the homeless like human beings (which they are). I also was impressed that most of those residents who spoke up about the issue also saw the homeless as people, although one  resident, to my dismay, seemed to focus her concern on their impact on property values — an attitude I’d like to think is more reflective of Beverly Hills than West Hollywood.

First, some answers to common questions:

Why don’t deputies arrest the homeless and haul away them and the belongings they have stashed on the sidewalk or in shopping carts?

Capt. Aloma explained that taking a homeless person to the Sheriff’s station to book him on a misdemeanor charge for laying on the sidewalk is a waste of law enforcement resources and accomplishes nothing. That’s because the person arrested must be released after being booked (unless he lacks any identification). That means the homeless person is back on the street (or sidewalk), while a Sheriff’s deputy is stuck at a desk, spending lots of time filling out the required forms associated with arrests. (That said, deputies will ask a homeless person blocking a sidewalk or obstructing the entrance to a business to get up and move).

As I dug into this, I learned that dealing with the homeless on the streets is complicated by the 2006 decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, where the U.S. 9th District Circuit Court ruled that it’s cruel and unusual to punish people for sitting, sleeping or lying on public sidewalks at night. In its settlement of the case, Los Angeles agreed to permit sleeping on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until more housing for the homeless could be built. That law doesn’t apply to the City of West Hollywood, but it suggests that a federal court might not look kindly on WeHo’s implementation of an aggressive sweep of its sidewalks at all hours.

Outreach workers talking with a homeless person in West Hollywood Park (Twitter @LASDSergio)

The district court’s decision rested in part on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

So what about taking away the shopping carts and trash bags that a homeless person has with him or has left on the sidewalk? Capt. Aloma noted that a number of cities, including Los Angeles, have been sued successfully for carting away the belongings of homeless people. In 2012, the 9th District Circuit Court ruled in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles that it is a violation of both the 4th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution to seize and destroy the personal possessions of homeless people that are left on sidewalks while they do things like shower or get food. If law enforcement officers take such belongings, they now must store them for up to 90 days so that the homeless people who own them can retrieve them.

How does the 4th Amendment apply to that? Well, it states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

And what if that person is shouting or dancing on the street or otherwise appears to be mentally erratic? Can’t he be taken to a hospital and treated for mental illness? A state law commonly referred to as “fifty-one fifty” (aka California Welfare & Institutions Code section 5150) says “yes.” But only if the person is picked up “as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled” and the diagnosis of mental illness is signed by a specifically designated county clinician. Screaming on a street corner (which also isn’t uncommon among the nightlife crowd on a Saturday night) usually isn’t evidence of a dangerous mental health disorder, which in and of itself is hard to prove.

Yes, it’s all quite complicated, and as Aloma noted, there are no restrictions on homeless people walking into West Hollywood from other parts of Los Angeles County. Some WeHo residents grumble that we have more homeless on our streets than does Beverly Hills. While that wasn’t raised at last week’s meeting, I imagine our acceptance of LGBT people may be one reason why. An analysis of data from the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority’s annual homelessness survey found that in West Hollywood homeless people are five times more likely to identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual than are homeless people across the rest of the county, and the percentage of those who are transgender women is almost 20 times the countywide percentage.

So what are the solutions? Well, just providing housing isn’t enough. As Meister has noted in an op-ed published by WEHOville: “For many of the homeless people in WeHo, permanent housing is not necessarily the first step – and that’s primarily because functioning in a traditional housing environment can be a challenge. Among our homeless, we have a fair amount of those who suffer from mental illness, others with substance abuse issues, or both. A living situation is needed that can provide or cope with all of the above.”

And then there’s the issue of convincing homeless people to accept help.

As part of its “Homeless Initiative,” West Hollywood has created outreach teams that include Sheriff’s deputies and people who can help address mental health and substance abuse issues. A major move, announced at last week’s meeting, is the decision by Capt. Aloma to invite the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Mental Evaluation Team to house some of its staff members at the West Hollywood Station. That makes it easier for Sheriff’s deputies to effectively respond to an issue involving a homeless person who apparently is mentally ill.

Lt. Geoffrey Deedrich warning a homeless person of the impending El Nino storms in the San Gabriel Valley riverbed (Facebook LASD)

The Sheriff’s Station is working with the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) headed by Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick, which has grown from a two-person operation to include eight deputies and one sergeant in addition to Deedrick, who attended last week’s community meeting.

Deedrick and Corri Planck, the city’s Homeless Initiative project manager, talked at last week’s meeting about the importance of patience and persistence. As the city has noted before, offers of shelter, food and assistance sometimes are turned down because the homeless person is able to get cash or food on the street. Deedrick and Planck noted that some with mental illness or drug abuse issues can’t be easily convinced to take advantage of services that will find them shelter.

Deedrick cited examples where he has sat down across from a homeless person on many occasions to chat, slowly getting to know the person and build trust. He carries a bucket to sit on, he explained, which puts him on the same level as the person he is talking to rather than towering above him. Then he relaxes and starts chewing tobacco as he talks. It’s all about engaging with the person, Deedrick said, which can take many encounters. Eventually, he told the audience, there are homeless people who see him on the street and call him out by name. Eventually, he can convince some of them to take advantage of the help they need.

The city is doing more, as has been noted in previous stories. It has three key departments — Human Services & Rent Stabilization, Public Safety and Economic Development — that address and respond to homelessness, along with various contract providers, ranging from the Sheriff’s station to Ascencia (which provides beds), Step Up on Second (which provides mental health and addiction recovery services) the Los Angeles LGBT Center (which operates an overnight shelter for homeless young people), the West Hollywood Library (which houses a city pilot program that provides outreach and services to homeless people) and the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (which has brought together local business owners to develop creative ideas for dealing with the issue).

The city also will soon be installing a version of parking meters (they will be colored purple) that will accept donations to help the homeless. These meters are designed to raise the awareness among local residents of the homeless issue and also remind them that it’s smarter to donate money to a homeless charity than directly to a homeless person who might use it for cigarettes, drugs or alcohol. And an app is under development that residents can use to alert the city or law enforcement when they see a problem with a homeless person on the street. Meanwhile, you can still dial the “Concern Line” — (323) 848-6590 —to share your concerns about people experiencing homelessness in West Hollywood. Messages left on the Concern Line will be followed up on by city staff, contracted social services providers or law enforcement.

If you have specific questions about what the city and the Sheriff’s station are doing (or aren’t doing) to deal with the homeless situation, please post them here. I’ll do my best to get answers.  Meanwhile, the video below gives a good look at the approach the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Services team takes when dealing with homeless people.

  1. This issue is one that has no simple solution. We cannot differentiate between a housing challenged person sleeping in the park and a housed person sleeping in the park to tan. Sorry, but both are human and both have rights. If someone is causing a problem or committing a crime, whether homeless or housed, then they can be arrested.
    We cannot force ANYONE into services. I have a neighbor that screams like a lunatic at their television. Crazy to some, not to others. I cannot force him into services. Drunk or high in public? Not just a homeless issue. It is an offense whether homeless or not, and I see as many housed residents stumbling home on the weekend. Don’t like a homeless persons appearance? Too bad. That’s none of your business. Instead of blaming the city and saying the city does nothing, I advise you to attend a Human Services Commission meeting. We have , through the last funding cycle, put together the best solutions I have seen since I have been on commission. Wrap around services, from amazing outreach teams, to health, psyche, food, clothing, shower, and housing services at a shelter that I can now say I am proud of. So many were afraid to go to our last shelter, which by the way, I was extremely vocal about until finally there were four articles written about the treatment and services, that we now have Ascencia. It is the most homelike shelter I have seen and it is available for our homeless residents. We will even drive them there, or find proper transportation.
    Lose property values?…I don’t even hear that kind of talk. Weho values have NEVER gone down, and continue to rise. Also, when someone comes to commission to talk about other people’s concerns, it becomes noise to me. I only listen to first person accounts, unless there are letters that are signedby residents that cannot make it to the meeting and notarized.
    Homeless folks are homeless for a variety of reasons. Sometimes bad luck, sometimes bad choices, sometimes psyche issues that are untreated, and sometimes health problems that have rendered them broke.
    Instead of laying blame, get involved and assist. Trust me, it will be the best thing you can do to help a problem that isn’t going anywhere soon.

  2. @SaveWeHo Someone else with expertise can probably answer your questions better than I, but here goes… You are correct in thinking about this logically in terms of if our approach really is to make it less easy so that more people will accept housing we should also not allow tents, remain at parks after hours, etc. This would be an approach that would seem consistent with our goals to house everyone and the other instructions to not give food or money to panhandlers. One of the complexities is that we don’t have enough shelter beds or housing (of any kind….permanent, transitional, etc) to house everyone on the streets. Until we do, the question is one of morality. How does a City justify criminalizing the simple act of being homeless while not building enough housing to make it an option for everyone? That’s where these goals/actions conflict and it’s finding a balance of pressuring people into services, without completely forcing something on them (something we don’t necessarily even have). This has also been the basis for the Court decisions/settlements re: LA’s guidelines in allowing homeless to sleep on sidewalks, etc.

  3. Just a thought…if we’re not doing anything because of the red tape involved and hours of paperwork…how does that help reinforce the idea that it is illegal and disruptive to the community? I agree we need to work on mental health facilities AND a housing shelter so they can get back on their feet. But if we’re making it easy for them to set up shop in the park and aren’t showing them “this isn’t allowed for your own well being as well as the cities”…then nothing is deterring them from their behaviors. There is not one solution. But its a multiple faceted solution of law enforcement and taking them to a shelter to get the help they need.

  4. Beverly Hills does have a homeless problem. The homeless in our neighboring city are not the same cohort as in WeHo for reasons stated in the article, and while their needs are similar, the causes and challenges are not identical. (See, https://patch.com/california/beverlyhills/homelessness-increased-beverly-hills/westside)

    In any event, housing alone is not the answer. Many homeless, especially those who are mentally challenged, refuse housing offers. Forcing them to accept housing is difficult under the law. I’m not happy about seeing people living on the streets, sleeping on sidewalks and in parks, and using the fountain of our veterans memorial to bathe. As cold as it may sound, I would suggest refraining from giving money and food to street people, which, I hope, would encourage them instead to accept official City assistance.

  5. I attended the forum on homelessness last week and want to thank Councilmember Meister for organizing this event. While Councilmember Meister’s comment to the effect of “just giving them housing” isn’t going to solve the the problem did raise a red flag of concern, it was followed by her explaining that what people need is permanent supportive housing which includes wrap-around services that simultaneously address the specific issues of mental health, addiction, etc. Councilmember Meister was making the distinction between the two and reminding us that simply building housing (a struggle in it of itself) wasn’t going to solve the problem of homelessness. The solution is much more complex (and costly!) that involves housing with these on-site, round-the-clock-like services for these individuals to not only have a safe place to live, but to have the services necessary to help them maintain housing. This is the “Housing First” model proven to be highly effective in helping people keep their housing and prevent them from returning homeless. There is no doubt this was the context of her statement and it is supported in her own op-ed if you follow the link provided above.

  6. As someone who attended the community forum and has been working on homeless initiatives for over 20-years, I was impressed with the efforts by our city hall staff, public safety officers and community partners who spoke on the panel. Oftentimes, we don’t see the behind-the-scenes efforts, which leaves us guessing and frustrated.

    The challenge remains (and the question I posed to the 7-member panel): What is the ultimate outcome we are striving to achieve? We have to know where we are headed in order to determine the proper approach. Until we’re clear on what the viable outcome is, it’ll be hard to discuss how to solve the problem.

  7. What a mess….I walked up to Santa Monica Blvd this afternoon and saw at least
    6 very frightening “homeless people ” within 4 blocks….
    West Hollywood park is now a favorite hangout…The city is all talk….
    Councilperson Meister is correct, housing will not solve this problem..
    How does Beverly Hills handle this ?…Why aren’t we asking them ?
    When will the City Council have a REAL discussion …..

  8. I agree with Franz that Lauren’s heart is in the right place, but studies have shown that housing first with wrap around services is the most effective means to serve people who have experienced long-term homelessness. (I worked on the 2006 LAHSA 10-year strategic plan to end chronic homelessness.) All that being said, West Hollywood is so far ahead of the curve on our approach to addressing the profound challenge of helping the chronically homeless.

  9. “just give them housing” is NOT the answer. They need mental health & substance abuse treatment. Just giving them housing is not going to pull them out of the cycle of despair they are in. To “just give them housing” means that they aren’t working towards getting their life back on track and providing for themselves instead of the tax paying citizens.

    I am still waiting for the Americans with disabilities to file their own lawsuit for the inaction of state and local agencies when someone is blocking the sidewalk. For that matter, why should an able bodied person have to walk into the street to get around a body that is laying on the public’s walking right away?!

    And lastly, I don’t find it outrageous for a hard-working, (high)tax-paying, Joe next store who has been working his whole life to buy a home and live in a safe area and who tries to live life and do the right thing to worry about his property and the effect of homeless people have on his neighborhood and the value of his hard earned property. For some, that will be all they have when they retire.

    Sometimes people stay on the street because we make it easy for them to do so. We’re not talking about the poor unfortunate souls you have lost a job and then lost their home. We’re talking about those that are mentally ill or suffer from abuse issues. Those individuals have to want to help themselves. All the free services in the world is not going to pull them out of despair unless they want to help themselves get better.

  10. I highly disagree that the solution ‘isn’t just to give them housing’. They are homeless got a reason and giving them housing is exactly solving that problem. Other supportive care can then follow up once hosing has been provided. Meister’s heart is in the right place but saying that housing isn’t the solution is misleading at best, harmful at worse.

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