Opinion: Homelessness Can’t Be Reduced Without Raising Wages and Building More Housing

It’s incredibly complicated. And at the end of the day, like most things in life, it mostly comes down to money.

That was my takeaway from the West Hollywood City Council’s Homelessness Study Session on Monday night.

The session brought together an impressive group of people that included experts in areas such as outreach to the homeless, housing and drug-abuse and mental health services, safety and law enforcement, civil rights and planning for the use of money from the recently approved L.A. County Measure H, a .25% increase in the sales tax that is expected to generate millions of dollars annually for services to combat homelessness across Los Angeles County.

Several things were encouraging:

–Statements by West Hollywood Sheriff’s Capt. Sergio Aloma and Lt. Edward Ramirez and by Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick. of the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) that they intend to enforce the law and ensure the safety of the public they serve and also treat the homeless with respect.

“Whether someone is homeless or not isn’t relevant if a crime is involved,” Aloma said. He told the study panel that deputies last year made 320 arrests in WeHo of homeless people for various crimes, vastly more than the total of 303 that they arrested in 2015 and 2016 combined.

However, Aloma also stressed that when it comes to the homeless, “the sheriff’s department is committed to a compassionate approach … one of the things we have encountered is the trust issue that the homeless have experienced with traditional policing.”

In that regard, Aloma said that in recent months local Sheriff’s deputies, working with city staffers and homeless services providers, have contacted over 140 homeless people in West Hollywood and encouraged them to seek help.

“I don’t think we can ‘arrest’ ourselves out of this issue,” he said.

Aloma’s mention of 320 arrests last year alarmed some in the study session audience, given that the annual homeless count totaled 105 in WeHo in 2016. That count, however, is a “point-in-time” count. Aloma noted that the much larger number of arrests is evidence that the homeless population is indeed transient, with different homeless people migrating through WeHo all the time.

–The sense of pride evidenced by Matt Gill, manager of the West Hollywood Library, as he described its collaboration with the City of West Hollywood in providing homeless people with access to a variety of social services representatives at the library.

“Unscientifically, I would say that at any specific time, 25 to 30 percent of the people in the library are homeless,” said Gill, whose pride at being able to help stands in sharp contrast to complaints from some WeHo elected officials and residents about homeless people using the library.

‘Real Change’ donation station (Photo by Jon Viscott, courtesy of the City of West Hollywood)

–A suggestion by City Councilmember John D’Amico, who in the past has been dismissive about helping the homeless, that the Metro bus depot on Santa Monica Boulevard near San Vicente might be a good location for shelter for homeless people during especially cold and wet periods.

–City Councilmember Lauren Meister’s suggestion that we look at efforts to deal with homelessness in other cities across the country and at the recent announcement by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation that it has purchased the rundown Sunset 8 motel in Hollywood to offer transitional housing for homeless people and families with health problems.

–The statement by Molly Rysman, housing and homeless deputy to L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, that they are working on a plan to make it easier to convert motels into housing for the homeless. Tod Lipka, CEO of Step Up on Second, which provides shelter and other services to those who are chronically homeless and have a severe mental illness, said there are thousands of motels in Los Angeles County where such conversions are possible. One example cited by several people after the session is the Holloway Motel at 8465 Santa Monica Blvd., which is only a few hundred feet from the Sal Guarriello Veterans Memorial park, where homeless people now camp.

–The revelation by Colleen Murphy, outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), revelation that they are working on a telephone app that will help residents figure out who to call to deal with homelessness issues ranging from sickness to need of shelter to committing crimes. Currently, given the large number of service providers across the county, there is a lack of clarity about who does what where. The telephone app would let one make single contact with someone who can figure that out.

–Several steps the City of West Hollywood is taking to raise public awareness about how it is addressing the homelessness issue and how residents can act as well.

For example, the city debuted at the meeting a three-minute public service announcement video that tells the story of Jake Weinraub, a mental health clinician for the L.A. LGBT Center, who reaches out to connect people who are homeless with a variety of services and programs. The video is available on the city’s WeHoTV YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/JTa4e9R8-SI.

Corri Planck, who coordinates the city’s homeless services efforts, also discussed its new “Real Change” donation station program, which offers parking meters where one can donate money to help the homeless. The meters, with purple domes and blue and yellow signs, are located at West Hollywood Gateway (La Brea Avenue), Plummer Park (adjacent to the tennis courts), Santa Monica Boulevard at Robertson Boulevard and West Hollywood Park. Councilmember Meister described them as “a great way for community members to support the city’s outreach efforts and services to assist people who are experiencing homelessness.”

And the city is producing “Homeless Not Hopeless” cards that contain detailed contact information for community members who have concerns about the homeless and “Help Is Within Reach” pocket guides are being used by outreach teams to help people who are homeless to access resources.

What was less encouraging?

Well, Molly Rysman, Supervisor Kuehl’s housing and homeless deputy, noted that the big issue is economics, aka money. Yes, a noticeable number of the homeless are mentally ill or suffering from addictions. But the majority just can’t afford housing in a state, county and city where slow and restricted development has resulted in high housing prices and in an economy where even a relatively high employment level has done little to boost stagnant wages.

The goal of Measure H, Rysman said, is to house 45,000 homeless people and prevent 30,000 from falling into homelessness. However, she added, there’s no way to guarantee that that expenditure of more than a billion dollars over 10 years will result in a drop in homelessness so long as wages stay stagnate and housing costs keep going up.

What can we do about that? Solving the problem takes more than an (urban) village like West Hollywood. It will require a statewide effort to make construction of new housing easier, an effort recognized by the state legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown with recent laws to streamline the development process.

Thankfully, in West Hollywood, 93% of  rental units are covered by the city’s rent stabilization law. That protects many of the 78% of the city’s residents who are renters, and is especially important given that 41% of the city’s residents have low or very-low incomes.

However, that rent can be raised to the market rate when a tenant moves out. That provides an incentive for  apartment building owners to push tenants out so that they can raise the rent to the market rate, or sell the property to a developer who can convert it to a new and bigger apartment or condo building that won’t be covered by the rent stabilization law. One day that  homeless man you see urinating in front of an apartment building in West Hollywood may  be someone who once lived there.

  1. I just love councilmember D”Amico’s statement “I still see many of those guys in West Hollywood these many years later.” We know. Especially around election time–we know you get “cozy” with many of your old “friends.” Butt, what is really important to point out is that when D’Amico came blasting on to the political scene in 2011 his motto was and is as he campaigned to “dethrone the Martinetts,” “OUR WEHO–A place for residents–or more specifically–not the homeless, non-dog owners or those that support Steve Martin (Martinetts). Stay out! And speaking of our furry friends, his campaign was run by none other than Animal Activist Ed Buck with a promise to make West Hollywood Fur Free. I love my pets, but I would prefer he had campaigned on a platform of “Meth-free” and that there were more young black men alive to help encourage the homeless to get clean and avoid drugs.

  2. Hank – I did read that sentence which actually refers to the Costa-Hawkins Act NOT Ellis.
    But it’s complicated. I recommend that anyone interested Google California Ellis Act as well as California Costa-Hawkins Act to obtain further and more detailed information.

  3. The best that could happen to solve the homeless crisis is to bring back President Eisenhower’s 90% tax on the super rich.

  4. Hank. I want to thank you for your op-ed on the homeless and expand slightly on your comment about me and the homeless and housing crisis in the city/region. My history of working on homeless issues extends back to my grad school internship in 1988 and volunteering with L.A.M.P. in downtown LA and writing grant proposals while at Tierra Concepts to help with their permanent and transitional housing programs.

    It also includes two years working on the very first LA County HIV testing van interviewing young gay men, 15-22, many of whom were homeless, providing HIV information and referrals to services, and I still see many of those guys in West Hollywood these many years later. It includes serving on the LAHSA Community board and the local and National Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS boards as part of the HUD funding efforts in the mid to late 90’s while working at APLA. It also includes working with the LA Housing partnership in their development efforts renovating an SRO on 6th and Alvarado and building new affordable housing in Carson and major renovations on Wilshire Boulevard buildings – all targeting low income and homeless people. And while a WEHO city Human services commissioner I added safe, secure housing as a priority for our Human Services grants – knowing that housing is often key to success in stabilizing people in their lives.

    And since becoming a councilmember we have all worked to help mitigate the effects of this crisis. In 2016, I added an emergency $650K to the homeless service public safety budget and while working with Kristin Cook we discovered just exactly how much of our public safety efforts and dollars are used on homeless related public safety, and that information was sent to Senator Feinstein’s office.

    My more recent comments at the city council regarding the responsibility of homeless people to follow our laws, the same way we expect residents and visitors to, including the use of the public right of way still seem appropriate. We all live in this city and we cannot lose track of the idea that we all share the public space and have to follow the laws. Our residents are concerned, scared and want real action when it comes to helping the homeless and keeping the entire community safe.

    You will remember from that study session I was the one that asked about the actual housing goals of measure H beyond agency collaboration. The long-term strategy of housing people remains my main interest. Always has been, a lifetime of professional effort to help achieve that. Keep this issue in front of the public. As always, you and everyone else can reach me to discuss this at my mobile number 310.498.5783. Or shoot me an email jdamico@weho.org.

  5. u are totally missing the point –homelessness cannot be reduced fairly— without real and punitive damages being fully paid by mud slinging terrorist usa who backs abuses toward victims —-moreover compensation must be enough to solve all resultant problems—and do not forget by any means–visas to vacate— as victim need not be poisoned nor abused by conspired terrorist groups such as ur selves

  6. Most of the homeless I come across in West Hollywood are addicts, alcoholics or those with mental issues. Building more affordable housing won’t help them.

    I strongly support what Mayor Heilman said, that we need to allow for more ASSERTIVE work for those with mental illness and that we must SUPPORT legislation that allows for compassionate INTERVENTION. Mayor Heilman also said that while we must be compassionate with the homeless, that we also need to be compassionate towards the residents, business owners and library patrons. I fully support that. Nobody ever makes that point in all these discussions, so bravo to the Mayor for saying that!

    I was also happy to hear Councilmember Duran counter statements made by one panelists (that sounded very anti-Sheriffs Department) that when the homeless commit a crime or present danger to the public, the Sheriff’s Department would still be the main point of contact.

    Just because you’re homeless (either by choice or by circumstance) you have NO RIGHT to destroy the quality of life of those that do have a home and work very hard to keep it.

    Thank you to the City for addressing one of the biggest issues (if not THE biggest issue) our City (and many others) face.

  7. I hardly know where to start. First, I want to apologize to the meeting for not being able to attend, I was in meetings in Playa Del Ray with members of my team discussing recent requests for articles on AdvanceAbilities, my non-profit entity devoted to helping disabled and vulnerable seniors back from the edge into a healthy, engaged life, from AARP the Magazine and The New York Times. I lost track of time and missed the meeting.

    I think that this is a great idea. We need to destroy the silos that have kept us so stagnant in our approach. As both a former County employee and one of Michael Weinstein’s former detractors for personal reasons, I am extremely happy to see that including AHF’s housing for Health initiative people in future discussions is not being vetoed. There are realities that make them an essential partner in this discussion. The first and obvious one is that they have money and resources. There are also some great people that work there. They are getting endless flack for things like ‘why aren’t they spending all of that housing money on heath care?’ If there is really anyone out there that doesn’t see how housing IS healthcare by now, tell them to write or call me and to brace themselves. One of their realities is that it doesn’t cost $450,000 per unit to create nice, logically sized, properly outfitted units as the city of Los Angeles asserts.
    I am having a hard time believing that I am saying this at times, but I am – it’s time to move forward and the notion that we can afford to not include any capable provider is not an option. The other reality is that if any provider steps out of line in any way and stops working for the greater good, there are people like me and many others that will see that they are properly notified of the issues at hand and do whatever necessary within the law to change things.

    There is one word whose either absence or rarity in the above piece is ‘Affordable’. LA County can build itself silly with $3000+ studios and worse for larger units, but I don’t see how we can deal with our current transportation blueprint if we become the next NYC where new apartments with say 2 bedrooms are only afforded by 4 – 5 residents or more in a unit. And I am not talking low income residents – I have had numerous friends with decent jobs living at that density, just to afford their lives. The difference is that the density of both surface buses, underground trains, and – yes, tons of taxis, is so much higher than it is here, that we can’t properly serve density anywhere near New York’s. Also, the quality of life that once made LA so attractive will go out the window. So, yes, wages on one end and affordability on the other must both jibe.

    As the local representative on the National AIDS Housing Coalition (NAHC) board in DC, and my recent board membership for the NLIHC, I have had frequent contact with HUD secretaries and those congress members who are Homeless and Affordable Housing supporters, like Durbin, etc. There is an amazing range of ideas that I think we in CA should be aware of and not seen as threatening as many providers have in the past, but helpful as we are all in this together. I can go on here – but in respect for Hank’s request to limit our comment words, I am even more sorry I wasn’t there and will be there in the future.

  8. There is no protection for any renter as long as the dreaded Ellis Act exists which, for some bizarre reason, Mr. Scott failed to mention .

    1. @DDD. I think you missed this sentence: “However, that rent can be raised to the market rate when a tenant moves out. That provides an incentive for  apartment building owners to push tenants out so that they can raise the rent to the market rate, or sell the property to a developer who can convert it to a new and bigger apartment or condo building that won’t be covered by the rent stabilization law.” It is a reference to the Ellis Act, but needs to be explained because many don’t know that term.

  9. Interesting swipe at D’Amico in this Hank “.John D’Amico, who in the past has been dismissive about helping the homeless,” Along with your other swipe in the More op/ed, focused only on the money D’Amico got from Buck, not the other long incumbents, makes me ponder is this a discussion or a political blog at this point, with your views weaved in? I can’t help to wonder why all the developer money that pour into our election cycle for our long term incumbents that has produced luxury housing along Santa Monica Blvd that is in fact the new housing that got created in #weho recently in mass sit empty? Isn’t that the real story here? How to get money out of our politics, so politicians do the peoples work, not their biggest donations or PAC’S work?

    1. @Shawn Thompson—You seem surprised and/or confused. The article you read is an OP-ED, which is like an opinion, which is like a blog, which is like a political blog, which is open to discussion, kinda like this.

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