Where are we now on homelessness in Los Angeles?
Much has happened in the three months since my UrbDeZine colleague Michael Russell unpacked the arc of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. In early 2016, both the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles approved comprehensive plans to tackle homelessness within their respective jurisdictions. Largely thanks to Home Rule, inter-cooperative city/county policy making has never been a regular trait of L.A. politics. But with L.A.’s homeless crisis reaching a state of emergency across jurisdictional boundaries, the old “policy making in silos” approach simply wouldn’t work here. Even the New York Times took note in a story highlighting collaboration between the two governments on Los Angeles’ homeless crisis response. The million dollar question remaining for Los Angeles City and County is, “How do we pay for it?”
I applaud the City and County for working together to solve the homeless crisis. And I’m glad to see wide media coverage spotlighting these efforts. But I hasten to remind readers that homelessness is confined neither to L.A. City limits nor L.A. County unincorporated areas. The homeless crisis is plainly visible across the entire Los Angeles region. It’s especially visible in the City of Pasadena, where I live.
The homeless crisis in the City of Pasadena
Homelessness, of course, is not new to Pasadena. The city’s size, relatively higher income levels, and diverse landscape have drawn homeless persons for years. Pasadena is the largest city in the San Gabriel Valley, encompassing 22.5 square miles, nearly 141,000 residents, and a median household income of $70,845. The city’s abundant parks and recreational areas, expansive foothills, numerous freeway embanks, plus a mix of urban, suburban, and industrial areas, have long provided sites for encampments. City leaders continue to implement targeted strategies developed a decade ago in the City of Pasadena 10-year Strategy to End Homelessness.
Today, homeless camps can be found anywhere from the tony Old Pasadena shopping district, to genteel streets surrounding Caltech, to diverse neighborhoods in Northwest and East Pasadena, and everywhere else in between. Notably, the official count of homeless persons living in Pasadena has dropped in recent years, though problems relating to homelessness doggedly remain. According to Anne Lansing of the City of Pasadena Housing Department, while the number of Pasadena’s homeless reduced from 1,216 in 2011 to 632 in 2015, “the needs of the population and their visibility is up.”
Also up are reports of aggressive homeless persons, say Pasadena officials. In 2015, residents, business owners, shoppers and tourists alike reported more belligerent encounters with the homeless on Pasadena streets. As Larry Wilson reported in the Pasadena Star-News last October, Mayor Terry Tornek confirmed that aggressive homeless overtook parking tickets as the #1 complaint to city hall.
I’ve observed the increasing visibility of Pasadena’s homeless population citywide. My mom worked at Pacific Bell (later SBC, then AT&T) in or near Pasadena since I was a youth, and I visited the city regularly back then. From 2008 to 2014, I lived at the apartments above the Metro Gold Line Del Mar Station in Old Pasadena, across from Central Park, a regular homeless hangout. My wife and I now in Pasadena’s culturally and economically diverse council district 5. I’ve witnessed and experienced the kind of troubling encounters with the homeless that Mayor Tornek referenced. I’ve had to make some of those reports.
On balance, I’ve also met some of the sweetest people around who happen to live on Pasadena’s streets. Of course not all homeless people are belligerent, though, it’s not a stretch to admit some are. What can’t be refuted is that many homeless are in dire need of mental health and substance abuse counseling, and all homeless people need food, medicine, and permanent housing.
For many years now, Pasadena has addressed homelessness using a balanced approach that combines empathetic social services and responsive law enforcement. City departments partner with allied County agencies, colleges, and nonprofits to offer housing, emergency shelter, rent assistance, mental health and substance abuse counseling, and more. Advocacy agencies such as Union Station Homeless Service — which has served Pasadena since 1973 — provide multi-faceted programs and solutions “To help men, women and children rebuild their lives, and end homelessness.” These partnerships have gotten at-risk people like Dorothy Edwards off Pasadena streets and into city-supported permanent housing.
And for every classist Op-Ed vilifying homeless individuals in Pasadena, there are compassionate rebuttals that challenge the vitriol while advocating continuing collaboration to aid this highly vulnerable population.
Proposed Measures to Address Homelessness in Pasadena
On February 22, 2016, Pasadena City Council’s Public Safety Committee considered measures to address homelessness in the city, but took no action. According to Pasadena Now, the item was tabled for a month due to the absence of district 6 Councilmember Steve Madison, whose Old Pasadena district contends with persistent homeless concerns. Speakers included developers and residents who supported the plan, and advocates from Black Lives Matter Pasadena who questioned if the measures would unfairly criminalize homeless African-Americans.
The Public Safety Committee wisely took a month to assess comments raised at the February 22nd hearing. During that time, city staff modified the plan in response to those concerns. Now it’s time to act. The Public Safety Committee will revisit the proposed homeless response measures in a special public meeting on March 23, 2016.
No doubt the month of reflection allowed elected leaders to weigh constituents’ concerns while revisiting the particulars of the plan. In doing so, I firmly believe the Public Safety Committee, and soon after the City Council, will see that this proposal is more than reasonable.
I fully support Pasadena’s proposed Measures to Address Homelessness.
The ambitious plan asks city leaders to pursue the following priorities:
1) Enact local ordinances to bolster responsive law enforcement
- New ordinance defining “camping,” “maintaining a camping facility,” and “lodging”, and municipal enforcement thereof, to fill gaps in state law that have resulted in insufficient responsiveness to illegal lodging in public or private places without permission.
- New ordinance delineating the spatial boundaries of business districts — such as Old Pasadena, Playhouse District, South Lake Avenue Business District, and Hastings Ranch — and prohibiting lodging in any public right-of-way, camping, or maintaining a camping facility within these districts during business hours.
- New ordinance prohibiting begging or soliciting in any public right-of way using “threatening, coercive, or menacing” behavior, which is a more reasonable standard than the state law’s higher threshold of being “accosted” by an aggressive panhandler.
2) Create and expand housing programs
- Landlord Reimbursement Fund is a new program enabling property owners to receive city reimbursement if a homeless housing voucher recipient damages a dwelling unit or causes loss of rent because of eviction. Proposed program funding: $30,000.
- Homeless Prevention Fund would be expanded to offer additional short-term assistance covering late rent and utility bills. The proposed expansion reflects a belief in prevention as a core strategy to combat homelessness. Proposed program funding: $50,000.
- Motel to Housing Voucher Engagement Program would be expanded to expedite the transition to permanent housing by offering the homeless short-term motel stays via city-provided vouchers while permanent housing options are sought. Proposed program funding: $75,000.
- Rapid Re-housing Program would be expanded and would allow short-term rental assistance to fund permanent housing for people who’ve recently become homeless. Proposed program funding: $95,000.
3) Consider additional municipal responses and social welfare programs
- Public Libraries Homeless Caseworker program would place city health department staff in Pasadena libraries frequented by the homeless to offer services and housing to homeless patrons. Proposed program funding: $84,000 annually.
- Additional Homeless Outreach-Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) Team is a proposed initiative to add a fourth HOPE task force of police and social workers to respond to homeless persons needing mental health services and housing. Proposed program funding: $216,000 annually.
- Enhanced Security at City Parks would include deployment of surveillance cameras and improved lighting and fencing, coupled with enhanced park programming, to create a safer, more enjoyable atmosphere in the city’s parks. Proposed program funding: To be determined, with a potential use of CDBG funds.
- Code of Conduct Policies would be authorized for public facilities defining unruly behaviors that can lead to expulsion from these public spaces.
- Expedited Demolition of Vacant Buildings is a program under early consideration that would provide land owners a fast-track to obtaining a demolition permit to bulldoze vacant buildings without having to pull a replacement permit for that site. As part of this proposal, fast-track permitting is also being considered for land owners amicable to using a vacant building for temporary housing, provided that this use complies with the parcel’s zoning.
4) Adopt a permanent supportive housing policy statement
An earlier version of the “Measures” recommended building supportive housing on city-owned properties. Some constituents expressed concerns about appropriate siting and potential over-clustering of such housing developments in specific areas of Pasadena. In response to these concerns, staff has proposed the following policy statement affirming the city’s commitment to housing the homeless:
“The City of Pasadena believes that decent, safe and affordable housing is the right of every Pasadena resident. Furthermore, the long term solution for homelessness is the provision of permanent supportive housing. Therefore, the City will seek to provide permanent supportive housing wherever possible in all parts of the City, particularly in locations where there is a persistent presence of unsheltered homeless persons.”
It’s Time to Approve the Measures
The proposed “Measures” are robust, well-rounded, comprehensive, and narrowly tailored to address the homeless crisis in Pasadena. The bulk of this strategy entails targeted programs and services that respond to the unique needs of the city’s homeless population. The recommended ordinance updates focus on disorderly behaviors, not one’s status as a homeless individidual. In other words, the proposed plan balances the interests of a homeless population needing shelter and services and the interests of stakeholders concerned about Pasadena’s quality of life and property values.
Thankfully, much needed political will exists to get this done. Many Pasadena stakeholders support the proposed “Measures.” I encourage those unfamiliar with the plan to consider its merits as outlined above.
The time to act is now.
I urge our elected leaders to APPROVE the Measures to Address Homelessness in Pasadena.
Disclaimer: Opinions in this essay are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of any public, private, or non-profit organization with which I’m affiliated.
Photos 3, 4, and 5 by the author.