As homelessness soars in Los Angeles, politicians pretend to care
Claudia Brick
volume 37
issue 5
October 2016

Tents line a Los Angeles street, in stark contrast with the opulent skyline. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / AP Photo

Yes. LA has a housing and homelessness problem. No news there. And it’s probably not news that many solutions are continually rejected by politicians and developers — capitalists all!

The problems are myriad. Thrust onto the cement by sky-rocketing rents, foreclosures and evictions, homeless people routinely face the indignities of life without walls, where nothing they do can ever be private. Instead of protecting them from police harassment, the city of Los Angeles has made it easier for police to sweep homeless people from the streets, forcing them to get their belongings off the sidewalks by 6 a.m. Cops routinely slash tents, saying they are afraid of what might be inside (snakes?) and confiscate and destroy the meager food and possessions.

Shabby ballot efforts. There are 47,000 homeless folks in LA County, 28,000 of them in the city. To make himself look good, Mayor Garcetti has announced the lofty goal of building 100,000 housing units by 2021. To fund this, his LA City Council has of course proposed a bond measure — for $1.2 billion! Like all bond measures, it is a regressive tax that lays the bill squarely on the heads of working people instead of taxing the millionaires and billionaires.

Not the proposed LA city bond proposal nor any other can make city politicians stop handing money to real estate developers — long coddled through tax savings, building incentives, and zoning variances — through endless bonds that yield little affordable housing and no very low-income housing!

What’s needed in addition to genuine housing for homeless and impoverished people are the transitional services necessary to help people coming from foster care, jail, hospitals, and the military, as well as the mentally ill and chronically homeless. Already, a shift from transitional services to only permanent housing has increased the number of homeless. For example, the Panama Hotel, once a 220-room facility where people could stay up to 90 days to get their lives together with the help of therapists and cases managers, is now vacant. It was gutted for remodeling. When it does reopen, the Panama will have only 72 units, all dedicated to permanent, albeit supportive, housing. And another 150 people will be back on the streets.

When the LA County Board of Supervisors identified their priorities for the coming year, they quite rightly included homelessness. But board members have yet to exert the political will to find funding. Most of their ideas for funding were nixed because they competed with ballot measures already proposed for parks and transportation — all taxes on the public. Then they decided to sin tax the coming marijuana industry. But that flopped when service providers absurdly balked at using drug money to fund services for substance abuse patients. Taxing drug profits apparently didn’t occur to them.

The gentrification Godzilla. The biggest culprit in the creation of the homeless and housing crisis is gentrification. The city’s routine rubber-stamping of developer requests for zoning variances has created a domino effect. Builders now expect the city to approve their plans for outlandishly oversized projects, out of character for the neighborhoods, and with little input from the affected residents.

One example of this ridiculousness is the Reef Projects being planned in South LA, touted as sure-to-transform “blighted” pockets of the city. Blighted to whom? Not to the people they will displace, who have spent generations building their communities. This one project will displace up to 44,000 residents, most of whom are people of color who will not find another affordable place to live nearby. At the only community meeting held, the developer’s representative responded to residents’ questions, saying that they supported affordable housing, but there would be none in this project.

There are solutions. Even simple, reasonable ideas for faster relief from homelessness get no traction. Why can’t city-owned properties be designated as safe parking areas for homeless individuals lucky enough to have a car for shelter? Why can’t they repurpose unused city buildings like the abandoned jail for which they have requested proposals, though limiting the amount of space for housing in the former jail to 15 percent? Why? Why? Because there’s no profit in it.

To get the LA City and County politicians and Gov. Brown to do something besides try to pass crippling bond measures, it will take very bold and very loud pressure. More and more people and groups like Cloud 9, Monday Night Mission and the Renters Day Coalition are organizing. Joined by community political groups like the Freedom Socialist Party, unions, tenants, jobless and homeless folks, and working class homeowners — plotting and acting together — we could put a lot of pressure on elected officials to do what’s absolutely necessary and entirely possible:

• Declare a State of Emergency on homelessness to get federal funds.

• Impose a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and the destruction of rent controlled buildings.

• Immediately provide safe, quality shelter and basic necessities to all homeless people until permanent housing is available.

• Convert all abandoned LA City and County buildings into public housing.

• Expand project-based Section 8 (attached to apartment buildings).

• Expand rent control to all rental living spaces.

• Create living-wage union jobs through massive public works programs.

Ample resources exist. We just need to pressure the elected officials into doing the right thing.

The author lives and organizes in South Los Angeles. Send feedback to

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