Civil Rights

Emergency Services: Enabling Life

By Peggy Lee Kennedy

There has been an upsurge of homeless deaths reported this winter, especially with the recent cold snap we had in November and December.  There should be distress and horror regarding this happening here in Los Angeles, but not surprise. Los Angeles has for years carried the shame of being the Homeless Capital of the United States. And, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), the population of homeless people being sheltered in Los Angeles (16.7 percent) is the lowest percentage being sheltered by any major city.

In a NCH study of Los Angeles County homeless deaths, occurring from January 1, 2000 to May 28, 2007 and solely based on information provided by the LA County Coroner’s office, the total deaths were 2,815. Of this number 1,277 were in the City of Los Angeles (Venice is part of Los Angeles City so there is no separate number in the study), 154 were in Long Beach, 111 in Santa Monica, 55 in Pasadena, and 48 in Hollywood. The leading known causes of death were cardiovascular.

In another, more recently published 11 year study of homeless deaths in Sacramento County, by the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, a reported 501 people died as “transient” or without a permanent address (according to the Sacramento County Coroner). About 77 percent of the deceased 501 spent time in the county jail.

Bob Erlenbusch of the Coalition to End Homelessness is calling for creating safe places for homeless people to stay, places for them to receive care; where homeless people can live with basic facilities and without police interference.

Can there be a popular movement for this in Los Angeles? The endless cycle of criminalization and incarceration of homeless people is a well-funded city effort, with the Safer City Initiative in Skid Row and the Homeless Task Forces in Venice. Law enforcement is no solution and can cause severe stress to those already suffering. It’s just cruel, inhumane and unnecessary.

Of course housing is the solution to homelessness, but Los Angeles is providing temporary shelter to but 16.7 percent of its homeless population – hello! The lack of affordable housing is yet another hall of shame horror to be awarded to Los Angeles. No one knows or is keeping any real records of the loss of affordable housing occurring in Los Angeles. Lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness.

Recently I reviewed an amendment to the small lot subdivision ordinance being done by the Los Angeles City Planning Department. The claim was that it will now be more convenient for developers to process the permits. The small lot subdivision is a tool for developers to make money by removing older, more affordable housing, splitting the lot, building to the edge of the new lots, and selling new mini-mansions to the more wealthy people moving in Venice. This is a glaring example of how our city is just on the wrong side to ending homelessness.

There is hope. It’s the people. Around 700 people came to demonstrate in Hollywood against a LeBonge motion that would restrict feeding homeless people in public. A large group of people came out on Christmas day to serve homeless people on Venice Beach this year. A volunteer (mostly Occupy Venice people) effort is staffing a place for homeless people to store their items so they can go in to the temporary Winter Shelter program. And it looks there may be a favorable outcome to the 9th Circuit case regarding the Los Angeles City law (85.02) making it illegal to live in a vehicle. Venice may even succeed in opposing the small lot subdivision crisis. Who knows.

All very hopeful and a good time for the people to make the city move in a more positive direction.

Until the City and County of Los Angeles becomes accountable for the required affordable housing to solve homelessness – instead of being more accountable to the profit of developers instead of using the city budget on law enforcement as if it’s some kind of a solution to poverty – we will remain in this vicious cycle.

Until then, in order to save lives, we must oppose the cruel and inhumane treatment of unhoused people while providing emergency services on the streets where many people have been forced.

While we are at it, let’s start a new conversation about getting some safe places for homeless or vehicle housed people to be legally.

Those are solutions to homelessness and to less people dying on our streets.


Above: Ibrahim Butler. Photo: Jim Smith