Government-Run Homeless Camps Could Come To LA
The coronavirus pandemic is exposing deep rifts in American society, underscoring the flaws in how our society has dealt with massive social problems, especially homelessness.
One vision of how Los Angeles could, in the future, treat its homeless residents can be found today at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration campus, in Brentwood.
Inside the fence on the VA's verdant campus, staged on a parking lot off San Vicente Boulevard, is a government-facilitated campground that's home to about 30 people. It was set up at the beginning of April for homeless veterans who were showing up at the VA in need of a place to ride out the pandemic.
The residents are provided tents, drinking water, three meals a day, porta-potties, and electrical outlets to charge their phones. The site has on-site security and health care as well as access to case management, substance abuse counseling and mental health support.
Lisa Thompkins, a former medic in the U.S. Air Force, is one of the only women at the camp. She had been staying at the Salvation Army's Bell Shelter, but she was forced to leave when the congregate shelter reduced its capacity to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
"There was some issues with social distancing and face mask-wearing, and I found myself all of a sudden without a place to go," Thompkins said.
As a vet, she was able to turn to the VA for resources.
"Within a couple hours, I was here with the tent, a sleeping bag and a trunk for all of my worldly belongings — my mats and jackets and all that kind of stuff," she said. "I'm sober today and I'm happy today and I'm walking in peace today. I have this motto that I go by all the time: I was given this life because I'm strong enough to live it. And I ride on that every single day."
Thompkins is grateful for the campsite. She said she has struggled with homelessness for nearly two decades as she dealt with a combination of post traumatic stress and alcohol abuse.
"This place is awesome. I wish they had done this a long time ago," she said.
GOVERNMENT SANCTIONED CAMPSITE
This is what is known as a government-sanctioned or "safe" campsite, a seldom-used option among the tools state and local governments have to manage homelessness.
California has a handful of such sites, from San Diego to Sacramento, but the strategy has never been broadly adopted. In Southern California, one of the largest examples came approximately a decade ago in the city of Ontario, which moved approximately 200 people indoors over the course of several years.
The idea is to provide a designated location with services that address homeless people's most basic needs — food, water and safety.
Officially, the VA camp is the"Care Treatment Rehabilitation Service" program, or "CTRS" in federal acronym speak. It's a first-come, first-served, low-barrier-to-entry program that aims to provide up to 50 veterans access to supportive services.
Dr. Anjani Reddy, the clinical director of the V.A. of Greater Los Angeles' homeless program, says each client receives a high level of personal attention.
"One of the reasons that this is so far working is that we are engaging every day, all day, clinically," Reddy said. "We have a physician on site every day. We have social workers on site every day. And so we're really collaborating across this clinical spectrum."
While the ideal would be to move people into stable housing as soon as possible, that can take years under normal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder. The camp is a place where those experiencing homelessness can stay during the interim.
"We continue to move them towards stable housing but we recognize that that's limited right now, and it may be limited more in the future," Reddy said. "We are committed to keeping the site open during the duration of the pandemic."
Lisa Thompkins says the CTRS is head and shoulders above life on the street. She doesn't have to go looking for food and water and she can get regular medical care.
"When you're outside, you don't really take your meds as prescribed, or you don't even go in to get checked for it in the first place," Thompkins said. "There are a lot of people out there that are sleeping on sidewalks or on grass in a park or in makeshift tents or whatever they can find who don't have one clue about what is really the underlying issue."
It's also what Thompkins called a "wet environment," meaning you don't have to be totally clean of drugs and alcohol to live on site. Thompkins described it as a "harm reduction" environment, where clients have access to resources to help break the cycle of addiction.
"So if you want help, this is a really, really healthy place to be able to ask for it and get it," she said.
COULD SANCTIONED CAMPS BE A WAY FORWARD?
For some, opening public land for sanctioned camping is a no-brainer. When I'm talking to people who live outside, it's not uncommon for me to hear the question: Why can't they just open up all these vacant lots and let us camp on them?
Although the occasional safe campsite might spring, they're typically local occurrences with dedicated leadership — like the VA's urgent need to provide place for veterans during the pandemic.
For others, safe camping sites are a public policy pariah. Homeless service providers, advocates for the homeless and local politicians often balk at the idea. Sanctioned camps can be difficult to manage and can seem like a city is just giving up.
Although residents of sanctioned campsites have access to food, water and trash pickup, they're still homeless and living outside in tents that lack indoor plumbing and electricity.
Many politicians consider them non-starters for fear of angry neighbors and lawsuits and some advocates think sanctioned campsites take the focus off providing permanent housing.
At the same time, the urgency of the growing homelessness crisis, and the particular vulnerability of homeless people to the coronavirus, has people in high places pushing for the government to open its public land. One of them is Dr. Jonathan Sherin, who directs the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.
"We talk a lot about individuals needing a roof over their head or, you know, a space in a shelter. And what I would say is that actually they need refuge in whatever form we can provide it," said Sherin.
Sherin has a loose definition of "refuge" and points to the campsite at the VA as an example. He points out that the costs of not providing refuge are enormous. While homeless people accrue ever more physical and emotional trauma on the street, distinct from the staggering toll of human suffering, their health bills inevitably end up becoming the responsibility of taxpayers.
"When we let people languish in the street, we are subjecting them to predictable, ongoing trauma. That trauma fuels illness, including mental illness and addiction, so that I'm generating more customers. Other health departments are generating more customers," said Sherin.
Sherin doesn't consider offering refuge as giving up as so much an acceptance that the existing "solutions" for homelessness are neither fast enough nor available at the scale Southern California needs.
SANCTIONED CAMPS BY CONSENT DECREE?
Another vocal supporter of sanctioned camps is Federal Judge David Carter. He's presiding over a court case that has unfolded on a similar timeline to the coronavirus pandemic. It could have massive implications for everyone in Los Angeles.
Both the city and county of Los Angeles are moving toward settling the lawsuit filed in March by a coalition of property owners who say the government has handled mass homelessness with negligence. It's possible a settlement could result in a judicial consent decree, an agreement where a judge supervises ongoing progress made toward the terms of the settlement. Settlement proposals are due in court this week.
It's likely a settlement would follow the path of several Orange County cities who have brokered a peace with advocates for the homeless.
The settlements are part of a consent decree managed by Carter's court. They require cities to build more and better shelter options for at least 60% of the people living on the streets before enforcing anti-camping laws in their jurisdiction. (It's one of the first attempts at compromise following a landmark 2019 case that said homeless people could not be prosecuted for sleeping in public spaces if shelter options aren't available.)
Los Angeles officials have hinted that the 60% goal would be mimicked in the city. But the scale of homelessness here means there's no obvious answer to the question: How do we shelter 60% of L.A.'s homeless?
We would need 35,000 beds to house 60% of Los Angeles County's homeless population. That's far more than the number of shelter and other housing options the city has produced over the last several years.
An order from Judge Carter's Court on May 2 said that, while the eventual goal should be to provide transitional and permanent housing for homeless residents, "that goal appears unattainable in the short term." Carter wrote:
"It appears, moving forward, that the most viable option is to use public property for the creation of a safe and healthy living environment for the homeless population currently living without shelter."
Alongside opening hotels and recreation centers to homeless residents, that same order also discussed the potential for "the relocation of homeless persons to publicly owned or controlled locations designated for use as temporary and/or permanent living location."
In court, Judge Carter has given presentations on UN camps used to house displaced Syrian refugees.
INTENTIONAL INTERIM COMMUNITIES
When Dr. Sherin was called to Judge Carter's court in April, he outlined a vision for "intentional interim communities," where residents have access to food, water, and bathrooms, but also advanced physical and mental health services, social workers, and legal assistance.
"That is something that you contrast with waiting while people deteriorate for a $500,000 or $600,000 unit with long term services," said Sherin.
As for where such refuge could potentially be provided, a map created last year by L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin's office highlights more than 14,000 government-owned properties in the city of Los Angeles. More than half are owned by the city itself.
Meanwhile, the West L.A. VA is poised to open a second parking lot in the same area to house a few more veterans.
As for Lisa Thompkins, she is still far from getting into somewhere that has internal plumbing but she has a modicum of stability for the time being.
"It's not ideal, no. But I'm making it work. I've got my pink comforter in here, and I got my unicorn squishmellow for a pillow. I even have a doorbell," Thompkins said as she demonstrated a little chime.
She said she has never been so well hydrated in her life.