Accountability Check: Street Outreach At Encampments In Downtown
Across from the United States Courthouse and next to the 101 freeway downtown, there’s a bridge-housing facility operated by the Weingart Center that opened in August 2020. At the time, Mayor Eric Garcetti said it would give “hope and help to people literally living on the sidewalks.” But 13 months later, there’s an encampment outside its doors, with roughly nine tents on the sidewalk.
One of those tents is home to Otis Gossett, a 59-year-old unhoused man who was born and raised in Los Angeles. Next door is the tent of his girlfriend. Gossett said they’ve been outdoors for three months since someone with COVID-19 came into the nearby bridge housing facility.
“They wanted everyone to quarantine,” he said. “I’m not going to stay up in no quarantine when I know I got my vaccination ... they said if we leave we can’t come back up in there.”
A Bridge Home was the program launched in 2018 by the mayor and city council to take advantage of a new state law that allowed housing to be built quickly on land owned or leased by the city. It’s meant to be a place of refuge for unhoused people, complete with support programs, until they can find permanent housing. This one is located in Kevin de León's council district 14, which includes downtown — the epicenter of L.A.'s homelessness epidemic.
Gossett said the bridge housing wasn’t so bad because it offers a place to stay, three meals a day, access to showers and television, and residents can come and go as they please. He said it’s not perfect, but the last straw was what he called the “hypocrisy” of staff members who said unhoused people living there had to quarantine, but staff could come and go as they pleased.
“So me and my girl, we got our dog, and we left,” Gossett said. “I’m just waiting on my papers to come back.”
Those would be documents Gossett signed with an outreach worker to help him get a Section 8 housing voucher. He said he will likely have to wait another month for everything to go through, but once it does, he can begin to look for a permanent place to live.
When the L.A. City Council adopted its first-ever citywide unhoused street engagement strategy in September, it was a big step in addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness in L.A. The policy requires councilmembers to go through a formal process for the removal of encampments in their districts. These anti-camping zones prohibit unhoused people from setting up homes near parks, schools and other locations that obstruct the public right-of-way.
Ladell Stephens, a 55-year-old unhoused man who lives in a tent near Gossett outside the bridge home at Civic Center, said he was kicked out after living there for two months because of a dispute over his clothing that he alleged was given away by staff members to other unhoused people. He said he’s been in touch with his outreach worker at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to get back inside, but was told there was no availability.
But Charles McDowell, a 70-year-old man experiencing homelessness who spent almost four months in the bridge housing at Civic Center, said he left on good terms. McDowell was living on the streets in downtown near 8th St. and Wall St. in March when an outreach worker with LAHSA asked if he wanted shelter.
“Within four days I was in my own room — TV, air conditioned, all that,” he said. “I’m definitely happy. As long as you are not messing up, disrespecting nobody, and not fighting anyone, everything is good.”
CD 14 councilmember de León targeted 10 locations in his district for enforcement under the city’s revamped anti-camping laws that follow a framework to offer connections to housing for unhoused people. He decided to focus outreach in his district mostly on encampments near shelters or bridge housing. Of the locations marked for enforcement, only two are public parks. One location is near a city-owned daycare in City Hall East for city employees.
At the Paseo de la Plaza park across from Union Station, there was only one unhoused couple. They told me they had just arrived from Bakersfield and were resting while trying to figure out their next steps.
I was confused why CD 14 would focus on targeting places near where people experiencing homelessness are housed. The bridge housing facility at Civic Center was the only place there were signs of an encampment on the days I visited different locations.
Pete Brown, director of communications for de León, said the reason for targeting encampments near shelters and interim housing was to fulfill a commitment to the public that encampments won’t re-emerge in places they’ve already done outreach. Brown said de León doesn’t see the law as a tool to punish people.
“We are demonstrating that you can lead with housing,” Brown said. “It’s a way to encourage people who go into shelter to not return outside. We are housing people and, as we house them, we are preventing other people from re-establishing encampments.”
That has proven difficult in some cases. At the S. Saint Louis Street Park in Boyle Heights, unhoused people I spoke with said they were in touch with outreach teams, but declined offers of shelter or interim housing. Oscar, who only wanted to use his first name, sleeps outside the bridge housing near the Civic Center. He told me the cost of rent is what drove him into homelessness. And although he’s able to pick up some occasional work for wholesale stores downtown, he can’t find “full-time work to afford a full-time apartment.”
They don't really know your story or why you're here. They assume you’re a piece of crap and they treat you like that.
Oscar said outreach workers have come to offer places to sleep and he’s grateful for the work they do, but he has reservations about going into another shelter after previous stays did not lead to permanent housing.
Brown said outreach hasn’t stopped at the parks, or other locations where unhoused people have declined offers of shelter.
Tanya McBride has been unhoused for two years. She has been living outside the bridge housing at Civic Center for nearly four months and said she would take shelter “in a minute” if offered to her. She said outreach workers hand out food, but “they aren’t handing out housing.”
“Look at this,” she said, referring to the many tents around her. “Who the hell wants to go through this?”
She said being unhoused is “horrible” because “everybody puts you down.”
“They don't really know your story or why you're here,” she said. “They assume you’re a piece of crap and they treat you like that.”
My conversations with people experiencing homelessness outside the bridge home at Civic Center offer insight into why some unhoused people are reluctant to move indoors.
Sarah Higgins, a program director at The People Concern for metro Los Angeles, a nonprofit that provides services for unhoused people and coordinates with LAHSA to do outreach in CD 14, said she can see why housed people may not understand why someone experiencing homelessness would give up a roof over their head — or refuse to take an offer of one.
“People with pretty intense trauma histories, it can be overwhelming being around other people. They have trust issues,” Higgins said in a phone interview. “People who have really intense medical conditions, it’s hard for people to live in congregate living situations. Everyone is different.
“We’ve had people who had great experiences and could adapt to that style of living and develop a community. And others it will be a struggle for, through no fault of their own or for lack of trying. For some people it is easier to be more independent and have more freedom. It can be a huge transition for someone coming in from outdoors.”
Brown, the spokesperson for de León, said outreach efforts will ramp up at the bridge housing at Civic Center and they will focus on that location as they did the encampment at 6th St. and Main St.. Brown said they housed nearly 100 people in interim shelters or Project Roomkey after outreach that began in March. Brown said they continue to use Project Roomkey since President Biden announced the government will cover the costs of the program until March 30, 2022. The sidewalk along Main St. has since been fenced off.
For this location, Councilmember Kevin de León also had the Los Angeles City Fire Department submit data that showed there were 291 Emergency Medical Services calls to that location from March 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021. There were five deaths at the encampment during that same time period, according to a letter addressed to the city council. There were nearly 1,400 unhoused deaths in Los Angeles in 2020, and data from the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner suggests 2021 will be deadlier.
The affordable housing trickle down effect
Higgins, of The People Concern, said most of their team’s day is spent on the streets, visiting encampments three to four times a week, engaging with unhoused people and offering street medicine services. But finding appropriate shelter placements that are best for an individual experiencing homelessness can be hard.
When assessing an unhoused person’s needs, they ask questions such as whether an unhoused person has been attacked, or had a lot of interactions with police, according to Higgins. Based on those answers, unhoused people are assigned a vulnerability score on a scale of 0-17, with 17 being the most vulnerable.
“[For] people who are more vulnerable, they will prioritize beds,” she said.
If people aren’t leaving shelters, we aren’t able to take on new clients. It’s been a big trickle down effect on resources at all levels.
Another obstacle is the lack of affordable housing options. Otis Gossett, the unhoused man waiting for his Section 8 voucher, may have a difficult time finding a place. According to Higgins, many landlords aren’t open to accepting vouchers. She said depending on where a client wants to live, it can take longer — sometimes up to a year — if there’s high demand for apartments.
“The lack of affordable housing affects everything,” Higgins said. “If people aren’t leaving shelters, we aren’t able to take on new clients. It’s been a big trickle down effect on resources at all levels.”
Gossett said that if enforcement happens before he’s able to secure an apartment, he would “pack it up and go somewhere else” until he does.
Brown, the spokesperson for de León, said they have not put a strict timeline on getting outreach done, and no signs warning that the encampment will be cleared have been put up.
“We are going to continue to educate people,” Brown said. “We are optimistic that most people, when offered housing, will take it.”