Accountability Check: LA City Council And Street Outreach At Homeless Encampments
The Los Angeles City Council in September unanimously adopted its first citywide unhoused street engagement strategy, which was supposed to offer a uniform framework to provide services and connections to housing for unsheltered people.
The decision was lauded as a major step in addressing the needs of the vast number of people experiencing homelessness in L.A., and provided council members with a formal process for the removal of encampments in their districts under city law.
Since that decision, council members have filed more than 100 motions targeting encampments, with more than 50 anti-camping zones approved in October alone. These zones prohibit unhoused people from setting up homes near parks, schools and other locations that obstruct the public right of way.
But the City Council didn’t vote until Nov. 5 to fund additional outreach teams, raising concerns about whether or not this new funding will be sufficient to address the needs of unhoused people living at encampments marked for removal.
Urban Alchemy came once and took down our information and said they were going to come back and contact us, but that’s not even true.
According to a report by the Chief Legislative Analyst that outlines the engagement framework, Service-Focused Outreach programs are intended to provide shelter, services and housing for people experiencing homelessness. The outreach requires multiple contacts with unhoused people to develop trust so that connections can be made while teams from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and other nonprofits contracted by council districts provide services and housing placements.
“Urban Alchemy came once and took down our information and said they were going to come back and contact us, but that’s not even true,” said Johana Madrid, referring to a nonprofit organization contracted to provide services. “Everyone gave their information and they never came back.”
Madrid, who lives at an encampment near Madison West park in O’Farrell’s CD13, said the next time she saw outreach workers for Urban Alchemy, they were only there to hand out bottles of water.
“It looked like they were scoping out what was happening so they could go back and tell someone what was going on over here,” she said. “For them to come back with just a water bottle? It’s not cool. We were expecting to get some form of housing.”
Urban Alchemy was hired by O’Farrell’s office in December 2020 to supplement LAHSA’s outreach efforts, according to Dan Halden, a spokesperson for the council member. He added that outreach was conducted at the sites listed on O’Farrell’s resolution. (If you’re unfamiliar with LAHSA, read our explainer that breaks down what the agency does.)
In a statement, O’Farrell praised Urban Alchemy for its work because the nonprofit hires people to do outreach who have lived experience with homelessness and incarceration. (Urban Alchemy also staffs the city’s mobile pit stops, which are public restrooms to address the needs of mostly unhoused people.)
Halden said in an email that since Spring of 2021, Urban Alchemy has conducted 270 outreach visits at the nine locations listed on O’Farrell’s resolution, and that was in addition to any regular outreach coordinated by LAHSA.
But an unhoused man — who wanted only to be identified as “D” — has been living in an encampment at the Las Palmas Senior and he echoed Madrid’s sentiments about there being no follow-up from outreach teams. He wasn’t sure if they were from Urban Alchemy or LAHSA.
“There’s people who walk around in groups and give you water,” he said. “They are there to collect data more than they are there to reach out ... they draw diagrams of tents on maps and try to attach names ... there’s something distrustful about that, right? Having a checklist of things you see? For example, paraphernalia. They’re here to find ways to get rid of us.”
The checklist “D” was referring to is likely part of the assessment forms that are provided to outreach teams when they visit encampments. A street team doing an assessment collects information such as location, initial visit and contact date, council or county supervisorial district, encampment description, the number of single adults, families or children, and whether there are any behavioral or health concerns. They also document follow up dates and recommended actions.
“D” said certain teams have offered housing or asked for names to be put on a list for shelter, but he hasn’t actually seen people being placed. That may be because the street outreach teams aren’t technically required to offer anyone shelter, according to a report from the city’s chief legislative analyst. When the city council adopted its street engagement strategy, council districts were encouraged to offer shelter or housing, but it is not mandatory.
Ahmad Chapman, communications director for LAHSA, said in a statement that the organization's outreach teams “engage with all people experiencing unsheltered homelessness per our Best Practices For Addressing Street Encampments and that initial outreach efforts consist of building rapport and trust by offering them services that meet their immediate needs. Those services can take many forms, from some food to referrals to mental health and substance abuse treatment to interim and permanent housing whenever those resources are available.”
Brandon, a 39-year-old unhoused veteran I met outside the Las Palmas Senior Center encampment, said he knows people who have spoken with LAHSA on several occasions, the most recent three weeks ago, and “they have not followed up, come back out or done anything for that matter.”
Brandon said he and others from the encampment have gone to hotels they know are Project Roomkey locations to get help, but were unsuccessful. He said there are several employees at these locations, and he wondered why “none of them could do anything.”
He took issue with how complicated the process is to get help, calling homeless outreach “the department of redundancy.” He said he doesn’t understand where the bottleneck is in the system that’s holding everything up, because everywhere he looks there are apartments for rent.
“I was ... trying to get into a hotel room and I was told I was in the system, but I needed to call 211,” he said “I don’t know, it’s not realistic.”
Brandon said people who are housed believe accessing services is simple, but it’s not.
“Holding on to a telephone for longer than 30 days is an accomplishment,” he said. “Two months? It's a miracle.”
A study by the RAND Corporation and USC found many unhoused veterans such as Brandon have not been able to get permanent housing. Sarah Hunter, who directs the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in L.A.,told LAist that outreach services appear to be ineffective, at least when it comes to veterans.
Mark Ridley-Thomas, who spoke with LAist in an interview before he was suspended by his city council colleagues after being indicted on federal corruption charges, acknowledged that the current staffing wasn’t enough to deal with the extent of the crisis. Ridley-Thomas added he was aware that unhoused people complain about being told they would get help, but not hear back from outreach workers.
“That is a function of a lack of person power to get the job done,” said Ridley-Thomas, who chaired the council’s homelessness committee. “If you have more people helping those who are houseless get to a place of residence ... you will see a material difference and you will pressure the system to find more suitable alternatives. There's a lack of deployment that addresses this issue. There’s not enough people going to encampments to try and get them transformed.”
It doesn't feel like we are following the framework and the city policy that we just finished creating.
According to the outreach framework the city council adopted, when there’s a resolution for enforcement at encampments, there are supposed to be a range of efforts from street teams to reach unhoused people living there. Once it’s established and documented, enforcement can begin, which means people experiencing homelessness can no longer be there. But council member Nithya Raman said at an Oct. 20 meeting that she’s concerned the level of outreach they committed to is not happening, saying “it doesn't feel like we are following the framework and the city policy that we just finished creating.”
At the meeting, Raman said she believes outreach has been done at locations marked for enforcement, but wondered why the city council was being asked to vote on 54 locations “with no documentation for us or for the public” to ensure the process was being followed correctly. She didn’t believe it was possible for the process to be followed in the “very brief time” since resolutions were introduced.
“I’m a little concerned,” Raman said. “Why did we pass the street engagement framework if we weren't going to stick to it? Why did we set up this whole system if we were going to authorize the posting of signs before we’ve done all the work of offering shelter?”
Council member Mike Bonin echoed Raman’s comments, saying he knows a lot of outreach work was done by various council member offices, but it “wasn’t at the level they committed to as a body,” and he was concerned about the street engagement strategy not being properly resourced.
The L.A. City Council voted on Nov. 5 to fund five new outreach teams for three months and to hire 15 outreach coordinators in each council district for the next six months. But the additional teams were supposed to be in addition to what was already available to each council district, according to Ridley-Thomas. That raises concerns about whether or not this new funding will be sufficient to address the needs of unhoused people living at encampments marked for enforcement.
Peter, a 44-year-old unhoused man who has lived with his wife at an encampment for two months at the Hollywood Recreation Center, said outreach workers recently collected his information, but gave him no information so that he could follow up. At Barnsdall Art Park, Mike, 40, said he wants housing and that a month ago outreach workers took his name, but they never did a follow up. Gregory, 58, another unhoused man at Barnsdall said the same thing happened to him.
At the Shatto Recreation Center, another location marked for enforcement by O’Farrell, an unhoused man named Luis Perez Reyes, said no one has offered them anything other than food and water. Maria Catalina Sanchez, an unhoused woman who shares a tent with her partner, said she hadn’t seen any service providers for a month or two, and that none of the outreach workers speak Spanish. She also said she has only been offered food and water, but no information about housing.
Outreach workers from Urban Alchemy were at the Shatto Recreation Center encampment handing out food and water the day I was there. When I approached and asked how their efforts were going, they didn’t respond and walked away. None of the outreach workers from Urban Alchemy were carrying materials to document outreach, and they did not talk to any unhoused people, other than asking if they wanted food or water.
R.D. Rodgers said he’s been living at an encampment near Beverly Blvd. in Koretz’s district for roughly seven months and said constantly moving unhoused people around is causing frustration. He wants to do something with his life and be prosperous, but said he needs help.
“I’ve seen [outreach workers], but they always lie and say they are going to come back, but they’re not coming back,” he said. “It’s been about four or five months since outreach. People bring food, but I’ve been praying to get off the street. I don’t want to have to go to another bench or a sidewalk. It’s getting frustrating, it seems like just a chosen few get to get off the streets.”
Michael Banyard, who lives in a tent a few steps away from Rodgers, said he was the first person at this location and has been there for a year, adding it had been a month since he’s seen any outreach workers.
“They talked about housing and took names, but nothing ever happened,” he said. “I even went to other places they were supposed to be so I can figure out what’s going on with housing.”
Banyard said there’s never a follow up. “They leave a sandwich and they’re gone,” he said.
Over on Pontius Ave., another location listed on a Koretz resolution, Daniel Thompson and Jessica Herron said someone from LAHSA came out six months ago and put their names on a waiting list for housing. Thompson said a month ago a few unhoused people nearby received vouchers for housing, but they are still waiting to hear back about their accommodations. He added they do pass out lunches.
“Services have been offered multiple times at these locations and will continue to be offered through various agencies,” said Alison Simard, director of communications for Koretz.
I reached out to Urban Alchemy to request documentation of their outreach efforts at the locations I visited in a resolution for CD13. Michael Clinebell, a spokesperson for the organization, said in an email they would gather the documentation, but were checking to see if sensitive information needed to be redacted. At the time of publication, we were not in receipt of those documents. A public records request with the city administrative office for encampment assessment forms that documented outreach efforts was also submitted.