Accountability Check: Street Outreach And Homelessness In Joe Buscaino’s South LA District
Where are the unhoused people? That's what I kept asking myself as I drove to various homeless encampments targeted for clearing by Joe Buscaino, the council member for city of L.A. neighborhoods that span from Watts to San Pedro in District 15.
It wasn’t until I reached a fourth location that I finally saw an encampment. It’s where I met Samantha Garcia, an eight-month-pregnant unhoused woman who was living in a tent across the street from the Harbor Interfaith Shelter in San Pedro, which serves single unhoused adults.
“I tried getting in the shelter," she said. "But they don’t take pregnant women."
Incredulous, I called Harbor Interfaith Services, which runs the shelter, and spoke with Shari Weaver, director of the coordinated entry system. Weaver immediately asked if I was calling about Samantha and said the shelter she was across from does not house pregnant women.
“Samantha and I have talked on more than one occasion and at the time [she said], ‘I have other things I need to do right now,’” Weaver explained. “But I will go talk to Samantha today again myself. If she says yes, I’m going to put her in my car.”
Samantha recalled it differently, saying that she had been in touch with people to get indoors, but kept getting the runaround. She said getting to different locations to get help while pregnant was difficult.
Later that day, Weaver texted me and said Samantha was ready to move indoors. She would be taken to an access center where she would be provided crisis housing resources and would meet with staff to develop a permanent housing plan.
The speed of which it happened was surprising since 34-year-old Samantha said she’d been unhoused for two years. But Weaver said it shouldn’t be a surprise since the shelter initially had 200 people sleeping nearby, which had dwindled to just six when I was there.
“We are not always doing things perfectly,” Weaver said. “We are dealing with challenging situations, but it doesn't mean we are going to walk away.”
Buscaino has targeted 172 locations in his district for enforcement under the city’s revamped anti-camping laws, of which 11 have been approved by the city council. Those 11 locations are near shelters or interim housing facilities. After the remaining 161 targeted locations were sent to the city council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee, Buscaino submitted a revised list with 22 locations — mostly in parks and near schools.
To say outreach efforts are not going perfectly anywhere would be an understatement, but other shelters I visited in Buscaino’s district also had no encampments nearby. At one bridge home shelter on Imperial Highway, a man who has lived there for two years said he had never seen anyone camping outside.
Another location marked for enforcement was an upcoming Project Homekey site still under renovation, and the construction area is entirely fenced off. A formerly unhoused man and woman chatting nearby said they used to live in the hotel when it was a shelter, but that was more than a year ago.
Branimir Kvartuc, senior advisor and communications director for Buscaino, said that many of the locations were not problem areas and the councilmember just wanted to be proactive. The upcoming Project Homekey site under construction? Kvartuc said neighbors in the area asked for that location to be targeted for enforcement and it was the only way they would agree to the facility going up in their backyard.
I visited other locations targeted for enforcement, most of which were in parks, or near schools or libraries. At the Wilmington Athletic Complex, the Normandie Recreation Center and Harbor Highlands Park, there were no encampments or unhoused people. Residents who were enjoying the park or walking their kids home after school said they never see unhoused people hanging out there. At Peck Park, a woman who was picking up a girl from school, said she had only seen one unhoused person near the park, but that was “weeks” ago and she believed the park was safe.
So where were the unhoused people?
“People who want to be indoors, we’ve moved them indoors,” said Gabby Medina, the district director for Buscaino who oversees outreach efforts. In a phone interview she said she recognizes the need to have various forms of housing to offer people, which is why they were the first district to sign on to Mayor Garcetti’s bridge home program, acquiring three locations. 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.
Medina said she’s proud of the district’s 772 interim beds and two locations for safe parking where people experiencing homelessness can park and sleep.
Paperwork that documents conditions at encampments has been submitted for 59% of the 172 locations targeted for enforcement as of Dec. 3, according to a public records act request submitted to the city administrative officer. I asked Medina what she’s learned from missteps in Buscaino's district.
“You have to have different forms of shelter,” she said. “When we first did the bridge home, people told us they didn’t like that they didn’t have privacy,” she said. “Then we said, fine, we will do a tiny home village.”
A tiny home is a 64-square-foot residence that comes with a bed, air conditioning and heating, and access to storage, as well as dedicated staff to connect unhoused people to permanent housing. The homes take a short time to build and assemble. There are 75 tiny homes in CD 15.
Beds at the tiny home village were refused by people living at Five Points, an underpass near the Harbor Regional Park, according to Medina. The encampment, which was targeted for enforcement under the anti-camping laws, is still pending approval for being cleared. Unhoused people at the encampment said outreach workers with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) are there regularly.
At the San Pedro branch of the L.A. Public Library, an employee said staff will see unhoused people sleeping on the sidewalks when they come into work, but “they know they have to leave when we get here.”
'It’s Perception Versus Reality'
Granted, I didn’t have time to visit all 161 locations that are targeted for anti-camping in CD15. From what I saw, unhoused people seem to be taking shelter options. But Medina admitted that sometimes Buscaino — a mayoral candidate — does their team no favors when he uses charged rhetoric to discuss outreach efforts.
“We are constantly fighting it, but our residents know what’s up,” she said, adding that people are happy that there are fewer visibly unhoused people. “It’s perception versus reality.”
Buscaino is no stranger to controversy when it comes to addressing the homelessness crisis plaguing Los Angeles. Recently, he’s been in the news discussing his plans for a June 2022 ballot measure that would let L.A. voters decide if encampments should be barred from public space.
“He will get the 65,000 signatures needed to put it on the ballot,” said Kvartuc, Buscaino's communications director. The council member told the L.A. Times in September that his office learned that not everyone goes into shelter if there are no consequences for staying on the street — a choice of words he now regrets using, according to Kvartuc.
“[Saying] consequences was hurting him ... so [we’re] changing the word consequences to choices,” he said. “The consequences means you’re going to have to choose something from this big menu other than living in a tent on the sidewalk. Those choices could include drug diversion, hotels or tiny homes.”
Kvartuc said people were associating consequence with arrest or fines, which is inaccurate.
“He hasn’t [had anyone] arrested ... for being homeless and he doesn’t want to do that, but most people think he does,” Kvartuc said. “People don’t believe that we are actually housing people in some way, shape or form. They believe we are arresting them or chasing them away somewhere else, and neither is true.”
Critics of the anti-camping laws say there aren’t enough permanent housing options for people to leave shelters, which is a concern for some unhoused people. Kvartuc said the council district intends to keep all shelter options open until people experiencing homelessness using them are matched with permanent housing.
“It's not perfect and the problem isn't over,” Kvartuc said. “But at least the people we are chasing down will be more stable.”