In his State of the City address, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the dedication of $1 billion to address homelessness in Los Angeles. The funding will go toward encampment clean-up, rental assistance, legal services, and the creation of affordable housing.
Under the Mayor’s plans, people will get housed, but the streets will remain the dystopian and destitute outdoor asylums that harm people and communities.
Why so skeptical? To start, funding and capacity for homelessness assistance has increased every year since 2009. More permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and bridge housing are available than ever before to house roughly 66,000 people experiencing homelessness in L.A.
Yet, homelessness continues to grow. Over the last five years, homelessness in L.A. has increased 55 percent and chronic homelessness has risen by 73 percent. During this period, L.A. spent more than $2.5 billion in federal, state, and local revenue for homelessness.
Two significant gaps exist that keep people on the streets. The first is the reality that the less vulnerable are easier to house. Those without mental illnesses and/or addictions are more able to respond to assistance and stay in housing than those that inhabit encampments. Current homelessness programs have become nothing more than temporary holding beds for the recently homeless waiting to compete for affordable apartments. The unhoused seriously mentally ill and addicted will continue to refuse housing and services because they are too sick to understand the offers and escape the streets. Mental illnesses and addictions reduce cognitive function and often result in symptoms that produce paranoia and fear.
People with very low incomes living on the streets, in cars, or tents for short periods of time do not make up the bulk of those suffering on the streets. According to UCLA’s PolicyLab, the mentally ill and the addicted make up most of the unsheltered homeless. In their survey of more than 6,000 people living on the streets, 78 percent reported mental health conditions and 75 percent reported substance abuse.
The second significant gap is the unavailability of treatment for those suffering from serious mental illness and/or addiction. With fewer than 6,000 public psychiatric beds in California, and an estimate between 32,000 to 48,000 unhoused mentally ill and addicted in Los Angeles, it’s easy to understand that the streets are the dumping grounds for our most marginalized citizens.
The barriers to and lack of psychiatric capacity and addiction treatment results in a cycle of jail, emergency departments, and encampments until prison, suicide, or death remove the unhoused mentally ill and addicted from the streets only to be replaced by a continuous flow of new victims. Because homelessness is considered a housing issue, the suffering on the streets will continue to increase, resulting in decompensation and depravity borne by individuals and communities. More people will die and suffer in psychosis and filth while the Mayor provides rental assistance, hotel and motel vouchers, and the hope of new permanent supportive housing units.
More resources directed at the humanitarian crisis of our time is a good thing. Existing programs and funding, however, focused on housing instead of healing have failed to move the statistical needle in the right direction. More funding, without supportive treatment programs and house for the mentally ill and addicted, will change nothing.