A “Build Baby Build” Strategy — Will Not End Street Encampments

Thousands of mentally ill and drug addled individuals live on our streets. Is their main problem a lack of housing? The LA Times has no doubt:

“These sidewalks of misery and destitution are not the result of homeless people partying like drunken frat boys. They are the result of bad city policies that choked housing construction and failed to preserve units for poor and working class people. They are the result of the incredibly sluggish process of creating the housing needed to move homeless people off the streets.” (LA Times Editorial May 31st)

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote a day later:

“We’ve got thousands of people huddled on the street, many of them withering away with physical and mental disease. Sidewalks have disappeared hidden by tents and the kind of makeshift shanties you see in third world places. Typhoid and typhus are in the news and an army of rodents are on the move.”

A few days later we were told what everyone in LA knows…encampments have grown, and things are getting worse. LA County has close to 59,000 homeless. Yet, anyone who has witnessed or interacted with a specific group of homeless — street dwellers — understand that the challenges they have aren’t primarily making a rent payment. For two thirds of them, it’s the challenge of mental illness and drug addiction. Yet, when the new numbers were announced, there was a chorus of officials claiming that a lack of affordable housing is the cause of homelessness. To this end City and County government have successively garnered public support for a bond issue and a tax increase to construct and provide permanent supportive housing and outreach under the mantra of “Housing First”. In spite of the promises, very few units have been built.

It’s time to stop the “build baby build” mantra that does not specifically address mitigating the encampment situation — the obvious confluence of drugs, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. This is the reality that must be confronted. Even if the lack of affordable housing could be addressed by government it would not end the destructive behaviors that so often lead to street encampments. Yet, these behaviors, caused by illness and drug addiction, must be engaged if there is ever to be a visible reduction of such squalor.

We need more than a display of compassion delivered with accusations of governmental ineptness and income disparity. While residents of the City and County have demonstrated an abundance of compassion, such compassion has accomplished little as regarding street encampments. Building a growing “homeless industrial complex”, well-intentioned, and increasingly well funded as it may be, has failed to produce any reduction of these encampments. We must reject the idea of a “solution”, and ignore the next official who claims to have one. Instead, we must seek a path of improvement so the public can see visible signs of success. Only when that happens can we expect residents to tax themselves further regarding this issue.

While our jails are not “shelters”, neither should our streets be used as petri dishes for the incubation of infectious diseases. Drug addiction should not be allowed to diminish the public’s health, safety or quality of life. Addressing “homelessness” involves a balancing of rights and obligations with the safety and health of residents taking priority. Tragically this is not happening in Los Angeles. The same humanity and respect that causes us to offer fellow human beings a helping hand should also hold them accountable for improving their own situations. They must meet society half way if they are to leave the streets voluntarily. Judges must be able to order short-term detention to promote an individual’s cooperation in ridding himself of addiction. While jail should never be a first option, drug court judges have effectively used measured incarceration in the past as a tool to get the attention of some, while incentivizing others to enter programs that allow them to heal. Adequate and sufficient mental health and drug rehabilitation facilities must be built in the next few years to treat the drug addicted and mentally unstable, as well as providing short and long term housing for treatment, stabilization and care.

But we can not wait for the construction of new health facilities nor the construction of sufficient permanent supportive housing. To reduce street encampments we must immediately construct and provide shelters to thousands of street dwellers, and begin the necessary assessment and treatment of those who suffer mental illness or drug dependency within these temporary shelters. We must expand existing mental health clinics and hospitals in order to increase outreach and treatment. Those presently residing in encampments must be required to cooperate with such mental health outreach if they have the ability to do so.

Elected leaders must also study the strategies utilized in jurisdictions that have been successful in reducing their unsheltered population, such as San Diego and New York City. To its credit, the LA Board of Supervisors has begun targeting vacant hotel and motel space for temporary housing, a strategy extensively utilized in New York. While providing temporary shelters in hygienic tents and compounds, with wrap-around services, can not be seen as “the answer”, it would provide an alternative to the grotesque conditions that the unsheltered inhabit today. The increasing trajectory of LA encampments is now the biggest problem faced by Los Angeles, degrading the quality of life, and threatening the health of its residents. Our elected officials must demonstrate a willingness to make hard choices and immediately take action to protect their constituents from this scourge.

A shortage of housing and rental property in LA County is real. It forces some to leave the state, some to move back with their families, live in crowded apartments and prevents many from owning their own home. The lack of affordable housing in LA should be addressed as a problem that impacts us all — not just the homeless. The issue of street dwelling however, forces us to address the challenge of drug addiction and mental illness. Not doing so is nothing less than malpractice, whether by editorial writers, or government.



Legal Aid Atty, LA Dep. City Atty, LA Dep. DA, Justice Dep. for an LA County Supervisor, Loyola Law School Adjunct Prof. , Journalist, Playwright, Composer.

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Joseph P. Charney

Legal Aid Atty, LA Dep. City Atty, LA Dep. DA, Justice Dep. for an LA County Supervisor, Loyola Law School Adjunct Prof. , Journalist, Playwright, Composer.