Sat, Sep 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Rising tide of homeless in Los Angeles causes public emergency

By Jennifer Medina  /  NY Times News Service, Los angeles

Flooded with homeless encampments from its freeway underpasses to the chic sidewalks of Venice Beach, municipal officials declared a public emergency on Tuesday, making Los Angeles the first city in the US to take such a drastic step in response to its mounting problem with street dwellers.

The move stems partly from compassion, and in no small part from the rising tide of complaints about the homeless and the public nuisance they create. National experts on homelessness say Los Angeles has had a severe and persistent problem with people living on the streets rather than in shelters — the official estimate is 26,000.

The mayor and city council have pledged a sizable and coordinated response, on Tuesday proposing to spend at least US$100 million in the next year on housing and other services. They plan, among other things, to increase the length of time shelters are open and provide more rent subsidies to street people and those in shelters.

“Every single day we come to work, we see folks lying on this grass, a symbol of our city’s intense crisis,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference at city hall on Tuesday. “This city has pushed this problem from neighborhood to neighborhood for too long, from bureaucracy to bureaucracy.”

In urban areas, including New York, Washington and San Francisco, rising housing costs and an uneven economic recovery have helped fuel a rise in homelessness. In some cities, officials have focused much of their efforts on enforcement policies to keep people from living in public spaces.

In places known for good weather like Honolulu and Tucson, Arizona, or for liberal politics — like Madison, Wisconsin — frustration has prompted crackdowns on large encampments. Some cities, like Seattle, have tried setting aside designated areas for homeless encampments. However, to date, no city has claimed to have the perfect solution.

Like other urban mayors, Garcetti has made promises to end chronic homelessness. Yet the homeless population there has grown by about 12 percent since he took office in 2013. He has been criticized for taking a heavy-handed approach to enforcement while doing too little to help people find and pay for housing. City budget officials estimate that Los Angeles already spends more than US$100 million, mostly on law enforcement, to deal with issues that stem from people living on the streets.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been grappling with a soaring homeless population since he took office nearly two years ago. The number of people occupying homeless shelters peaked at about 60,000 last winter and remained stubbornly high — about 57,000 — this week.

Unlike the dispossessed in Los Angeles, the vast majority of the homeless in New York are sheltered. However, the presence of the street homeless, highlighted on the front pages of tabloids, has put public pressure on De Blasio to address the 3,000 unsheltered homeless holding signs on sidewalks, sleeping atop subway grates and huddling in encampments.

Increasingly, young families are becoming the most potent symbol of homelessness, with mothers who work multiple jobs living in shelters in New York or in their cars in Los Angeles.

“This is the fallout of not having anywhere near the affordable housing that’s needed,” said Megan Hustings, the interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington-based advocacy group.

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