By MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS
Federal District Judge David O. Carter has gotten the city and county’s attention in a very real way. It’s a jolt that wasn’t anticipated but must be embraced.
Over the past five years, Los Angeles has dramatically scaled up its response to homelessness. But you would never know it. In a city where systemic inequalities reign, where millions of people live paycheck to paycheck, despite helping 207 people exit homelessness each day, we have not been able to stop 227 more from falling in.
Regardless of where you live, the streets tell a tragic story. Everyone is frustrated, even dismayed. It feels like too little, too late.
That is why, when Judge Carter took on the LA Alliance for Human Rights case last spring, a sense of possibility emerged. A federal judge might force all of us to fulfill our responsibility and up our game.
In a preliminary injunction that he issued on April 20, Judge Carter demanded $1 billion be dedicated to moving everyone off the streets of Skid Row within six months.
The idea is profound in concept. Skid Row represents a stark illustration of an abject policy failure and is an indictment of our lack of collective resolve. It should not be tolerated. But let’s be clear: thousands of the individuals who live there are in need of mental health and substance use treatment services.
Facilitating their disappearance off the streets doesn’t ensure an investment in the actual supportive housing, detox and psych beds that are needed to give these individuals a fighting chance of staying housed and thriving. And doing so could divert the funding needed to create thousands of affordable housing units, to deploy hundreds of outreach teams, and to rapidly rehouse thousands of our unhoused neighbors across the city.
To be sure, Judge Carter is right about several things — the situation is dire, LA has yet to succeed at legislating its way out of this crisis, and we must act with unprecedented urgency.
We will only make a meaningful dent if there is a codified obligation to do so, but it has to be the right obligation, and it has to be the right strategy that sets us up for deep, ongoing investment to prevent more of our neighbors from becoming homeless in the first place, and to meaningfully help those that have ended up unhoused.
This is why any proposal or order should be focused on implementing a comprehensive crisis response strategy that lays the groundwork for a right to housing.
Just like we all have the right to vote, a right to an education, and a right to clean air, we all deserve the fundamental right to a safe and dignified place to lay our heads.
We will only achieve a right to housing through implementation of a unified strategy mounted by the city and the county that includes prevention services like eviction defense and rental assistance, as well as a humane street strategy that deploys trained professionals to build trust with the homeless and encourage them to come indoors. A right to housing will require scaling up our interim housing resources, including detox and recuperative care beds, and to continue to support the creation of a massive amount of affordable and supportive housing, including specialty care facilities.
In other words, a right to housing means creating a safety net that matches the needs of our community.
The homelessness crisis took years to get this dire and it will not disappear overnight. It will require much more investment. Not just next year, but every year. But every level of government has demonstrated that without an obligation to act, the response will just pay lip service to the problem.
In a recent poll by the Bring California Home Coalition, homelessness was identified as the second highest issue of concern to voters, second only to COVID-19. And in fact, the majority expressed that it is the responsibility of government to ensure people have a right to housing. It’s time to listen to Californians about what they see as our most pressing issue and devote unprecedented resolve to build up the infrastructure necessary to address this crisis, the right way, for the long-term.
Mark Ridley-Thomas represents the 10th Council District and is chairperson of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee of the Los Angeles City Council.