Area cities taking steps to assist the homeless

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Homelessness has emerged as a hot topic in the Sept. 14 election to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, even though municipalities and the county are legally bound to provide shelter and support services to the indigent.

Trying to find solutions to the crisis, cities in Southeast Los Angeles County have assembled myriad of measures, including injecting funds for support services, training police officers teamed up with health professionals to assess the mental health of homeless people and referring the needy to temporary shelters.

But most area cities do not have the resources to provide housing or shelters for all.

A 2018 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is the main legal barrier municipalities have to remove and cleanup street encampments, making it unconstitutional to fine or jail homeless people for staying in unauthorized outdoor or unauthorized places.

In Martin vs. Boise, the appeals court made it easier for the homeless to sleep under bridges, in makeshift tents, on riverbanks and on street encampments without fear of been criminally prosecuted solely for trying to survive unsheltered. The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case, allowing the appellate decision to stand.

The Newsom administration has taken up the burden of purchasing motels and hotels to house the indigent and help cities cope with homelessness that may worsen if evictions resume later this year.

The governor has already used $5.8 billion to purchase more than 42,000 new units under Project Homekey, in addition to a pledge to invest $12 billion in two years to avert homelessness and clean up outdoor encampments that become eyesores to residents, pedestrians and business patrons.

Under Project Homekey, Los Angeles County purchased at least10 former motels and hotels in 2020 that added 630 units to the portfolio of permanent public housing for the homeless, at a cost of $108 million. Last year, volunteers with the Los Angeles Homeless Count recorded more than 66,000 people living on the streets, a count taken before the onset of COVID-19.

The city of Downey has assembled an online brochure with addresses, phone numbers and website addresses of regional food banks that distribute food to the indigent, of providers of mental, drug rehab and outreach services and a shelter in Bell operated by the Salvation Army.

The Barbara J. Riley Community and Senior Center in Downey has a pantry and food distribution for homeless on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The brochure can be downloaded online from the city’s website.

Assistant City Manager Juddy Montenegro said the idea of building a city shelter for the homeless has been discussed by the city council for years, but funds have not been approved.

“At the moment, there are no plans to open a shelter,” Montenegro said. “We have focused our efforts on outreach with our police department and trained officers on mental health. But we are not forcing anything on anyone. About 90% refuse the services. How can we help if they refuse them?

She said in the last six months residents have increases phone calls to Downey police when they spot a new street camp. Officers tell the homeless they are in violation of city codes, and ask them to pack up and leave.

Montenegro said it is uncertain if an apparent uptick in homelessness was caused by COVID-19, and data is not available to find out the cause.

The city is member of the Gateway Cities Homeless Action plan, a regional approach to combat homelessness that considers the movement of homeless to and from different cities to gain access to services. The city had 258 homeless and housed 28 of them permanently in 2020.

South Gate posted on its official website that L.A. County, through the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, “has the primary responsibility for providing regional homeless services” but it adds that the municipality “plans, coordinates and organizes strategies to assist the city’s homeless population in collaboration with other public and private organizations.”

The city also runs a street outreach program and conducts case management and referrals to find shelter for unhoused residents. LAHSA reported that South Gate had 399 people without homes in 2020, 14 of whom were placed in permanent housing.

In 2019, Whittier contributed  $274,766 to provide homeless services, in addition to expenses for encampment cleanups and for a mental health program run by its police department, tagging a  trained officer with a county health clinician.

A two-page analysis redacted by city staff cites the Martin vs. Boise case to its inability to conduct street camp cleanups due to the lack of beds to accommodate people in violation of curfew and camping ordinances.

A new Salvation Army Navigation Center was scheduled to open this week. The city also opened a program to encourage landlords to rent units to the homeless using section 8 vouchers.

“Like Whittier, most cities lack adequate shelter bed space to address the growing number of individuals experiencing homelessness. While Whittier currently has 45 year-round emergency shelter beds with an additional 40 shelter beds during the cold weather season, they are normally full and this does not provide sufficient capacity for the estimated 200 plus” homeless in the city, the document read.

Paramount and Bellflower teamed up with the charity PATH to “outline priorities in addressing these issues in both cities,” and educate residents on homelessness, increasing access to services and preventing loss of housing.

Before the pandemic, proposals included funding of motel vouchers, the formation of the Paramount Homeless Coalition that would track vacant rental units and encourage local landlords to rent apartments to people seeking permanent housing, and identifying lots that could be turned into affordable dwellings.

The plan included the opening of storage facilities to store the belongings of people experiencing homelessness.

Paramount management analyst Steve Camporales said the city supports 28 families with long-term housing and spends $40,000 a year through the Family Promise program.

“We engage daily with our homeless population,” Camporales said. “We are in constant contact with them to find how can we help them rise from their current situation.”

Last year, LAHSA reported 85 people without homes in Paramount, with four moved to permanent housing.

Lynwood is in the midst of drafting a new homeless plan to address the presence of 85 homeless, 10 of whom found permanent housing from July to December 2021, data provided by LAHSA shows.

The city will conduct online sessions Aug. 12, 14 and 18 to outreach residents and receive input on the matter.

Maywood approved a five-year homelessness plan in January that aims to improve housing with the addition of 22 affordable apartments with neighboring commercial units, plus construction of “very low affordable” stock at 4801 Slauson Ave. with Measure H funds.    

The Bell Gardens Planning Commission scheduled a public outreach meeting Aug. 25 at 6 p.m., to discuss its general plan housing element for 2021-2029, and provide an overview to stakeholders of the future of housing and growth.

Bell hired Neiva Orozco as its homeless services liaison to coordinate work among the police department, public works and code enforcement to address residents concerns and related issues. Orozco also connects the homeless population with services, such as the Salvation Army Bell shelter and other nonprofit groups to help with resources.

Norwalk offers its social services center at 11929 Alondra Blvd. to provide emergency assistance to residents in crisis, stabilize their situation and find long-term solutions. From 2015 through 2020, the city had in place a consolidated plan that identified people at risk of becoming homeless, and allocated $1.14 million in grants, plus $241,000 to support continuous housing.

Pico Rivera recently conducted a survey among residents on whether they sympathize with the homeless, and if the city should seek a place to host transitional shelters for them.