Are efforts to help the homeless by diverting them to mental health services doing more harm than good?
Over the weekend, several advocacy organizations based in Venice, Ca., claimed recent action by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department aimed at helping the 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in the area have resulted in the “forced displacement and criminalization of unhoused people,” according to the Daily News.
“Time and time again, this approach has proven to fail in Los Angeles, and cause harm to people already dealing with crisis, trauma and the extreme lack of affordable housing across our region,” according to a statement released by the Venice Family Clinic; Grass Roots Neighbors; Safe Place for Youth; Venice Black, Indigenous and People of Color Elders; Venice Community Housing; and Venice Justice Committee, as quoted by the Daily News.
The Venice advocacy groups noted that the crisis has been exacerbated by the “decades of disinvestment in affordable housing and critical resources, as well as systemic racism and mass incarceration policies that exacerbate the wealth inequality.”
Now, advocates also note that individuals running in the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral election will likely animate their entire race on issues centered around homelessness — which is why the stigma surrounding the conversation needs to be talked out now, the advocates say.
Citizens speaking with the Los Angeles Times on the issues also expressed that the rise in people experiencing homelessness has been noticeable in their own neighborhoods, adding that in recent months, “things have gotten out of control” in Venice, particularly with tents, crime and disorder that have now become “commonplace.”
In one example, at the close of a recent event featuring mayoral candidate and City Councilman Joe Buscaino. who was speaking on the Venice boardwalk about getting homelessness under control in the area, an unidentified homeless woman started brandishing a knife, yelling, “I’m gonna start killing people,” the Los Angeles Times reports.
While the increase in homelessness and crime has been significant, many argue that penalizing homeless people is not a “healthy or productive solution.”
“Criminalizing homelessness has a long history in our country despite [the fact] that it has never worked,” writes Josephine Ensign, a professor of nursing at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she teaches health policy and politics, as well as narrative medicine.
In a Psychology Today article, citing National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty documents, Ensign writes that criminalization worsens homelessness and racial inequities by weighing down already impoverished people with hefty fines, jail sentences, and criminal records.”
To that end, some solutions proposed by individuals with authority have been gaining traction, while others are “downright dangerous and punitive.”
Jen Flory, a health policy advocate with Western Center on Law & Poverty wrote a commentary for CalMatters, detailing that previously proposed California legislation that would put individuals experiencing homelessness in mental hospitals or drug rehabilitation facilities is “imprisonment by another name” considering it wouldn’t make the issue go away.
“Zero-tolerance approaches like this only exacerbate racial and class disparities in our overly aggressive criminal justice system,” Flory wrote.
Ensign agrees with Flory’s sentiment, writing, “Punishing people for being down and out and homeless is not the answer. Increased and sustained funding for safe, affordable, supportive housing, well-connected with primary health care that is inclusive of mental health and substance use treatment, is what works to address homelessness.”
Ensign concludes, “Policies and programs led by people with the lived experience of homelessness make them more innovative and effective.”
Looking Forward: Change and Legislative Remedies
Over the weekend, the Venice advocacy groups called for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to have “kindness” when interacting with individuals experiencing homelessness, while also making a point to say that these individuals may need access to medicine and an investment in permanent housing solutions — not to feel like they’re criminals to be shipped away to various facilities.
“Our collective community will work to provide emergency services, secure, preserve, and build more housing, and stand in solidarity to protect the rights of unhoused folks, and hope that anyone interested in helping alleviate homelessness in Venice and beyond joins the effort from a human-centered, social justice framework,” the advocacy group’s joint statement said, as quoted by the Daily News.
Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, who has reported extensively on inequality in California, as well as housing and homelessness, has been following the developments of the situation closely.
Lopez writes in a recent article, “California has the world’s fifth-largest economy and the nation’s highest poverty rate, and yet state lawmakers, in the face of a crushing housing crisis, have failed time and again to come together on legislative remedies.”
Lopez articulates a few solutions, first noting that in a county with over 60,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, addressing the affordable housing shortage should be a priority for elected officials.
Moreover, Lopez notes that a creative solution could be to give homeless people and formerly incarcerated people jobs by helping to clean the streets and tackle the trash-problem in Los Angeles.
“Given the trash problem in L.A., and the number of homeless people who could use a job, why don’t we have these programs in every single council district?” Lopez writes, citing that there’s a bill collecting dust in City hall that was co-sponsored in 2017 by Buscaino.
“The fixes, in Venice and beyond, are neither easy nor impossible,” Lopez concludes, adding, “We know what works and we need more of it.”
Additional Reading: California Gov Proposes $12 Billion Plan to Address State’s Homeless