Civilians to Replace Cops in Handling Los Angeles Homeless

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Los Angeles Street bridge over the Santa Ana Freeway. Photo by John Sequeira via Flickr.

Starting in December, Los Angeles will send unarmed outreach workers and trained crisis responders instead of police officers to nonviolent homelessness-related emergency calls, according to Courthouse News. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called it a “bold experiment” when he announced the new policy Tuesday.

 The new initiative will be focused on the communities of Hollywood and Venice, according to KTLA-5, where teams of outreach workers and mental health clinicians are already spending time in neighborhoods with a concentration of people experiencing homelessness.

“The teams will continue to build a rapport with the unhoused community, conduct light sanitation work, de-escalate situations as they arise, and create referrals to local service providers,” said a statement announcing the program from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.

The Crisis and Incident Response through Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE) program is part of Garcetti’s far-reaching plan to confront a crisis-level homelessness problem, considering the Golden State is home to 28 percent of the nation’s homelessness population, and 51 percent of the unsheltered population, according to Politico.

These CIRCLE teams will comprise 48 outreach individuals, with the program itself set to run through June 2022, and will cost the city $2.2 million, and the county $30 million. The mayor has proposed spending nearly $1 billion in the coming year to get people off the streets, build housing and clean up squalid encampments that have spread into nearly every neighborhood in the city.

Police Are Not the Solution

City Council President Nury Martinez  said the program will “unburden police” from dealing with nonviolent situations where a clinician might be better suited. 

“You couldn’t have a clearer example of this country lacking a robust social safety net than when people with guns show up to respond to a non-violent, mental health crisis,” Martinez said.

Mayor Garcetti noted the LAPD receives roughly 140,000 calls relating to homelessness every year. The pilot program, he said, would free up police officers to respond to crime-related calls and investigations. 

“This is a big pivot for Los Angeles,” said City Council member Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and most of West LA. “Cops should not be on the front lines dealing with homelessness.”

To that end, some are skeptical that a program like CIRCLE could make much impact or make a dent in the humanitarian crisis, particularly because Mayor Garcetti was under fire earlier this year for “criminalizing the homeless” with an ordinance that made it illegal for unhoused people to sleep or live in certain public places. 

Additional Reading: Los Angeles Move to Limit Homeless Encampments Raises Concerns of Criminalization

This made the LAPD the de-facto responders to many homelessness-based emergencies.

“Austerity is a political choice. Five people a day dying on the streets is a political choice. The homelessness crisis In Los Angeles is a direct result of electeds underfunding housing and services, and instead criminalizing homelessness & give $3 billion to LAPD to enforce it,” the People’s City Council, an activist group, wrote on Twitter following the ordinance announcement.

The ordinance, further described by the Independent, made it illegal to live or sleep within 500 feet of a school, day care, park, or library, as well as 500 feet from an overpass, underpass, freeway ramp, tunnel, bridge, bike path, or subway. 

Because of this, housing activists have criticised the city’s spending priorities, and are now hoping that the latest CIRCLE program development will change the perspective of LA’s current unhoused crisis. 

See Also: Homeless, Young and in Trouble with the Law: ‘I Was Angry’

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