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Too Bad It Took a Pandemic to Get L.A.’s Homeless Population Some Basic Services

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n Thursday morning, thousands of people across the city were confined to their homes as many employers suspended office work and the public health department suggested everybody practice “social distance,” while a blanket of grey clouds covered the sky. 

The bad weather added to the feeling of impending doom making for a quiet and dreary day in L.A.. But for the tens of thousands of people living without a roof over their heads, the heavy rains exacerbated the threat of the coronavirus.

At 3rd Street and Rose in Venice, before the rain hit, increased enforcement of LAMC 56.11, the ordinance that bans people from sleeping on the sidewalk during the day, continued near the Bridge Housing Shelter that recently opened. The ordinance is strictly enforced around shelters.

As sanitation workers began to take down tents, the rain finally made it to the pacific ocean, eventually putting an end to the sweep but ultimately leaving folks stuck in the rain, unsheltered.

According to multiple organizers and unhoused residents, these sweeps happened across the city on Thursday morning despite LASAN’s reported policy to halt sanitation cleans during inclement weather and they’re scheduled to continue in the coming days. The forecast in L.A. is never certain but as of now, it’s supposed to rain almost continuously until next Saturday.

For years organizers have protested against these sweeps and proposed alternatives that could be enacted immediately to the deaf ears of city leaders. But now as the coronavirus has evolved into a pandemic and spread across California and more recently Los Angeles County, the city is starting to take them seriously again.

“Were proposing to the city a package that they’ve never been more interested in listening to because of the coronavirus outbreak and it’s showing that all of the stuff all along has been more than affordable.” David, a 40-year resident of Venice that is currently unhoused, told L.A. Taco over the phone.

In addition to being more susceptible to catching the coronavirus, it’s also more difficult for the unhoused to get tested or seek treatment after they contract the disease.

On Thursday community members across multiple different organizations advocating for everything from prison reform to unhoused rights had a conference call to create a proposal that they will present to city officials this week. David said the coalition has a meeting with Councilmember Mike Bonin scheduled for today. Their plan calls for sweeping legislation to alleviate the pressures caused by the coronavirus for the most at-risk populations in Los Angeles.

L.A. Taco reached out to Councilmember Mike Bonin’s office but did not receive a response in time to feature his comments in this report.

The unhoused community is arguably one of the most vulnerable groups of people when it comes to coronavirus. The CDC lists handwashing and social distance as the most effective ways to control the spread of the coronavirus but with almost no access to 24-hour bathrooms, showers or other hygiene services, the unhoused are more susceptible to contract and spread the coronavirus. Already on average, three homeless people die every day in Los Angeles. COVID-19 has the potential to make this number increase drastically. 

At the same time, rain makes everything worse for the unhoused and can be deadly or exacerbate virus symptoms even further. Hypothermia can occur at temperatures as high as 60 to 70 degrees and cold water increases the rate of hypothermia 25 fold. In L.A. County in 2018, more unhoused people died from hypothermia than in New York City and San Francisco combined. With temperatures ranging from the low 40s to mid-60s and rain forecasted until next Saturday, the threat of hyperthermia is a grave concern.

In addition to being more susceptible to catching the coronavirus, it’s also more difficult for the unhoused to get tested or seek treatment after they contract the disease, the CDC says that an infected person can carry the virus for several days before displaying symptoms. 

We’re coordinating closely w/ @LAPublicHealth & @LAHomeless & working to protect our most vulnerable residents from COVID-19 by opening more hygiene stations across the city, distributing hand sanitizer to unsheltered Angelenos & implementing best practices in preventing spread.

— Mayor Eric Garcetti (@MayorOfLA) March 12, 2020

In response to these concerns, on Thursday the city announced that it would be distributing over 100 hygiene stations across the county to bring handwashing stations and other services to the unhoused. On Wednesday, Councilmember Bonin installed over 35 portable hand washing units across his district.

The fact that city officials are trying to introduce basic services to the unhoused as a result of a worldwide pandemic while also continuing sanitation sweeps is a red flag for some organizers though. “It’s sort of counterintuitive, you’re making all these efforts to bring out all of these very expensive services and at the same time you’re making an effort to make it difficult for the most needful to be near them,” said David. Organizers are calling for all sanitation sweeps to be temporarily stopped.

Over 40 organizations have been advocating for more services for the unhoused for over two years now through the Services Not Sweeps Coalition. Last year, the coalition was involved in deep negotiations with the Mayor’s office to bring services to the unhoused but after months of deliberation, the conversations stopped. Later the city announced a similar plan that would bring some services to homeless encampments under the Mayor lead CARE and CARE+ teams.

“For the record, we gave these proposals to the Mayor's Office seven months ago and met with Szabo, Guerrera, and the City Attorney’s Office routinely to discuss,” Pete White, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network told L.A. Taco in June of last year after the Mayor announced the CARE program. White added that “The real sticking point was criminalization and removing law enforcement—they hemmed and hawed on that one.”

What started off as a more “compassionate” approach to sanitation cleans evolved back into an enforcement driven model, when late last year the CARE/CARE+ program was revamped after only a couple of months. In a January report, LASAN said, “The program encountered challenges in its first months, including communication, coordination, and decision-making in the field. LASAN also heard concerns about the program directly from Council offices.”

LASAN proposed a number of changes to the CARE and CARE+ programs in the report including a promise to “fully enforce LAMC 56.11 at every location they visit.” L.A. Municipal Code 56.11, also known as the controversial sit and sleep law, bans people from sitting, sleeping or storing certain property on sidewalks and other public spaces during the day time.

The decision “shocked” Councilmember Mike Bonin who told L.A. Taco in January, “I was surprised and disappointed that it was just sort of announced and was not something that the council got to discuss or debate.”

Organizers point to a long history of relying on enforcement rather than services as being a major part of the problem. Had the city adopted the proposal that Services Not Sweeps coalition proposed they might have been better prepared for an event like the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has in many ways put a spotlight on some of the state’s and city’s most contested issues from prison reform to food insecurity to homelessness.

Some organizers also questioned how effective basic handwashing stations are to a community of people that are living outside. “Although a good thing, just by the nature of homelessness and living outside, they are not going to help fight the spread of a virus,” Mark Horvath, a former unhoused resident of L.A. and co-founder of Invisible People said on Twitter, “Because they live outside in an unhealthy environment, the moment they walk away their hands will be dirty again.” 

Horvath also pointed out that getting to hygiene stations might be challenging for some unhoused people. Based on LAHSA’s most recent homeless count, each station would service an average of over 585 people and 4 miles of the county. “HOUSING is the only way to guarantee people will wash their hands regularly. Oh, and it ends homelessness too.”

LA CAN director, Pete White addresses the crowd at 6th Street and San Pedro in Skid Row.

While the city has lagged behind on creating housing and services for the unhoused, grassroots coalitions have picked up the slack. Now as a result of the virus, they’ve had to put some of those efforts on hold.

This week, service providers like SELAH, a neighborhood homeless coalition that was co-founded by city council nominee Nithya Raman, decided to cancel outreach programs and events, “While it pains us dearly, our organization has decided that in an abundance of caution we will cease our four on-site events where groups of unhoused and housed individuals gather,” Selah said in a newsletter. They will temporarily pause all group events until at least March 21.  “We feel that it is crucial that we do our part to prevent transmission, especially amongst at-risk populations.”

That means no Saturday suppers or community potlucks for dozens of unhoused folks in the Silverlake, Atwater and Echo Park areas of Los Angeles. The group does plan on doing engagement to pass out hygiene kits and facts sheets to make their unhoused community aware of how they can stay safe though.

The coronavirus has in many ways put a spotlight on some of the state’s and city’s most contested issues from prison reform to food insecurity to homelessness. This week the Services Not Sweeps coalition has been working behind the scenes to create a new list of demands to present to the city that calls for all sanitation sweeps to be temporarily suspended and 24 access to restrooms in parks and government property.

Is it better late than never? The next couple of weeks will let Los Angeles know.

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