How could 6,000 shelter beds be unoccupied in Los Angeles County? It’s a number, reported in LAist in July, that makes no sense given the miles of homeless encampments that occupy area streets and sidewalks.
Looking for an answer, I talked to Dave — a formerly homeless man who asked me not to reveal his last name. Dave told me how he ended up unhoused in the 1990s and then worked his way into a good job and a steady roof over this head.
He believes that homeless individuals who live on the street choose to do so, because when he didn’t have a roof, he chose to spend the night in missions with rules, not on streets without them.
Dave does not identify with those who squat in the tent encampments he sees in the Seattle area where he lives. “People that have hit hard times,” he told me, “they’re not begging on street corners.” If they want to turn their lives around, they look for a job.
Dave got married for the first time when he was in the military. The marriage lasted nine months. “Within seven months,” he said, “I wound up homeless.” Even then, he spent nights at the local mission, which required guests pay $5 per night — and you couldn’t get through the door if you weren’t sober.
During the 21 months Dave didn’t have a home, he picked up odd jobs as he looked for steady employment. “People that hit hard times,” he said, “they’re not begging on street corners.” They’re talking to organizations like the Salvation Army that offer housing, job training and counseling.
Dave agrees homelessness “can happen to anybody” — after a job loss, a medical emergency or other life-altering event. The question is, he said: When you have no place to sleep at night, what do you do about it?
I asked Dave about homeless people who say they prefer to sleep on the streets because the shelters aren’t safe. He acknowledged that his years without a roof preceded easy access to methamphetamine, opioids and fentanyl. It’s a different scene in 2023. Much scarier.
These drugs are “so powerful and addictive that it creates a psychosis,” Paul Webster of the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a group of frustrated citizens and businessowners who want a “return to normal lives,” told Dr. Drew Pinsky last year. The status quo, he said, is a “humanitarian crisis.”
His group has pushed for more housing, yes, but also more treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues, and, well, allowing law enforcement to enforce laws on the books.
The very term “homeless” conveys the sense that individuals merely lack housing, Webster noted, when the real hurdles they face may be significant behavioral or mental-health challenges.
To Webster, part of the problem is “a laissez-faire attitude toward enforcing community standards in public places.” The result: encampments that foster organized crime, drug dealing and human trafficking.
Webster sees hope in “Inside Safe,” a directive signed by Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass “to bring people inside from tents and encampments for good, and to prevent encampments from returning.”
Addiction is not a disease, Dave told me, it’s “a self-inflicted bad habit.” The way to beat it is “willpower.”
Maybe there’s a better way to put it. Maybe not.
California is a blue state, and Los Angeles prides itself on its progressive politics. But as the unhoused population has mushroomed, many residents have come to realize that it is not compassionate to allow squalor to devour once-vibrant neighborhoods.
Who benefits? No one.