A new report shows that L.A.’s criminalization of homelessness is a cruel political theater that makes the crisis worse.

By Mike Bonin

When the Los Angeles City Council voted to vastly expand criminalization of homelessness in 2021, its champions promised it would clear encampments from neighborhoods and force unwilling homeless people inside.

Predictably, the strategy has been a total failure. That’s the clear takeaway from a report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, examining the city’s controversial anti-camping law. The law has been an unmitigated disaster:

  • A whopping 94% of the people in targeted encampments wanted shelter. Just 18% received it.
  • Out of 1,856 people displaced from encampments, only 2 people – 0.10% – were housed permanently.
  • Nearly all encampments re-emerged, and displaced residents simply relocated to another block or encampment.

The law – Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.18 – was built on bad faith and poor policy. It allows council members to designate certain areas in their districts as off-limits to sitting, sleeping or lying down. Its proponents argued for “tough love.” They claimed most encampment residents were “service resistant”, choosing to live on the streets, and needed to be forced inside to safety. They promised extensive outreach and abundant offers of shelter would accompany enforcement. The reality was and is quite different. Citywide, during 41.18 operations, 1735 encampment residents said they wanted shelter. Only 315 people – less than 20% –  received it. As many of us knew, and as the LAHSA report shows, most people want to come inside, but offers of shelter and services never materialize.

This is not a new dynamic. Los Angeles has repeatedly and stubbornly tried to criminalize homelessness instead of housing people. Like previous iterations of 41.18, this current ordinance runs afoul of the 9th Circuit Court, which has ruled it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to make it a crime to sleep outside if no inside space is available. Ominously, the Supreme Court seems poised, in the case of Grants Pass v. Johnson, to overturn the lower court.

The day before the LAHSA report was revealed, the Los Angeles Community Action Network released “Separate and Unequal,” its own evaluation of 41.18. Researchers interviewed more than 100 unhoused people. More than 70% reported city crews seized and disposed of their property. Two-thirds said they had been displaced by police, often in the rain. Respondents said offers of shelter or housing were rare and illusory. “They told me I was high on the list to get housing,” one resident said. “I keep hearing that. But nothing.”

These displacements disconnect people from social workers,  cause people to lose documents needed to receive housing, and breed distrust toward social service agencies cooperating with the city. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness warns that enforcement policies are downright harmful, causing a trauma that slows the work of housing people.

Despite claims by proponents of 41.18 that it does not criminalize homelessness, If encampment residents who do not receive shelter refuse to be displaced to nowhere, they face arrest. According to City Controller Kenneth Mejia, in 2023, police made a stunning 1,912 arrests for 41.18 violations, a 124% increase from 853 in 2022.  Arresting someone for sleeping outside when they have no alternative locks them into homelessness. Fines can be financially debilitating, and an arrest record can be a huge barrier to employment and housing.

Sadly, even with this new report, some officials will cling desperately to 41.18 enforcement. The dynamic is born of frustration and impatience, a need by elected officials to demonstrate they are doing something aggressive about encampments. Advocacy for this strategy is a cruel political theater that perpetuates a problem while pretending to solve it.

It is shocking that the city was sitting on the LAHSA report until last week, when Nick Gerda from LAist managed to get a copy. The police union and corporate landlords have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars using Councilmember Nithya Raman’s opposition to 41.18 as a cudgel against her. The report validates her position that it does not work and distracts the city and drains resources from real solutions to the crisis.

In the past two years, Mayor Karen Bass and others have begun to pivot to smarter, evidence-based strategies. They know what we need to do to end homelessness. We need to provide more housing and offer significantly more and better services. Housing people is hard, and often slow work. But leadership requires patience, focus, and determination. It is how Los Angeles will finally move from predictable failures to proven successes on homelessness.

Mike Bonin is a Leadership in Government Fellow with the Open Society Foundation. He hosts the What’s Next, Los Angeles podcast and teaches public policy at Occidental College and Loyola Marymount University. He served on the Los Angeles City Council  from 2013-2022

Photo by shalunts

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