With homelessness rising sharply in Los Angeles and threatening to be a major black mark on his record as he considers a run for the presidency, Mayor Eric Garcetti called Monday for citywide implementation of temporary emergency shelters during his annual State of the City address.
The shelters, in the form of trailers, large tents or safe parking facilities, would be paid for with $20 million from the general fund and include services provided with money from the county.
"We need to stand up emergency shelters fast and we need to do it now," Garcetti said. "Shelters that serve as a rest stop on the path to supportive housing."
The plan is similar to one that was under consideration recently in Orange County to use large tents to house the homeless, but which was met with such fierce opposition in some local communities that it was dropped.
Matt Szabo, Garcetti's deputy chief of staff, said the level of opposition seen in Orange County is not expected in Los Angeles. County officials have not yet approved the plan, but are receptive to it, he said.
"This is the right thing to do," Szabo said. "We have a humanitarian crisis on our sidewalks. Everyone knows it. We have a responsibility to respond and to provide the help that those people need."
The $20 million would be part of a major increase in homelessness spending in the budget, from around $178 million last fiscal year to over $429 million this coming fiscal year, although more than half of the new spending would use funds from Measure HHH, a bond measure which Garcetti helped convince city voters to approve in 2016 and is expected to raise $1.2 billion over 10 years for permanent supportive housing.
The emergency shelter plan will be included in Garcetti's proposed 2018-19 budget, which will be unveiled on Thursday, and marks a dramatic shift in approach to the homeless issue for the mayor.
Up until now, Garcetti has resisted calling for wide-scale construction of emergency shelters, instead focusing on the construction of permanent supportive housing through Measure HHH. Even with the spike in available HHH funds, the permanent supportive housing units take years to get approved and built.
And with the number of homeless jumping 20 percent in the city in 2017 to over 34,000, there have been calls on the City Council to implement temporary emergency shelters that include services aimed at transitioning people off the street and into permanent housing.
The City Council and Garcetti have already approved one such temporary emergency shelter near the El Pueblo Historical Monument in downtown Los Angeles, which is expected to open this summer and feature five trailers, with three for beds, one for administrative services and one for showers and hygiene needs.
The El Pueblo trailers are projected to be installed and operated for six months at a cost of $2 million, but those costs include services. Szabo said the $20 million would be solely for the construction of the shelters, while the county would provide the money for the services through Measure H funds, a sales tax increase approved by county voters in 2017 that's expected to raise $355 million annually for homeless services.
Since the the El Pueblo trailers were proposed by Councilman Jose Huizar earlier this year, he has also pushed for the city to install a large number of trailers near Skid Row, where an estimated 2,000 people sleep on the street, while Councilmen Mike Bonin and Marqueece Harris-Dawson have pushed a motion for the city to study the feasibility of installing enough emergency trailers to get all of the homeless people out of sidewalk encampments.
Bonin has repeatedly said the city should take a FEMA-like approach to the city's homeless problem and react to the people sleeping on city streets in the same manner as if a natural disaster had hit while installing emergency shleters.
Garcetti's proposal is the first step he has taken in that direction.
"I've said this many times before, but if there were a natural disaster and tens of thousands of people were forced onto the streets of our neighborhoods, we would not be responding the way that we are responding," Bonin said in March.
Szabo acknowledged that the $20 million was not likely to be enough to get all of the unsheltered population off the streets, but said it was a significant step toward doing so. Garcetti said if a state bill under consideration, AB 3171, is approved and provides an extra $1.5 billion to cities for homeless services it could be possible to have enough shelters for the city's entire unsheltered homeless population.
"If Sacramento comes through, we could have a clear path to housing for every unsheltered Angeleno," Garcetti said.
Under Garcetti's plan, the $20 million would be made equally available from the start of the fiscal year in July through January 2019 for each of the city's 15 council districts. But at the start of 2019, any unused funds would be available for any City Council member who wants to propose a shelter in his or her district.
Garcetti also said part of the plan would be for the City Council to approve a resolution on Tuesday that declares a homeless shelter crisis in the city. The declaration, once signed by Garcetti, would free the city up from some state regulations when it comes to getting emergency shelters installed.
The effort to build emergency shelters also would come with an increase is spending on the sanitation department's homeless encampment cleanup program and for HOPE teams, which consist of police officers, sanitation workers and outreach workers.
Any council district that approves an emergency shelter would see city crews focus on cleaning up and clearing out encampments in that area, and Garcetti plans to propose $17 million in new funding that would add nine new HOPE crews on top of the current number of 11.
"Districts that stand up emergency shelters -- and only those districts -- will get the benefit of these new sanitation teams," Garcetti said. "This is my commitment to you and the communities you represent. If you have the courage to stand up an emergency shelter in your district, you should get the resources to keep your neighborhoods clean."
Whether local organizations and neighborhood groups will rise up against the emergency shelter plan like they did in Orange County remains to be seen, but Szabo said the mayor believed there was a consensus on the council for the need for more shelters.
"I think you will see, as we roll this program out, multiple council members stepping up and saying that they want to be the first to have a project in their district," Szabo said.
Garcetti also said that he had met with some neighborhood council leaders about the plan and they were supportive.
"Last week, I met with business leaders, service providers and the 44 Neighborhood Council homelessness liaisons from across L.A. to brief them on our efforts," he said. "They all plan to work closely with their council members to identify sites and build support for safe parking, shelter, and storage for homeless Angelenos."
Szabo said the goal would be to create up to 100 new emergency shelter beds per district, for a total of 1,500. He said there are currently 7,476 interim housing beds in the city, but an additional 3,250 are needed to meet the need.
Garcetti's State of the City address at City Hall was the first he had delivered since being sworn in last July for his second and final term, and the first since he acknowledged he is considering a run for the presidency. He was in Iowa over the weekend meeting with voters and key organizations.