One day last month, Deon Joseph got a call from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Outreach workers were trying to get medical and mental health support to a woman with scabies and lice who urinated on herself daily. She resisted the help until Joseph, who has patrolled Skid Row for 16 years, stepped in. The woman knew him, and with his prompting she agreed to receive assistance.
The LAPD veteran has not seen the woman, a longtime fixture on San Julian Street, since that day. Joseph, who recently penned a Guest Opinion piece in Los Angeles Downtown News that cried out for additional mental health services in Skid Row, believes the woman is finally poised to receive housing, along with the aid she didn’t know she needed.
“Police are not the answer to ending homelessness. But we are a piece of the equation,” said Joseph.
The anecdote underscores a new approach that the city and county are taking on Skid Row, the 50-block area that for decades has housed thousands of homeless individuals, the missions and shelters that support them, and also the drug dealers and other criminals who prey upon them.
The new plan involves altering the primary policing tactics employed by the LAPD, and bringing together the police, the local City Council office, LAHSA and the county departments of Mental Health, Public Health and Health Services. The overall goal is to reduce homelessness with an enhanced emphasis on mental health.
The move is significant for several reasons. It marks a major change from the “Broken Windows” theory of policing, which concentrates on arresting people for small quality-of-life crimes, based on the belief that they often lead to more substantial offenses. That approach was adopted by former LAPD Chief William Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with the introduction of the Safer Cities Initiative in 2007. The SCI was widely applauded for helping improve Downtown.
The shift, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, also comes as the number of individuals sleeping on the streets has increased exponentially, police and mission workers say. Part of the problem, area stakeholders maintain, is AB 109, the legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011that sought to ease prison overcrowding. It shifted the responsibility for many prisoners from the state to the counties. According to many observers, it also resulted in the release of numerous low-level offenders, many of whom wind up on Skid Row.
Under the new plan, a person found in possession of drugs will still be arrested, but people sleeping on sidewalks and leaving their property in public areas will now be cited rather than handcuffed, according to Central Division Capt. Mike Oreb.
Drug dealers and others who know that Skid Row residents make easy victims will be aggressively policed, Oreb added. Most importantly, he said, officers patrolling the area will go block-by-block to identify where the mentally ill homeless are living.
That information will be coordinated with teams that are part of Operation Healthy Streets, a $3.7 million initiative approved this year that will lead to increased street cleanings, as well as more bathroom access and storage for homeless individuals’ possessions.
During the cleanings that will take place at least every other month,the police will accompany the outreach teams. Those teams will offer free medical exams, TB tests, on-the-spot medical treatment and even detox beds when they are available. The first cleaning is slated for Aug. 13.
The shift in strategy earned the applause of longtime area stakeholders including Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission.
“I feel listened to,” said Bales, who added that he has never seen as many people sleeping on the streets as there are today.
“Safer Cities left it all on the police,” Bales continued. “We need everyone to make a more significant contribution. Skid Row has become a mental health asylum out of control.”
“General” Jeff Page, a longtime Skid Row activist, said he has long wanted to see the Safer Cities Initiative reduce the number of arrests in the community. Page champions the idea of all involved entities coming together to work toward a solution, but said he wants to see Skid Row residents also at roundtable meetings.
A Better Partnership
Part of the significance of the changing approach is that it increases the partnership between the city and the county. Marc Trotz, director of Housing for Health at the County Department of Health Services, said he sees the new plan as an evolution of work from local jurisdictions that is now more focused than in the past.
It’s not that there has been zero or little collaboration in previous years, he said, but rather that the new effort is more structured. For example, he said county workers during the Aug. 13 cleanup will help uninsured people enroll in a health plan under the Affordable Care Act. They will also seek to connect those on the streets with a primary care center.
Supervisor Gloria Molina also welcomes the new approach. While she said the county has intensified its efforts to connect the homeless in Skid Row and other areas to housing and supportive services for several years, the partnership with the city is a comprehensive approach that everyone needs.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted,” she said in an email to Los Angeles Downtown News. “This new team effort isn’t a one-stop approach, however. Different clients will have different needs. It’s rarely just about having a home.”
For 14th District City Councilman José Huizar, one strength of the new plan is the proactive approach. Paul Habib, Huizar’s chief of staff, said providing a team of support workers during cleanings will benefit people who would like help but have no idea how to get it.
“We are providing targeted assistance,” he said.
Sara Hernandez, Huizar’s Downtown area director, added, “The street cleanings are disturbing business as usual. It’s uprooting folks and changing the status quo. It’s the perfect opportunity to interact with these people.”
Despite the increased services and coordination, LAPD Lt. Billy Brockway, who heads the SCI, warned that any real change will require patience and careful tracking. If, on Aug. 13, outreach workers get, for example, six people into treatment, identify candidates for drug rehabilitation and remove one ton of debris, that needs to be recorded and compared with following cleanups, he said.
The shifting approach is not occurring in a vacuum. The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, recognizing the long-term costs of homelessness on taxpayers, has partnered with the United Way in the Home for Good Program, which aims to get people off the streets and into housing that include on-site support services.
To that effect, other new permanent supportive housing complexes have arrived. They include the 106-room New Genesis Apartments at 456 S. Main St. and the Star Apartments, a 102-bed-facility at 240 E. Sixth St.
Oreb said because the police are a 24-hour service, he understands why they were front and center in the Safer Cities efforts. However, many of the issues individuals on the streets face are not police matters, he said.
Oreb believes the new plan shows promise.
“If we can get 100 people off the streets and into programs, that’s 100 fewer victims and that is a move in the right direction,” he said.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014