Columnists Opinion

Small sidewalk houses for homeless are not the answer

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the first news report with the attention-grabbing headline, “L.A. is seizing tiny homes from the homeless.” Immediately other news outlets began chasing the salacious story, telling one side more favorably than the other.

Here’s the real story. An individual started an online fundraising campaign to build “tiny houses” for homeless people. A South Los Angeles city councilman — that would be me — ordered the structures removed from the Ninth District.

A classic tale of hero versus villain, good versus evil, government versus the people.

Prior to the scheduled removal, the city provided notice to those affected and outreach workers offered temporary shelter and other services. The structures were mysteriously and voluntarily removed before the city could take any action.

Still, homeless advocates took to Twitter and Facebook to give me a piece of their mind. Outsiders from across the United States flooded my district office phone lines demanding answers. Men and women alike voiced their disapproval and disgust.

They wanted to know how I could possibly sleep at night, and specifically what I was doing to help one of our most vulnerable populations. As they say, if you don’t know all sides, you don’t know the entire story.

It was about six months ago that these wooden structures began popping up in the Ninth District. The first one was along 42nd Place and Grand Avenue. The movement quickly picked up steam and by the start of this year, there were about 10 of those structures in my district alone.

Constituents wanted to know where did they come from? Why are you allowing them to be set up here? Do you have plans to move them?

So it began. The invasion of those boxes in our community.

No one had the courtesy to speak with our residents prior to placing them in their neighborhoods. No requests were made to meet with me or anyone on my staff to get our thoughts on how all this could impact our children, seniors or individuals in wheelchairs.

This type of disregard, lack of respect and insensitivity wouldn’t fly in a more affluent community. That’s because the people I represent are for the most part low-income individuals with limited resources. A lot of these folks face cultural and language barriers, are often afraid to speak up or simply don’t know how to organize.

From one day to the next, the big wooden boxes began blocking our public right-of-way, endangering the lives of our families, becoming havens for criminal activity.

Don’t take my word for it. All one has to do is look at the items confiscated by city officials during a recent cleanup: knives, firearms, hundreds of syringes.

Now, I’d like to ask the critics, “Would you feel secure living near one of these structures?”

These structures pose major health and safety issues not only for the inhabitants living inside them, but also nearby neighbors.

I’ve met with families who are afraid to go outside their home because of the illegal activity tied to some of these structures. I’ve heard from school officials frustrated that students can no longer use the sidewalk and have no other choice than to walk in the street while dodging fast-moving vehicles.

Residents are fed up with the mounds of trash that these structures create ranging from feces, condoms, feminine hygiene products and the list goes on.

While I’m sympathetic to the homeless crisis, these structures are not the answer. We are not adequately solving one problem by adding another at the expense of innocent people.

While this is an admirable endeavor, no one should be in the business of keeping the homeless homeless. A box made out of plywood is still a box no matter how it is painted.

It still doesn’t have heat or running water. It’s not built up to code, therefore making it unsafe, period.

We don’t need temporary, Band-Aid solutions, we need a permanent fix. That’s the message the L.A. City Council sent last month when we adopted a comprehensive strategy that includes dozens of solutions to properly address the myriad of needs of the homeless population.

The homeless deserve access to permanent housing, the opportunity to obtain much-needed services to help them get back on their feet and on their way to becoming self-sufficient.

That’s something I wholeheartedly believe in and is the reason why my office allocated $250,000 to hire outreach workers. In partnership with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System, these outreach workers are stationed out of my district office on Central Avenue. Every day, they are out in our community engaging our homeless population and connecting them to housing opportunities and other services available.

I will also be rolling out a Ninth District Homeless Task Force, which will include other service providers such as the Department of Mental Health and the faith-based community to do more direct and consistent outreach to the homeless population in our neighborhoods.

Homelessness is a complex set of circumstances. Not everyone on the street simply lost their job and their home.

We are combating mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic violence and the predators that take advantage of the homeless community.

As longtime community resident June Richard said, “These structures are commonly used as motels for prostitution, storage sheds for stolen goods and shooting up galleries for heroin and crack cocaine users.”

These structures are not the solution for the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. We can do better than that.

Curren Price Jr. is the Los Angeles city councilman representing the Ninth District in South Los Angeles.