L.A. residents weigh new homeless initiative
Can “Inside Safe” work where housing first failed?
On Jan. 18, small business owner Angela Marsden pulled into the Sherman Oaks Square shopping center around 7 a.m. to the flashing lights of police and fire department vehicles. She arrived at her restaurant, Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill, to the news that a homeless woman had died six businesses down in front of a donut shop. “Every day I come in, it’s something,” she said.
Marsden knew the woman as Elizabeth. “They had a sheet over her by the time I got there,” said Marsden. Yellow tape guarded the covered body on the dirty sidewalk.
Rainstorms had pummeled the Los Angeles area for a couple of weeks prior, and that night the temperatures dipped into the low 40s. Another homeless regular Marsden knew as “Huey” told her he begged Elizabeth during the night to get help, but she refused.
It was the third death that week in Sherman Oaks, an affluent Los Angeles suburb. “How do we normalize this?” Marsden asked in an interview with a local TV news station. “This is somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister. Dying and dead on the street.”
When LA Mayor Karen Bass took office in December, she vowed to tackle the crisis in her first official act on the job. The next day she declared a state of emergency with regard to homelessness. Days before Christmas, Bass announced Inside Safe, an initiative aimed at moving people out of encampments for good and into permanent housing with access to life-changing services. Los Angeles community leaders are hopeful but cautious. As the city invests billions of dollars in housing, residents wonder whether the funding has only worsened a crisis that needs deeper solutions than a roof and four walls.
Over 69,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, up from 52,765 in 2018. Almost 42,000 of LA County’s homeless live within the city of Los Angeles. About five people experiencing homelessness in LA County die every day—many of them alone on the sidewalk, especially during cold, rainy weather.
With Inside Safe, Bass targeted a longstanding homeless encampment in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice. Officials went from tent to tent asking the estimated 98 people to move into motel rooms. The city then assigned caseworkers to help them find an apartment with government assistance. Some jumped at the opportunity of housing, while others took longer to consider whether to leave their tent and many of their belongings.
In downtown Los Angeles, more than 4,400 unhoused people call the 50-square block of Skid Row their home as of last February. Andy Bales walks through the infamous neighborhood almost every day to get to his office at the Union Rescue Mission. He sees people sprawled on the sidewalk, incapacitated by addiction. Bales, the mission’s president and CEO, is cautiously optimistic that Bass will lead the city away from what he calls the “housing first harm reduction” approach. Under the housing first model, agencies quickly get homeless individuals into housing without requiring things like sober living or class attendance. Thirty-five years of working with the homeless community has convinced Bales that moving people into housing without addressing root issues like addiction and mental health doesn’t change lives.
“For too long they were doubling down on housing first as the single solution to address homelessness,” said Bales. “The housing first harm reduction model is not a silver bullet. … It’s not just giving people a set of keys to a room.”
California is the only state to codify the housing first approach in statute. Unsheltered homelessness rose 47.1 percent in California between 2016 and 2019 even as the state increased permanent housing units by 33 percent and overall homeless aid funds by 101 percent.
“We keep a close eye on what’s happening in Los Angeles,” said Bram Begonia, CEO and president of the Bay Area Rescue Mission in northern California. He wonders whether Inside Safe will deviate much from failed housing first policies. Begonia knows what it takes: life transformation. “It’s mind, body, spirit. … Once you deal with the person, give them the tools that they need, then we can talk about getting a job. So it’s not just housing,” he said.
That’s what changed Robert Brandt’s life. Brandt had a drink every day starting at 15. His alcoholism followed him through college, marriage, and a successful career, but eventually it started to take over. Estranged from his wife, Brandt stayed in apartments and rented a room from a friend. He floated from bar to bar and spent between $650 and $900 a week on alcohol and cocaine. One too many drunken accidents later, Brandt found himself kicked out and living in his van in 2014.
His wife brought him to the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row. As he looked around, Brandt realized where his current trajectory could take him. “This is me if I don’t go in that door and get the help that is being offered,” he thought. Brandt completed the program’s one-year Christian Life Discipleship Program. He reconciled with his wife and now works as facility manager at the mission.
Kevin Corinth, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, agrees that Inside Safe has praiseworthy goals. “It recognizes that people are literally dying on the street,” he said. “It focuses on getting access to mental health services for those people. It focuses on reducing street encampments. … I think it’s a plus in terms of the goals.” But Corinth warns efforts to build enough cost-effective permanent housing are “doomed” if the city doesn’t relax regulations and also build more market-rate housing.
But what happens when someone doesn’t want to come inside? City officials don’t coerce individuals to leave the streets. They can’t forcibly commit the mentally ill into treatment unless they are a danger to others or can’t provide for their basic needs—ambiguous standards that often exclude people like Elizabeth.
If they are admitted to a hospital, often there aren’t enough psychiatric beds available to keep them. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) bill into law in 2022. The bill allows concerned parties to ask a court to mandate care for an individual experiencing homelessness and untreated severe mental illness. But a group of disability and civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit to block the law’s rollout.
“We’ve given so much money. … Where’s that money going? How are these people still on the street with billions of dollars being given to this?” Marsden said. “Why wasn’t Elizabeth taken somewhere?”
Like many other business owners she knows, Marsden wrestles with balancing compassion for the men and women suffocating under mental illness and addiction with liability for her staff and customers. She watched the crisis transform her neighborhood. Her 70s-era bar and restaurant is losing business. Marsden and a bartender have been attacked. Other staff and customers have been threatened. But she can’t afford extra security.
She doesn’t see leaving someone to waste away on the street as compassion. “I don’t feel it’s humane to give clean needles and tell people that they have the right to refuse treatment, but then you let them die in squalor on the street,” she said.
At the Union Rescue Mission, Bales doesn’t give up on the people refusing help.
“We know that people can have a miraculous turnaround,” he said. “It doesn’t always happen, but it often happens. And we just always leave the door open.”