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Opinion: Relocation of people experiencing homelessness breaks up communities

Forceful removal from homeless encampments leads to a cycle of displacement and destroys built communities. (Antonio Martinez/Daily Bruin)

By Ashley Leung

July 20, 2021 1:08 p.m.

This post was updated July 25 at 3:48 p.m.

Although you’ll often hear the term “homeless,” “houseless” is far more accurate.

That’s because a lack of stable, physical residence does not signify the absence of a home – even on the streets.

It’s a shame some of Los Angeles’ politicians don’t understand this.

LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin announced plans for the removal of the encampment on the Venice boardwalk in June. The removal, which is part of Bonin’s “Venice Beach Encampment to Home” program, will take six weeks and will cost the city $5 million.

Nearly 200 people will receive shelter, services and a “pathway to permanent housing,” according to Bonin’s note to the neighborhood. As of July 15, 118 people had been given some form of shelter. Bonin also promised that the program will be led by St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit organization that aids working, low-income families and people facing houselessness, rather than law enforcement. Critically, there will be no arrests.

This is a breath of fresh air from the violent and dehumanizing removal of people facing houselessness in Echo Park that took place in March.

However, Bonin’s plan is merely a Band-Aid for a larger wound. It does not eliminate the sense of displacement that residents might feel being forcefully removed from the community they built at the encampment. Worse, the temporary status of the city’s shelter likely means that these people will be relocated a second time.

If Bonin was serious about “humanely address(ing) the homelessness crisis at Venice Beach,” his program should have included guaranteed, permanent housing and transparent plans for psychiatric care.

Kenya Covington, a UCLA public policy lecturer, said people should put themselves in the shoes of those experiencing homelessness. We cannot underestimate the deep bonds between people who are experiencing homelessness together, Covington added.

For example, some former residents of Echo Park have expressed frustration at the lack of housing support and transparency, as well as discontent at the demolition of a close-knit community. Venice Beach likely won’t be any different.

“If you want to know what it takes for people to leave an encampment and go into a situation that’s better for them, you have to ask them,” said Gary Blasi, a UCLA professor of law emeritus. “It’s not a question any other professional should be answering for unhoused people.”

People experiencing houselessness are individuals with different needs, desires and goals. We must acknowledge these differences and see the population for what it is: a community of human beings.

Support for encampment removal often stems from concerns for the safety and cleanliness of neighborhoods. Others might be concerned about protecting the value of their real estate investments.

While these concerns are valid, homelessness is a human rights issue that requires solutions beyond what has been done, said Johan Carrascoza, a fourth-year human biology and society student and logistics chair for Project Lux, a UCLA student-run club that helps those experiencing houselessness through fundraising and volunteer work.

“If you’re not advocating for the solution but you want them off (or not) near your property, then you’re really not … encouraging the solution – you’re really just anti-homeless,” Carrascoza said.

Housing options for displaced residents include units offered by the state-run program Project Roomkey, established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to provide temporary, socially distanced shelter for those experiencing homelessness. The city also offers shared housing, permanent housing vouchers and up to six months of motel placements.

Temporary housing may be helpful for the transition to permanent housing, but it can actually do more harm than good when the promise of permanent housing is vague. Permanent housing availability depends on the number of willing landlords and vacant units, which means that waiting times can vary.

A real housing option is one that treats people like independent, autonomous adults, Blasi said.

Based on this definition alone, Bonin’s program doesn’t fit the bill. In addition to destroying the community residents built with each other, the program fails to address how exactly it will distribute mental health services.

Housing and the sense of safety it offers are basic needs, not privileges. Rather than push people from their homes, LA should offer permanent housing options that allow people to live with their pre-established community if desired.

We must make sure that when relocation is necessary, it is a meaningful action that will lead to a better quality of life. Just as important is the need for people who once experienced houselessness to lead the program.

“What I am most concerned about is the movement without real intent to provide service and … just moving people experiencing homelessness from one encampment to another,” Covington said.

Granted, it is not an easy task to create affordable, permanent housing for those who need it. Median home prices in Southern California increased more than 20% between April 2020 and 2021.

Policies that focus on the physical and mental well-being of people should be the ultimate goal – not those that criminalize houselessness. Although houselessness has become politicized, the public must see the people behind the crisis.

That begins with interacting with people experiencing houselessness and advocating for their basic needs rather than their removal.

Someone without physical possessions or permanent residence is still a person – so let’s treat them like one.

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