Los Angeles’ agreement to host the 2028 Olympic Games could bring the focus and urgency needed to house thousands of people who live on the city’s streets, but only if local leaders treat homelessness like an emergency, said one downtown social service provider.
Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, said when he heard the city reached an agreement with the International Olympics Committee on July 31, he felt a sense of relief. He said the news may continue the momentum to address one of L.A.’s top concerns.
“I believe we’re past the tipping point,” Bales said of the number of people who sleep on city streets, in their cars, and in filled-to-capacity emergency shelters. “There are so many people out on the streets that we need a FEMA-type, American Red Cross response. The same urgency they might have to clean up the streets weeks before the Olympics… that’s the urgency we need right now, not just for those days before.”
That laser-like focus is needed, Bales said, because homelessness will likely continue to grow based on recent trends. The number of homeless people surged across Los Angeles County’s neighborhoods and suburbs this year compared with 2016, with more than 55,000 sleeping on sidewalks, in their cars, or along the Los Angeles River, according to figures released by the Los Angeles Homeless Authority Services in May.
Much of the 23 percent year-over-year spike was a result of a tight housing market, high rental costs and more women and youths escaping violent domestic situations, social service providers say. That growth is particularly visible around venues that could be used for the Olympics games, such as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Staples Center, and in the Sepulveda Dam Basin, where canoe and kayak competitions are proposed.
And the problem could persist into a decade from now, Bales warned.
A study from the real estate company Zillow released this week found almost 2,000 more Angelenos could be pushed into homelessness if rents climb by 5 percent.
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But Los Angeles city and county leaders have said that the unprecedented passage of two measures by voters to help the homeless shows that the momentum and urgency were there long before the Olympics agreement.
Last November, Los Angeles city voters approved Proposition HHH, a parcel tax expected to raise $1.2 billion in bonds for the construction of 10,000 units of housing. In March, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure H, a quarter cent sales tax that’s supposed to generate $355 million a year for 10 years, for social services.
Those two measures were introduced as a result of both city and county leaders in 2015 declaring a state of emergency on homelessness.
In a podcast interview this week with sports columnist Bill Simmons, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti admitted one of the criticisms he has heard and he believes is fair is: “Why are you focusing on the future when there are so many problems today?”
Garcetti said he believes the two are connected.
“You can’t address today if you aren’t thinking of the future,” he said.
Unlike many cities, Los Angeles’ existing venues and already approved infrastructure won’t take public funding away from the city’s biggest problems, and no homes or people will be displaced, he added.
At least one group called NOlympics LA is against Garcetti’s rush to an agreement with the International Olympics Committee. The group notes some reasons for their opposition include: “heightened gentrification to police crackdowns and a diversion of resources from the issues facing L.A., such as an affordable housing crisis and the highest rate of homeless people in the country.”
The group could not be reached for further comment. But during the Simmons interview, Garcetti said stories of displacement and anti-gang enforcement sweeps were part of an“urban legend.”
Greg Spiegel, Garcetti’s former homelessness policy director, agreed with the Mayor that Los Angeles is in a unique position to host the Olympics, because of the infrastructure already in place. That makes Los Angeles different compared to other cities, and even compared to itself in 1984, Garcetti noted.
It also means new stadiums and fields won’t be built to “leaf blow” the homeless into other communities, Spiegel added.
“I haven’t seen the concerns people might typically have in an area that doesn’t already have an infrastructure,” said Spiegel, who is now the director of strategic initiatives at the Inner City Law Center. The center recently completed an audit that examined the lack of restrooms on skid row, called “No Place To Go.”
“The timeline is interesting,” Spiegel said of the Olympics coming to Los Angeles. “I see it as a leverage point.”
Spiegel and others say the greatest, ongoing challenge to housing people will be building affordable homes across all of Los Angeles, not just in one area.
“Housing all can’t be in one neighborhood,” he said. “We need a system where people can be housed in the neighborhoods where they became homeless.”
But he said over a ten-year span, he worries the public and leaders will become inpatient with waiting for affordable housing to be built.
“As (the Olympics) gets closer, there might be more pressure to make (the city) look better,” Spiegel added.
Bales agreed, saying city, county and faith leaders as well as developers and the public need to continue to work together.
“It’s going to take everybody, all hands on deck,” Bales said. “I hope we don’t become complacent because we passed Measure H and Prop. HHH. Not one cot has been funded yet. It’s no time to rest.”