Just a few blocks from the Van Nuys Superior Courthouse, Los Angeles police Officers Hector Pereida and Saul Guardado spot a familiar row of sagging blue tarps and sunburned dome tents.
They pull their cruiser to the curb, looking for a homeless man they’ve seen here before. Not to arrest or cite him or to tell him to move along. Instead, they’ve brought a guest.
“Hi, I’m your mayor,” a smiling Mayor Eric Garcetti says as he holds out his hand toward a thin, bearded man who goes by the name Derek. After they shake hands, Garcetti settles into a quick line of questioning: Do you have a driver’s license? Have you seen your caseworker? Are you on a list for housing?
Surrounded by police officers, outreach workers, Garcetti and his staff, 35-year-old Derek nods his head politely and shows off his license. He then says he has an appointment with a caseworker and promises he’ll continue to keep up with his paperwork for social services.
“Good,” Garcetti says before embracing Derek. “Your mayor is counting on you.”
Garcetti’s visit last week to the encampment, along with Los Angeles Councilwoman Nury Martinez, was an up-close look at a new effort called HOPE, or Homeless, Outreach, Pro-Active, Engagement. Launched in May in the San Fernando Valley, HOPE is a collaboration between police officers, outreach workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and members of the city’s sanitation department. The program represents a shift from the way law enforcement has worked with the homeless who sleep on the streets. Instead of telling them to pack up and leave, only to see encampments sprout up again a block away, the goal is to get to know people by their names, focus on what they need and help them enroll in services to prepare them for housing.
So far, 30 homeless people have been housed, and another 145 have had contact with the HOPE team, according to the mayor’s office. Garcetti said the program is worth expanding citywide and plans to make an announcement about it Friday.
A NEED FOR MORE RESULTS
But frustration over homelessness continues to grow among business owners and residents. In the Valley, which stretches some 260 square miles, the homeless population increased from about 5,200 people last year to 7,335 this year, the largest spike in Los Angeles County, according to recent numbers released by the homeless authority. Business owners want results, said Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, CEO of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce.
In a survey taken for an upcoming State of the Valley chamber luncheon, Hoffman Vanyek said about half of the 400 members listed homelessness as a lead issue.
“They’re angry at the city, not the homeless,” Hoffman Vanyek said. “They have empathy for these people’s plight, but it definitely affects their own businesses. The business people care about this issue, not because it’s a problem. They want people to be safe and have a roof over their head.”
Garcetti and Martinez said they’ve heard and understand the complaints from business owners and residents. They say they have felt the pressure to find better, quicker ways to reduce homelessness and the encampments that have sprouted in alleyways, below freeway overpasses, in washes and even on main streets throughout the Valley.
• RELATED STORY: LA City Hall leaders press voters to pass tax to help house homeless
But a knot of forces both contributes to the problem and stands in the way of solving it. The 10,000 affordable housing units Garcetti and city leaders want are contingent on voters passing Prop. HHH, a $1.2 billion property tax bond measure. Even if voters pass it in the upcoming November election, it is an expensive, far-off solution, many say. Transitional housing is few and far between in the Valley because residents don’t want it in their neighborhoods. And civil liberties groups and homeless advocates have filed various lawsuits against the city for endangering homeless people by taking their possessions away during cleanups. The city paid out nearly $1 million in a settlement this year in such a case.
FINDING BALANCE BETWEEN COMMUNITY AND HOMELESS
In the meantime, homelessness continues to grow because of high rents, cheap drugs, and Prop. 47, the state law approved in 2014 that downgrades most nonviolent drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and allows people to stay out of prison. Those arrested are in and out of police stations in hours, only to return to the streets.
Councilwoman Martinez said her district, which includes the L.A. Police Department’s Van Nuys station and jail, has been affected most by homeless encampments.
The Valley is divided into seven City Council districts, and yet no Valley member has sat on the Los Angeles City Council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee since it was formed last year. Martinez said she didn’t know why she wasn’t on the board.
“I struggle to find a balance,” Martinez said of how to resolve homelessness in her district. “People have fallen on hard times, but kids shouldn’t have to walk past the encampments on their way to the YMCA or to school.”
A NEW WAY OF POLICING
Along an alley behind the Van Nuys Recreation Center park, Alejandro Acevedo Rosales and his wife, Maria Torres, both in their late 40s, live among stretched-out tarps, broken bicycle pieces, boxes and other debris. They have stayed in the area for more than a year.
Officers Pereida and Guardado know the couple well and check on them regularly, but it’s unclear why Torres won’t leave, given her various illnesses.
Her story shows the challenges of the job, even with caseworkers present, Guardado said. Still, he is pleased with the successes of the HOPE team. Seven people from one encampment he regularly visits have found new homes, and others are on their way.
“It makes me proud,” he said. “It’s like watching your child go to college.”
Pereida said the HOPE team, made up of 10 officers from various Valley divisions, gives police the chance to have purposeful encounters with homeless men and women.
“We’re able to meet and greet them, to find out a little more about what they need,” Pereida said. “We have a better rapport with them.”
LAPD Cmdr. Todd Chamberlain, the former captain of Mission Division, said he had noticed the 21 police stations across the city each had different ways of working with the homeless and encampments. Bringing more officers together into one team gives the LAPD better focus, said Chamberlain, who oversees the HOPE program.
“I think what you’re going to find is our HOPE team’s biggest success is a huge collaboration between the entities involved,” Chamberlain said. “We’re making sure it’s more than law enforcement. We all have one problem we’re trying to focus on. When these HOPE teams go out, they make sure outreach goes out first. If (the homeless) can get placed, get referrals, get the services they need, then that’s a success.”