What can Denver learn from
the mistakes of other cities?
A relaxation of ordinances and a housing crisis led the population of people experiencing homelessness in L.A. to increase from 33,000 to 55,000 in six years.
Case Study: Los Angeles
Disease & Violence Plague Large Encampments
and Threaten Public Health & Safety
A series of legal rulings and settlements have essentially prohibited the City of Los Angeles from moving homeless residents off of sidewalks and other public spaces. Limited resources and practical restraints make enforcement of the scant ordinances that are in place nearly impossible. As a result, over the last decade, L.A.’s homeless population has created settlements all across the city.
Perhaps best known is a massive tent city in a part of the city known as “Skid Row.” This 50 block area is home to thousands of people experiencing homelessness. In Skid Row, and in similar encampments around L.A., people are living in tents, in boxes and under tarps on sidewalks, under bridges and in parks. They live in cars and campers permanently parked outside businesses, restaurants and homes. They keep their possessions, including furniture, shopping carts, bicycles and pets, with them in these make-shift dwellings. They pirate electricity off of street lights and use fires and kerosene heaters to stay warm.
Homelessness in Los Angeles has increased 75 percent over six years from about 32,000 to an estimated 55,000 due to rising cost of housing and limited space in shelters, low-cost hotels and tenements and affordable housing units. As a result, more of these tent cities are emerging across Los Angeles. A 2017 survey identified 222 encampments, including 50 settlements with 30 or more people living in them, in communities across L.A. from Koreatown to Bel-Air.
Drug use, violence, prostitution and arson are common in homeless encampments. The human waste, discarded food and other trash, including hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, generated by the people living in tent cities attract rats and fleas and threaten public health and safety. In the fall of 2018 a typhus outbreak reached “epidemic” levels in parts of Los Angeles County including Pasadena.
The problem isn’t new for L.A. But the political will to solve it is. After decades of ignoring the issue and passing the buck, L.A. is finally taking action. Voters at the city and county levels approved investments in 2016 and 2017 to build more housing and fund outreach services. There are early signs of success, but progress is slow with a problem this large and persistent.
Denver does not need to repeat the mistakes of Los Angeles. With a proactive, thoughtful approach that seeks to balance the needs and rights of homeless residents with the expectations and rights of the rest of the community, Denver can do better.
Read more about L.A.’s experience
“In Los Angeles, homeless camps are suddenly everywhere,” Marketplace, May 28, 2015
“L.A.’s homelessness surged 75% in six years. Here’s why they crisis has been decades in the making,” Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2018
“Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis is a national disgrace,” Editorial, Los Angeles Times, Feb 25, 2018
“Encampments take root in south L.A. Here’s why clearing them out is so difficult,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2018
“Typhus reaches ‘epidemic levels’ in parts of Los Angeles area,” NBC News, Oct 5, 2018
“L.A.’s efforts to solve homelessness are paying off, one life at a time” opinion piece by Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles Times, Dec 2, 2018
This encampment at Burnside and Fourth Avenues is located in Downtown Portland. In Portland, homelessness has increased 10% in just two years.
Case Study: Portland, Oregon
Parks and Neighborhoods Overrun by Encampments
Ongoing legal challenges to the city’s camping ban, coupled with lack of shelters and affordable housing options have the turned the streets of Portland, Oregon into a campground for the homeless.
Large groups of people experiencing homelessness in Portland have established encampments consisting of tents, tarps, boxes, shopping carts, bicycles, furniture and animals. And with these camps have come the human waste, discarded food and trash that is inevitable with human habitation. With no infrastructure to deal with the waste, public health and safety issues have emerged.
These homeless encampments aren’t limited to the city’s urban core, but rather are reaching into Portland neighborhoods and suburbs. The situation has gotten so bad that some long-time Portland homeowners, including Erik and Kristy Benson, profiled in this 2017 article, are considering whether or not to stay. After an aggressive man approached Kristy as she pulled out of her driveway and then followed her into her house, the Bensons took steps to protect themselves, buying multiple firearms and cans of bear spray. But even with those precautions in place, they say the cost of having an encampment just feet from their front door is a high one to pay.
Pastor Ben Tertin of Portland described the challenge of balancing the rights of homeless people with the safety of the community. “What we have to do as a Christian mission, the heart for homeless in the core. It’s very big,” Tertin said. “But not to the point of saying leave your used condoms and needles at our children’s playground.”
Like Denver, Portland is a community that values its parks and open spaces and has an extensive running and biking trails systems. However, in recent years, those community resources have been overrun by homeless encampments. With legal and practical limitations on what they can do to move homeless residents out of parks and off of trails, city officials are focused on mitigating impacts by spending money on additional policing and public clean ups.
Denver can avoid the experience of Portland by soundly rejecting Initiative 300 and embracing instead a proactive, thoughtful approach that seeks to balance the needs and rights of homeless residents with the expectations and rights of the rest of the community. Denver can do better.
Read more about Portland’s experience:
“Portland wanted to shelter every homeless family. The plan backfired, but it offers lessons for Seattle,” The Seattle Times, Aug 24, 2018
“Portland’s housed and unhoused neighbors try to live with each other,” The Oregonian, Oct 8, 2017
“Portland’s homeless challenge,” City Journal, a publication of Manhattan Institute, Winter 2016
“Judge rules Portland’s camping ban is legal, but says ‘we must do better than that,’” Blogtown, Portland Mercury, Feb 5, 2015
“Our homeless crisis,” The Oregonian, January 17, 2015