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Homeless Havoc Exposes Fatal Flaws in Advocacy with Rising Overdose Deaths and Safety Concerns

If you’ve been following the news lately, a few stories about homelessness may have caught your eye. The County released the latest statistics on the death rate among the unhoused. Despite the County’s attempts to put a positive spin on the news, overdose deaths continue to reap a grim harvest among the homeless, and six people still die on the streets every night. Attacks on Metro riders, many perpetrated by disturbed homeless people, have made daily news, to the point where Mayor Bass is advocating for a “surge” of police presence on busses and trains. Even quiet residential areas are suffering the consequences of local government’s failure to provide services for people in need.  Recently, an incident involving a  clearly disturbed woman living in a van in Venice escalated into a police chase that ended in a serious accident on the 405.  

These incidents share a common cause: the fatal results of homelessness advocacy in Los Angeles. We must remember, to many advocacy groups, the homeless are little more than abstract symbols of the larger problem of social inequities. An example of this belief can be found in the Times’ story on the increase in crime on the Metro system. Quoting the article, “Laura Raymond, director of ACT-LA, the Alliance for Community Transit. The group represents dozens of community groups advocating for free fares, better service and other social justice issues on transit” With no touch of irony, Ms. Raymond said “Metro cannot afford to continue to waste money and time on a failing strategy [of adding law enforcement officers on trains]” She made this statement in the face of reports and audits showing billions have been wasted on homelessness programs she supports.  Apparently, Ms. Raymond and her fellow advocates are willing to sacrifice the lives of commuters, many of whom are the working poor and people of color, just so they can prove their point about "criminalizing homelessness" and the need for housing. Several of Metro’s Board members readily parrot Ms. Raymond’s words.

At the root of these problems is a steadfast insistence that homelessness is primarily a housing problem, and untreated mental illnesses and substance use disorders are merely secondary consequences of being unhoused. This belief flies in the face of survey results, many sponsored by advocacy groups, showing more than half the homeless population suffers from some type of mental illness or drug abuse problem, and many of them had these issues before becoming homeless. Combined with the disjointed and uncoordinated way the County provides social and medical services to the homeless, current policies have led to a crisis on the streets, and indeed, throughout the City. 

Among the tragic ironies of this kind of fatal advocacy is the way advocates’ words do not follow their actions. Measure HLA, the so-called Safe Streets initiative, was sold to LA voters as funding traffic safety measures. Part of its stated purpose is to encourage use of public transportation by discouraging solo vehicle driving. Housing density policies encourage developers to build new apartments with little or no parking in an attempt to force tenants onto public transportation. While density and public transit advocates like State Senator Scott Wiener make cute videos about riding the bus, people are being attacked—and sometimes killed—on L.A.’s Metro system.   The reality of the system is that it is unsafe, inconvenient, and poorly managed.  As transportation expert David Bragdon said in a 2022 L.A. Times article, “Los Angeles has pretty bad transit service, and making bad transit service free doesn’t really attract a whole lot more ridership. They need to be thinking about making transit better, rather than making bad transit free, because bad transit — even when it’s free — isn’t very attractive.”  Advocates refuse to recognize this reality because it conflicts with their theoretical worldview. Public transportation is morally superior to driving a car, so forcing people to take a bus or train, no matter how unsafe, is justifiable. 

Similarly, advocates claim anything less than housing of a type and in a location that only they approve of, is an unacceptable solution to homelessness. If that means people in dire need of interventions must stay on the streets until housing is ready, so be it. Leaving disturbed homeless people untreated poses just as much of a danger to them as it does to housed residents. The woman who led police on the chase on the 405 was injured when she crashed into other cars, and the unhoused are often injured—or killed--when a mental crisis becomes a law enforcement problem.  In these cases, advocates hypocritically practice the morals of convenience, decrying “police violence” and demanding reform while perpetuating the conditions that cause these confrontations. 

The difference between many advocates and regular residents is that residents have to live with the consequences of the failed policies advocates create. Working people, many with long commutes, must share busses and trains with fentanyl addicts, who can become violent with no warning. Small business owners have the choice of paying for security or risking their living—or lives--in random attacks. Ordinary citizens see their tax dollars wasted on ineffective programs, while being lectured about justice and morality by the people wasting their money.

While various audits have been ordered by the City, County, and a federal judge, Angelenos cannot depend on outside circumstances to resolve this crisis.  Ordinary residents must accept their responsibility to be informed and active citizens, and demand better from the government we elect.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)


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