Criminalizing homelessness is a move backward for Los Angeles

Bill Pitkin
4 min readNov 18, 2020
Mandatory Relocation Notice — November 15, 2020

The key overall finding based upon available evidence is that adopting more humane, person-centered approaches produces more efficient and effective outcomes than the more punitive policies that are often used throughout the U.S. — Arnold Ventures

As the visibility of homelessness has grown throughout Los Angeles in recent years, it has revealed a long-standing dynamic in the region: the vast majority of people who are unhoused sleep outside or in places not meant for human habitation. While about a third of people who experience homelessness in the U.S. are unsheltered, nearly three-quarters of unhoused people in Los Angeles are unsheltered.

According to the most recent Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count the percentage of people who are unsheltered declined slightly from the year before, as there has been increased attention to creating interim and “bridge” housing through city and county programs. The count, however, was conducted in January this year, before the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has certainly worsened the situation. Los Angeles created temporary shelter at recreation centers and motel/hotel rooms to minimize the spread of coronavirus; but many of these sites have closed or are closing.

Besides having to deal with the elements, people living outside have to deal with punitive measures by law enforcement and other public agencies. I’ve recently had the opportunity to meet and talk with people who are unsheltered, several of whom had to move recently due to a mandatory relocation order from the 101 freeway. This weekend we met a young man who was forced to leave his spot under the freeway to hang out in an alley a block away. How is this helping anything?

With the pandemic continuing and the city facing a severe budget deficit and under orders from the federal district court to provide thousands of beds for people living near freeways, the Los Angeles City Council is inexplicably considering a motion to further restrict where people can sit/lie/sleep in public. First brought before the council on October 28, it was postponed because so many questions and concerns were raised by both community residents and council members. The motion will be considered at the Council’s November 24 meeting.

Rather than further criminalizing people living outside, the City Council should look to recent research by national experts Barbara Poppe and Steven Metraux to inform the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness. Supported by Arnold Ventures, they looked at research and policy literature and nine jurisdictions across the U.S. to develop recommendations for “human-centered solutions to unsheltered homelessness.”

The researchers provide a series of issue briefs and recommendations for various stakeholders (including one tailored to local government leaders), and their findings are summarized with three key themes:

· Punitive policies do lots of harm, and little good

· Effective management of public spaces must aim to accommodate everyone

· Approaches that work are oriented toward low-barrier solutions, with a specific emphasis on getting people into housing

Policies that criminalize homelessness are not effective and create a host of negative consequences, for both individuals and systems of care and enforcement. Given the severe racial disparities in homelessness, these policies are inherently racist, reinforcing systems of discrimination and oppression.

Source: Arnold Ventures

Instead of punitive approaches, the authors provide a human-centered framework for addressing unsheltered homelessness that serves as a practical guide for policy makers. Los Angeles City Council members should stop wasting precious time and resources focusing on criminalizing homelessness and work with other stakeholders to create a system that reduces inflow and responds to crises with stable housing, while managing public space in an inclusive manner.

Source: Arnold Ventures

What can you do?

You can contact your LA City Council member to urge them to oppose CF 20–1376 and submit written public comment by November 23 expressing your opposition to the motion and insisting the council put its energies into creating permanent, human-centered solutions, i.e. housing!

Services Not Sweeps and West Valley People’s Alliance have toolkits with more information.

11/20/20 Update: Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez announced, after significant push back from activists over the past couple days, that the LA City Council motion mentioned in this post has been pulled back and will not be considered at the 11/24 meeting. Thanks to all who weighed in against this misguided approach!



Bill Pitkin

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader who has worked in the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles for more than 25 years.