L.A.'s Failed Homeless Policies Turned My Home Into a Prison
People sleeping in the 2nd Street Tunnel, Los Angeles.

L.A.'s Failed Homeless Policies Turned My Home Into a Prison

Amy Alkon
Amy Alkon
17 min read

I never wanted a gun. In fact, I wanted to never own one—until around noon on Thursday, August 20th.

Since the late 1990s, I’ve lived in Venice, California, renting a one-bedroom Craftsman house a mile from the ocean that someone built out of a Sears-catalog kit 100 years ago. I’m a science-based syndicated columnist and author, currently working all hours to complete a book that keeps trying to kill me. Luckily, I’m writing it in this cute little old lady of a house on my sweet Venice block.

Whenever it seems I’m pointlessly pushing words around the page, I’ll step out the front door and take in the sunny stretch of palm trees, cacti, and bougainvillea. I’ll spot a hummingbird, wave to my neighbor with his parrot on his shoulder, or maybe watch Joey the Aggressive Squirrel, my wee dog’s taunting nemesis. These brief distractions uncouple me from looming suspicions that I’m an incompetent dullard no one will want to read, and I often go back in, emotionally restored, and pound out a coherent and even reader-worthy paragraph.

My block is divided into five small lots, each with a front and back house, and there’s also one double-wide lot with one of the classic ground-floor bungalow courts built around Los Angeles from 1910 to around 1930. I’m a protector of my street, along with my neighbor. She’s a tiny but tough senior citizen who knows all the neighborhood dogs and cats by name, and personally turned a block-long ugly dirt strip across the street into a serene native plant and rock garden.

The “protector” role simply means being quick to go nuh-uh when there’s abusive behavior; for example, somebody throwing open the doors of their BMW in the wee hours, blasting out the thunka-thunka-boom of their stereo, and refusing to turn it down when it’s pointed out to them that it’s one in the morning and people are sleeping.

At this point—when the music blasters say, “Fuck you, lady!” (or any of its less genteel variations) instead of the preferred “Gosh, sorry”—we neighborhood protectors march home and call the Los Angeles Police Department’s non-emergency dispatch line. Assuming the music enthusiasts are still around when the LAPD arrives, the police inform them they’re violating noise laws and disturbing the neighbors, and if they keep it up, they’ll be cited and fined.

Over the years, when we’ve called the cops for “quality of life” issues like this, I’ve observed that the police almost never arrest or ticket the offenders. They typically use the laws and codes merely for leverage. And it almost always works, which is why my neighborhood has remained a mostly peaceful and pleasant place to live—until recently.

On March 16th, in response to the COVID pandemic, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and his council relaxed parking enforcement codes “to help Angelenos comply with public-health recommendations to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus.” This included lifting prohibitions against both overnight parking on residential streets for vehicles over six feet high (such as Winnebagos), and the parking of any vehicle in any one place for over 72 hours.

Some considered such restrictions to be cruel to the vehicle-dwelling homeless, even before the pandemic. The reality is there’s a vast amount of non-residential streetage on which a homeless person can safely park a camper in Los Angeles County—including locations served by Safe Parking L.A., which provides restrooms, security guards, and social-service resources. And the neighborhood parking restrictions that keep a Winnebago from staying in place in perpetuity prevent residential blocks from becoming noisy and violent campgrounds-cum-public health crises (when the rose bushes are inevitably turned into open-air toilets).

Throughout Garcetti’s seven years as Mayor, Los Angeles has witnessed a shocking explosion of homelessness. When he took office in 2013, the city had about 23,000 residents classified as homeless, two thirds of whom were unsheltered, living on the streets. By mid-2019, the figure was about 36,000, and three-quarters of them were living on the streets. Currently, there are 41,000 homeless. Garcetti’s pet plan to alleviate the homelessness crisis was the construction of permanent supportive housing. In 2016, compassionate voters approved $1.2 billion in new spending to fund these units. Three years later, only 72 apartments had been built, at a cost of about $690,000 apiece. Meanwhile, an El Salvador-based company has come up with nifty $4,000 3D-printed houses that look like great places to live and can be put up in a single day.

There’s also been a failure to admit that housing alone isn’t the solution. As urban-policy researcher Christopher Rufo explains, only about 20 percent of the homeless population are people down on their luck, who just need housing and a few supportive services to get back on their feet. Approximately 75 percent of the unsheltered homeless have substance-abuse disorders and 78 percent have mental-health disorders. Many have both.

As a bleeding-heart libertarian, I feel personally compelled to try to help people who are struggling. I do this by volunteering as a mediator, doing free dispute resolution to provide “access to justice” to people who can’t afford court. And since about 2009, I personally have given support to one of those easily helpable 20 percent Rufo refers to, getting him paying work and a bank account, and storing his stuff in my garage. He is a good man and a hard worker—sober for many years—who simply seems to have issues in the “front-office” organizational parts of his brain that help most of us get our act together to, say, pay bills on time. He just needs somebody to back him up on the bureaucratic aspects of life. I’m happy to say he now has a roof over his head. He lives in a motel across the country, and all I still do for him is provide him with a permanent address. I receive his Veterans Administration and Social Security mail at my house, which I mail to him with smiley faces and hearts on the envelopes, colored in with pink and orange highlighter.

This success story would not be possible for most homeless people, the nearly 80 percent who are addicted and/or mentally ill. As Rufo writes:

Progressives have rallied around the slogan “Housing First,” but haven’t confronted the deeper question: And then what? It’s important to understand that, even on Skid Row, approximately 70 percent of the poor, addicted, disabled, and mentally ill residents are already housed in the neighborhood’s dense network of permanent supportive-housing units, nonprofit developments, emergency shelters, Section 8 apartments, and single room-occupancy hotels.

When I toured the area with Richard Copley, a former homeless addict who now works security at the Midnight Mission, he explained that when he was in the depths of his methamphetamine addiction, he had a hotel room but chose to spend the night in his tent on the streets to be “closer to the action.” Copley now lives… at the Ward Hotel—which he calls the “mental ward”—where he says there are frequent fights and drugs are available at all hours of the day. The truth is that homelessness is not primarily a housing problem but a human one. Mayors, developers, and service providers want to cut ribbons in front of new residential towers, but the real challenge is not just to build new apartment units but to rebuild the human beings who live inside them.

The situation is especially tragic for those who are so mentally ill that they cannot take care of themselves, and are often a danger to both themselves and others. And I sometimes wonder which movie star or other famous person needs to be stabbed or bludgeoned before politicians take meaningful action.

It’s fashionable in progressive circles to demonize law enforcement, but Rufo explains that in 2006, then-L.A. police chief Bill Bratton implemented a “Broken Windows” policing initiative on Skid Row. It led to a 42 percent reduction in felonies, a 50 percent reduction in deaths by overdose, and a 75 percent reduction in homicides. The overall homeless population was reduced from 1,876 people to 700—a huge success. Activists filed lawsuits and ran publicity campaigns, slowly killing Bratton’s program, on the grounds that it “criminalizes homelessness.” As a libertarian, I’m opposed to drug laws and forced behavior—but only to a point. It is not compassion to leave people to be victimized by criminals simply because they are unhoused, nor is leaving mentally and physically disabled people strewn across the streets amidst piles of garbage a form of freedom.

Mayor Garcetti, in lieu of admitting the real challenges—the first step to taking meaningful action to alleviate the homelessness crisis—has simply ignored the human results of his failed policy. As a result, whole sections of the city, including formerly livable streets in my beloved Venice, have been turned into Skid Row by the Sea,

My own block had not come to look like this (in part because we’re about a full mile away from Venice’s social-service agencies). But about a week and a half into August, a VW Vanagon Westfalia (circa 1987, tricked out with solar panels on top) appeared in front of my house and stayed there. A white woman, about 40, with long magenta-dyed hair, was living in the van with a big leather-muzzled Rottweiler. The dog was prone to barking jags, and the woman didn’t just close the van’s sliding door when she got in and out; she often slammed it so hard that it shook my little wooden house.

I know from behavioral-science research (as well as experience) that telling people what to do often backfires, leading them to rebel—to keep doing whatever they were doing, only longer, harder, and louder. So the morning after I was door-slammed awake at 3:12 am, I leaned over the fence and did my best to sound friendly. “Hi there! Hey… just want to tell you, we’re really close to the street here, and we hear everything. The barking and the van door slamming goes right through closed doors and windows.”

She said she was “gonna leave tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” I said. And then my impatience triumphed over good sense, and I added, “But, it’s so loud, and I get migraines. As long as you’re going… could you maybe leave today?”

“I will stay as long as I want,” she yelled. “And by the way, I am not homeless. I am camping!”

The noise continued—and escalated. Two young cops, three years on the job, came out. They told me the van had an expired registration (since 2015), so by law, they could tow it, or they could use the prospect of towing it to get the woman to move the van out of earshot. But there was a problem: that prohibition by the mayor against the LAPD enforcing such laws.

I got in touch with our local Community Policing officer, Officer Adrian Acosta, who confirmed that they weren’t allowed to tow the van. He came out to talk to the woman and offered her space at Safe Parking L.A.—which she refused. She told Acosta she’d be moving on “soon,” and agreed to stop the repeated door slamming.

That lasted about an hour. Then, in quick succession: Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam!

I opened my door and called from my porch, “Stop slamming the door!”

“Oh, you gonna call the cops on me?” she answered. “I’ll call the cops on you!”

From then on, there was door slamming all day and sometimes at night—a deliberate ritual to show me she was in control. She could disturb my work, my peace of mind, and my sleep whenever she felt like it.

I was frustrated and upset, but I wasn’t afraid—until August 14th. A tall, rough-looking white guy roared up on a shiny Harley, parked it in front of the van, and got in. Soon afterward, another dude got in, too.

The noise and abuse intensified, with the van’s occupants making it clear it was punishment for me calling the police about the noise. Throughout the day, the guy would turn on his motorcycle, get back in the van, and just leave the thing idling on the street for 10 minutes at a time. The Harley’s unmuffled open exhaust woke the neighbor’s new baby and disturbed everybody on my block, many of whom are working remotely from home.

I climbed on the base of my fence to ask the guy, seated in the van, to please be respectful—turn off the motorcycle when he wasn’t riding it. He said nothing, but got out and hand-revved the bike to amp up the noise and pump out exhaust fumes. I put a towel under my door to block the fumes, which helped not at all. I came out again to ask him to please stop. His only response: “Show me your tits.”

The cops came out repeatedly, answering not just my calls but those of my neighbors. Time after time, the police apologized for the fact that they couldn’t do anything to alleviate the abuse, explaining that they’d been neutered by the mayor, with the support of our local city councilman, Mike Bonin.

Several of these officers tried to find creative ways to assist us, however. One officer on night duty came by at 3am and blared his lights and siren at the van, hoping it might make our street seem less hospitable to a couple with an aversion to police attention. Another officer looked up the biker’s license plate to get his name. I needed this for a police report, which Officer Acosta advised I get.

The biker guy turned out to be a violent felon, early-released from prison on August 14th—the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside, 70-some miles south-east of L.A. He’d been sentenced to remain in prison until October, but got popped ahead of time because of the pandemic, and came straight to my street.

I looked up his record. This 38-year-old man had so many violent felonies and restraining orders, I remarked to a friend, “How does one even find the time?” Even more disturbingly, in addition to an arrest for assaulting a police officer, I found a restraining order filed against him by a 60-year-old woman, whom I suspected could be his mother. Yes, exactly the sort of “neighbor” we’re all hoping for.

One morning, about a week after his arrival, I sat down at my computer and discovered it was feces o’clock (approximately 6am Pacific Time). The stench of human waste was wafting in from the sidewalk, which apparently was doubling as a toilet. I had become afraid to go out my locked gate, even to get the mail from the box just on the other side, so I got up on my kitchen step stool and leaned over the fence to hose off the sidewalk.

The felon, irate to be awakened by the rather normal neighborhood sound of a person using a garden house, flew out of the van in a rage. My gate is steel-frame, covered by wood planks, and six feet high like the rest of my fence, but it is still terrifying to have a man pounding on it with both fists and yelling “You bitch! I’ll get you, bitch!” Terrified, I dropped the hose, screamed, “I’m calling 911,” and ran inside. Probably figuring the arrival of police was imminent, he took off with his girlfriend on the motorcycle.

My neighbors and I call 911 from time to time, like if we hear a woman screaming in the city parking lot near us. And the police always come pronto. But that morning, time went by, and no police. A half-hour. Forty-five minutes. An hour. This was upsetting. And let’s be clear: It is not the fault of the police. Though the $150 million “defund the police” cuts have yet to hit the department, the mayor’s prohibition on enforcement against abusive “campers” has served to effectively drain the force’s existing capacity, since police often have to come out over and over to the same locations, powerless to resolve the underlying issues.

Since our criminal and his girlfriend were off somewhere on his bike, I worried that the police would see the van sitting there, with no voices or sounds coming from it, and they’d just leave. At the one-hour mark, I darted out and left a magic-markered note on the van windshield: “Officers, please call resident. Phone # left w/Dispatch.” But before the officers arrived, the couple roared back on the bike. I watched from indoors as they crumpled up my pathetic note, laughed and threw it in the gutter, and roared off again.

An hour and a half after I’d called 911, officers arrived. And it was then—noon, on Thursday, August 20th that I had an upsetting revelation: We citizens can no longer rely on the police to show up. And then the thought hit me: I need to get a gun.

You’ve got to love the irony. It’s the Democrats who push for gun control, yet it’s the Democrats in power in my city who are leaving me with no choice but to arm myself.

The truth is I shouldn’t have a gun. I’m a boob when I’m afraid. I lose all mental and physical capacity. I know, if you get a gun, you’re supposed to practice at a gun range regularly, and I would. Still, in a heated situation, I have my doubts that I could even find the “safety,” a term I know only from watching TV and movie crime dramas.

I emailed two libertarian lady friends with guns—subj: “Jenny From The Glock”—to ask for advice, and talked to some of the cops, too. The consensus: I’d do best with some Little House on the Prairie-type shotgun that sprayed buckshot, giving me the best chance, in a home invasion, of hitting someone other than myself.

The next morning, a sound from outside startled me. The guy was vandalizing my gate. This time, the police came, and one of the cops somehow succeeded in getting the couple to move the van down the street a bit, away from my house. This was a relief, but not a solution. There was further vandalism of my gate the next day.

The police told me they’d need me to file a restraining order to give them any power of enforcement. Assuming the judge approved it, they could finally make the guy move off our block, and they could arrest him if he came near me—assuming he didn’t kill me and take off on his bike before the overtaxed LAPD could get a cruiser out my way.

I was terrified to get a restraining order, because it would give the guy my name and other personal information while likely angering him further and putting me at increased risk of harm. It could also tie me up with days or weeks of paperwork and possible court appearances. But I had become a prisoner behind my gate, afraid to take out the trash, walk my tiny dog, or mail a letter. I was a stressed-out wreck, constantly on edge. I scared our poor sweet postman who delivers packages at odd hours, screaming in terror two nights in a row when a box thudded over my fence onto the pavement. This was no way to live, and thanks to Mayor Garcetti, it seemed that the only way to enable the LAPD to protect my block was to file for an order of protection, effectively turning myself into bait.

I called Legal Aid, and a compassionate young lawyer, Jenny N., helped me on the phone for about four hours over two days. I spent another six hours filling out 50 pages of restraining-order paperwork and making corrections to the parts that Jenny said I’d gotten wrong or omitted. It was unpaid work at a time when I had looming deadlines and was short on money—but what was my alternative? People suggested I move. Well, I was bullied as a child, and I wasn’t willing to let this criminal bully me out of my home.

The paperwork is surprisingly complicated, and your life could depend on your getting it right. Jenny told me I’d left a few forms out of my packet, and I was having trouble finding the online versions while we were on the phone. She heard the stress in my voice, my holding back the tears. She told me to take a break, destress.

I was afraid to go out and walk my dog, so I sat on the couch petting her. I heard a whirring mechanical noise. Weird. I kept hearing it. I went out, looked over the fence, and holy crap: The van was being winched onto a flatbed tow truck, a deus ex machina on six wheels. Because my neighbor (son of an NFL football player, a gentleman, and thankfully, built like his dad) was outside, along with the truck driver, I came out my gate and did something the restraining order paperwork requires: I called to the felon and his girlfriend, separately, by name, saying I was filing a restraining order.

Ten minutes later, they were gone, as was my need to file. In fact, I couldn’t file. I wouldn’t know where to tell the sheriff to serve court papers. And frankly, the last thing I needed was to spend one more moment of my time on this bully and his girlfriend.

Though my neighborhood has returned to its formerly peaceful state, the abuse we endured for the better part of August continues on other residential blocks across L.A. You see the stories and pictures on NextDoor: a tented bike chop shop by a white picket fence, addicts shooting up on an elderly couple’s front lawn, “campers” squatting in somebody’s garage until the resident took the hose to them, and more.

As I told the cops who came out to try to help us, this will end in violence. The mayor and council members have security details protecting them and their homes. But absent an empowered police force, the rest of us have only hoses, fists, and—in some cases—guns.

The supposedly compassionate approach to the homeless endorsed by Garcetti and his “progressive” enablers has, in practice, been anything but: leaving mentally ill and addicted homeless people by the tens of thousands to suffer on L.A.’s streets. I support helping the homeless—but with meaningful measures that have been proven to work, as opposed to policy that’s heavy on virtue signaling and ultimately short on humanitarian substance.

The “Housing First” approach Garcetti has favored is one of these failed policies. Promoted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, this policy emphasizes the creation of housing to serve “as a platform from which [homeless individuals] can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.” This is realistic for the few—that 20 percent of homeless people who are unhoused simply because they fell on hard times.

However, “Housing First” leaves mentally ill and addicted individuals to suffer because, as Rufo explains, it “reduces human beings to housing statistics.” The program’s only metric of success is “housing retention.” And so “if people are indoors,” the program is considered successful, “even if they fall deeper into addiction, psychosis, and despair. In some studies, even overdose deaths in permanent supportive housing units do not count as a negative outcome.”

Rufo endorses a “Treatment First model,” which prioritizes “addiction recovery, personal transformation, and self-sufficiency.” In this model, “the goal is to rehabilitate the individual, then secure permanent housing.” He cites research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wherein homeless individuals were provided with “abstinence-contingent housing that required participation in a rigorous full-time program of addiction recovery, behavioral treatment, work training, and recreational opportunities. In the final clinical trial, 64 percent of residents maintained sobriety at six months after entering the program, and ‘housing stability and employment rose from baseline to six or twelve months in all trials.’”

This Treatment First model needs to be combined with what I call a Shelter First policy. We need to bring back the law against living on public property (streets, sidewalks, plazas, parking lots of municipal buildings, and park areas)—but with enough municipal shelter resources available that it will pass muster in the courts.

Ideally, a law would mandate that people cannot loiter and dwell on public property, and either must get legal shelter for themselves (through a friend, a church, or a social-service organization), or they must go to a shelter provided for them by the city. This would require the local government to invest in rapidly erectable shelters (such as the large tents used by FEMA as part of disaster response), complete with security guards or police patrols. Social and mental-health services could easily be provided on site.

A Venice community member and longtime activist, Jim Murez, had the idea of using a stretch of open land—350 acres near L.A. International Airport—for giant tents. These tents, reports Rob Eshman in an L.A. Times op-ed, would be “like the kind cities use when, say, Olympic athletes come to town. They are quick to set up and take down, highly configurable, and—surprise—already in use as emergency homeless housing in many places.” Eshman notes that similar tent structures in San Diego went up in a matter of weeks, taking 700 people off the sidewalks in one stroke. This sort of quickly-erected mass shelter wouldn’t magically solve addiction and mental health problems, but it would keep L.A. from continuing as a giant, lawless open-air ward for those suffering from these issues.

I’m writing this from California. I’m sure there are many Americans from outside this state—not to mention foreign readers—whose response to all of this is that we left-coast utopians are merely getting what we deserve. But remember, for better or worse, my state has a long history of exporting cultural and political trends to the rest of the world.

In fact, even as I write this, Politico is reporting that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is considering L.A. Mayor Garcetti for Housing Secretary. Yes, America’s municipal honcho of homelessness could be rewarded for his massive policy failures by being put in charge of housing policy for the nation: Skid Row, writ large. Like that camper outside my house, the thought fills me with dread.

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Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon is a science writer.