Last week, the Department of Mental Health revealed that 831 unhoused Angelenos died in LA County last year — mostly due to preventable medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, diabetes, cancer, cirrhosis and bacterial infection. This is unconscionable. We are deeply pained by the unnecessary suffering these 831 Angelenos experienced, and the unnecessary pain experienced by the many more unhoused people in Los Angeles.
Along with law enforcement officials and other city/county employees, the Department of Mental Health has put an emphasis on the unhoused “refusing” treatment, just as they “refuse” housing or shelter when it is offered to them. This dangerous blame-the-victim response serves only to perpetuate negative stereotypes of unhoused peoples while deflecting from the actual systemic causes of poverty, neglect and death: our free market, profit-driven housing and healthcare policies.
With at least 58,000 unhoused Angelenos currently in LA County and not nearly enough low income housing or shelter beds to house them, Mayor Garcetti and City Council members will cite the passing of measure HHH — which would create just 10,000 units of Permanent Supportive Housing over ten years — as a big part of the solution. Yet a year after its passage, the first unit of this new housing still won’t be ready for occupancy until July 2019, while four separate HHH committees with salaried members continue to get pushback from property owners who don’t want HHH housing built near their investments. Meanwhile, each year in Los Angeles there has been a significant increase in the cost of housing, number of evictions, and number of people unhoused and forced to live on the streets or in shelters — a majority of which are insecure, uncomfortable, and with strict rules.
Instead of immediately providing more services and improved shelters, City Hall has decided to address the record number of unhoused Angelenos by criminalizing them, to accommodate property owners who do not want to see or interact with the unhoused. Recently passed ordinances such as LA Municipal Code 56.11 and 85.02 displace and endanger the lives of unhoused people by increasing Police and Sanitation encampment sweeps. Los Angeles spends thousands of dollars each week on these invasive sweeps, in which the shelter and belongings of unhoused people are displaced or destroyed under the guise of “public safety." As documented by our Street Watch teams, encampment sweeps result in the discarding of vital items such as personal documents, prescription medicine, sleeping bags and tents. In addition, sanitation workers often fail to wash the sidewalks afterwards. Citations given for ‘quality of life’ reasons such as having a tent up after 6 a.m. or arrests for non-violent drug offenses can impede one's ability to access food stamps, housing, jobs and other social and health services. Encampment sweeps are ineffective, unconstitutional, deeply traumatizing, increase instability for unhoused people, and ultimately fail to address the actual causes of homelessness.
The severe shortage of available public restrooms, showers, wash stations and vaccinations further endangers the lives of unhoused Angelenos. A recent Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego took the lives of 16 people, and has now made its way to Los Angeles. While we recognize the Department of Public Health’s quick response to provide Hepatitis A vaccinations to the community, it is clear that the underlying causes of this outbreak have been largely unaddressed by City and County officials. The LA Community Action Network and the United Nations have reported a need for more than 150 more toilets in the Skid Row neighborhood, yet the City has added a mere eight toilets and six showers over a six month period. The City’s lack of urgency and regard for human dignity is appalling, and this unwillingness to provide adequate bathroom and hygiene facilities is a serious public health issue.
For people already struggling to pay the rent, the costs associated with an illness or injury can easily lead to homelessness. There are currently about 3 million Californians with no health insurance, of which about 750,000 are from Los Angeles. Rates on the Affordable Care Act exchange have risen an average of 12.5% from last year, leading to even more expensive access and fewer people with the ability to afford health care should a problem arise. With little to no opportunities toward affordable living situations, the consideration of expensive premiums, deductibles, co-pays and other out of pocket costs toward any health insurance plan can seem like a luxury to tens of thousands in Los Angeles, as opposed to a right granted to all humans.
Health outcomes in Los Angeles County are closely associated with economic status, race and ethnicity, lack of education, and exposure to environmental toxicity. Moreover, greater economic inequality translates into lower average life expectancy (Income distribution and life expectancy, R. G. Wilkinson, British Medical Journal). Once a person is sick, lack of access to healthcare is a major risk factor for homelessness, as in the case of an untreated injury that leads to an employee missing work, being fired and losing employer-based coverage. That person’s savings can quickly be depleted by the high cost of care in our commodified system, often resulting in missed rent payments and eviction. Having lost housing and access to healthcare, new health problems quickly develop. Risks commonly associated with being unhoused include increased exposure to communicable diseases, respiratory problems, exposure to weather, high blood pressure, and more. It is not surprising then that unhoused individuals experience an average life expectancy as low as 41 years, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The adoption of a single payer system, free at the point of the service, in which healthcare is a guaranteed right, is therefore an essential tool in preventing and addressing homelessness. Yet elected representatives, such as members of the California State Legislature, have been unwilling to make the connections between commodified healthcare and homelessness, and have so far refused to actively support state-level single payer legislation, preferring instead to host dog-and-pony hearings on “universal access.” The unhoused don’t need hearings, they need healthcare and housing.
We must recognize that healthcare is a basic right. Lack thereof is a major contributing factor to homelessness. DSA-LA calls for the Speaker of the California State Assembly, Anthony Rendon, to release Senate Bill 562 and send the bill to committee where it can proceed through the legislative process to be amended and adopted. We also call for an immediate end to the illegal practice of “patient dumping” by area hospitals, the practice of releasing unhoused patients (often with medically complex, dual diagnosis conditions) onto the streets instead of providing the medical care.
To waste time and resources on flawed and superficial “solutions” is County and City negligence. As 58,000 Angelenos suffer on the streets daily, public buildings and facilities should immediately be opened to provide shelter for people without homes. Rather than forcibly detain unhoused people experiencing mental illness into health care facilities against their will, the County and City needs to begin providing a robust street outreach for social, health and mental health services to individuals in need of care. The City and County must provide services at encampments, allowing for safe and hygienic living conditions. Concurrently, Los Angeles must urgently focus on the rapid development of low-income and public housing, the rapid re-housing of people living in encampments, and the preservation of existing low-income housing.
Every person deserves to live their life safely and with dignity. As democratic socialists we are committed to fighting locally and nationally to achieve a world where safe housing and healthcare are provided to all as a fundamental human right. We call on all Angelenos to join DSA-LA in our current campaigns to repeal Costa Hawkins for the expansion of rent control, ending the criminalization of the homeless through our Street Watch Initiative, and expanding Medicare to all people.
Learn more at www.dsa-la.org