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As Coronavirus Spreads, the Crisis LA’s Homeless Community Is Facing Has Been Decades in the Making

It should not take a global pandemic for our elected officials to acknowledge that we are all safer if everyone can shower and wash their hands.

(Photo by Nigel Killeen via Getty Images)

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

As we mourn the first known unhoused Californian to die from COVID-19, city officials in Los Angeles are scrambling to address a crisis that’s been decades in the making.

The past few years’ lack of political will to create public health infrastructure for those Angelenos already experiencing homelessness has created a dangerous situation—and, caught off guard by a global pandemic, the mayor and City Council can no longer ignore it. Now lawmakers must move forward with sweeping workplace closures to slow the spread of the virus, while simultaneously enacting emergency measures to prevent millions of Los Angeles renters from falling into homelessness. 

For years now, the City Council has declined to provide even the most basic services to unhoused Angelenos. Activists have long been fighting to get the city to provide more shelter beds, toilets, and handwashing stations in the areas where homelessness is most concentrated, and to stop the cruel encampment sweeps, led by the sanitation and police departments, which displace people from their homes and destroy their belongings. 

The responsibility of providing places where people can shower or use the bathroom has largely fallen to nonprofit organizations such as The Shower of Hope and SELAH, but ultimately, most are left to fend for themselves. The closures of gyms means that many people will lose their only access to a hot shower. Shutting down libraries greatly reduces the number of bathrooms available to unhoused Angelenos, as well as limiting their access to the internet and to print media—something that is especially dangerous during a time when people need to closely monitor the news for public health updates.

On Saturday, Ktown for All, a community group that distributes necessary supplies like blankets and hygiene products to unhoused neighbors in LA’s Koreatown area, sent small teams of experienced volunteers to do coronavirus-specific education in lieu of their regular outreach efforts. Volunteers found that many of the people they spoke with lacked education regarding the symptoms of the virus, how it spreads, or what precautions they should be taking. Some hadn’t even been informed there was a pandemic. This is a moment in time when the rapid dissemination of information is crucial to public health and safety, and yet there has been little to no direct outreach by the city on the subject of COVID-19.

While it’s widely agreed that workplace closures—of restaurants, bars, movie theaters, nightclubs, gyms and other businesses—are necessary to contain the virus, they’re coming just as the decades-long housing affordability crisis in Los Angeles is reaching a rolling boil. 

With few protections in place to help renters stay in their homes, many are concerned that they may face eviction if they are unable to make rent due to layoffs or reduced hours. Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed this concern by proposing a moratorium on evictions, the original version of which would have required renters to prove loss of income due to coronavirus, posing potential problems for tipped workers and independent contractors affected by the work stoppage. Workers may also end up responsible for back rent once the moratorium expires, despite the lack of a plan by the mayor to replace lost wages.

The Los Angeles City Council seems to have suddenly found the motivation to address some of these issues. Councilmembers announced on Thursday that more than 100 handwashing stations would be distributed that day to encampments across the city (although advocates in Koreatown confirmed that the first handwashing station was not deployed there until Wednesday).

On Tuesday, in a marathon meeting packed with over 101 separate agenda items, the council rushed to address the shortfalls in both homeless services and renter protections. Councilmembers discussed and voted on emergency measures to deploy portable toilets and showers to homeless encampments. They also voted to put a temporary halt on evictions with a six-month grace period for tenants to catch up on rent. It was unclear at the time of this writing whether the final version of the moratorium would apply to all evictions during this time period or to only those cases for which the tenant can verify loss of income due to the shutdowns. 

Most notably, the council voted to continue the brutal practice of encampment sweeps, with the small compromise of suspending enforcement of the requirement that all tents be taken down during the day. That city officials cannot be bothered to suspend the cruel and ineffective policy of criminalizing poverty, even as we are faced with the worst global health crisis of my lifetime, is disappointing, to say the least.

The sudden ability to provide homeless services and renter protections should serve as a strong indication that these measures have always been within the realm of possibility. It should not take a global pandemic for our elected officials to acknowledge that we are all safer if everyone can shower and wash their hands. It should not take the economy grinding to a screeching halt for our leaders to concede that working-class tenants deserve fair eviction protections. Yet, even amid increasing pressure from activists over the last year, Mayor Garcetti and the City Council have repeatedly resisted taking action on these measures until now. Their indefinite stalling has led to the situation we now face: a city government railroading ahead with emergency measures that fall woefully short of the mark, and fail to take into account the needs and real-life challenges of the most vulnerable Angelenos.

However this all plays out, it’s likely the councilmembers and Garcetti will still get to sleep indoors.

Sabrina Johnson is a community organizer with KTown for All and L.A. Tenants Union. She lives in Koreatown.