by Olivia Olson
The County of Los Angeles encompasses 88 cities, 75 miles of coastal beauty, and 28 Fortune 500 companies. On glittering beaches and glossy skyscrapers lit by perennial sunshine, the contrast between success and poverty is starkly illuminated. Perusing iconic locations such as the Grand Central Market or the Santa Monica pier, visitors are confronted with malnourished bodies wrapped in old coats and young men begging for their next meal. While the lack of consistent access to hygienic products and healthcare—in conjunction with the health related issues that push many to the streets—has fostered an understanding of the homeless as pariahs, it is time to dispel this notion. We must discontinue viewing the homeless population as lazy or criminal, and instead task ourselves with understanding, and addressing, the circumstances that render these individuals without shelter.
In Los Angeles County alone, 58,936 people were homeless in 2019. Despite a well-intentioned legislature and a $538,275,000 annual budget to address housing and homelessness, 44,214 people nonetheless remained unsheltered and 15,854 chronically homeless. While policies to decriminalize the frequenting of public spaces have helped change the rhetoric around homelessness, they have additionally allowed impoverished masses to subsist in squalor, unprotected from dangerous situations and the elements. Consequently, 44,214 people in Los Angeles County legally preside over park benches, huddled under bus overpasses, and holding signs at busy intersections in dangerous parts of town.
With 13,670 unsheltered individuals suffering from serious mental illness, 5,280 children under the age of 18, and 3,111 predominantly women fleeing domestic assault, it is abundantly evident that our ‘compassionate response’ has failed to demonstrate adequate compassion for the plight facing our most vulnerable members of society.
Much of our failure to address homelessness comes from a misunderstanding of the problem. Homelessness is not an illness that can be cured, rather a symptom of gentrification, different physical and mental ailments, inefficiencies of governance, or sheer bad luck. For example, 13,670 people (approximately 25% of the LA County homeless population) suffer from mental illnesses that impair their ability to live independently or hold jobs. In contrast to the characterization of laziness that has pervaded common opinion since the 1980s, these individuals are physically or intellectually barred from raising themselves out of poverty. Many of these sufferers have aged out of familial care or been abandoned for the perceived burden of their illness. Without the necessary aid, lack of medication and proper management exacerbate their symptoms. Moreover, prevalent self medication through alcohol due to the link between addiction and mental illness prevents many of these sufferers from taking advantage of mental health facilities that are unwilling to take in alcoholic patients.
Frequently, those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse (approximately 15% of the homeless population) cycle through “streets, jails, and emergency rooms.” Not only is this an exorbitantly burdensome practice on the taxpayer, but this chronic and cyclical homelessness represents a failure to adequately address another root cause of homelessness. Alcoholism serves both a cause and a result of homelessness, either disrupting relationships and augmenting financial strain or used as a coping mechanism in a culture where substance use is prevalent. While onlookers and the media may find it tempting to demonize substance abusers as lazy or lacking willpower, addiction is a serious illness. Punitive measures and lack of sufficient infrastructure for homeless individuals facing addiction fosters their dependence on emergency measures such as urgent care or jails. Compounding the problem, many existing shelters in Los Angeles County are dry. Therefore, those suffering from the illness of addiction do not have the same access to care that would enable them to lift themselves out of poverty and homelessness.
Although this article specifically addresses mental illness and addiction, those are far from the only causes of homelessness. Whether a family pushed out of their homes due to gentrification, a veteran suffering from PTSD, or a child orphaned by parental incarceration, it is abundantly evident that the 58,936 individuals who comprise the Los Angeles County homeless population aren’t simply lazy and dangerous. But it is easier to view the homeless population that way. It’s easier to quicken our pace, to avert eye contact, to condemn the actions that pushed them onto our path through the city. If we don’t do that, we’re forced to accept that the sleeping form on the bus stop bench is a person just like us.
We can’t treat the homeless as a single faceless mass because they are individuals: children, families, veterans, people. We can’t treat homelessness as a single issue because it is a symptom of a variety of failings in the public and private sector: rising living costs, inadequate treatment for mental illness, insufficient resources from those fleeing domestic abuse or suffering from addiction. Only through a studied and shared understanding of this nuance, with an emphasis on compassion and collaboration rather than party politics or moral readings, can we mitigate the tremendous plight facing Los Angeles’s homeless population.