Guest Column: Homeless sweeps don’t fix homelessness

View of Los Angeles

There seems to be a growing belief that the act of sweeping homeless encampments is good for the occupants, good for their housed neighbors and good for cities. None of these things is true.

California politicians seem to think that they only have to say they’re sympathetic to the plight of homeless individuals, and therefore, it must be so. Again, not true: Actions matter more than words.

California is quickly joining the ranks of more conservative states in the country with politicians coming up with policies that make the homeless community the scapegoat for all of the troubles in their cities. The latest example is California’s strongest Democratic duo, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who are teaming up to use city and state resources to clear LA’s homeless encampments around freeways. In other words, they’re carrying out “homeless sweeps.”

The Bass administration took a trip to the State Capitol more than a week ago and made this agreement. It allows crews from the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation to access properties owned by the California Department of Transportation to remove trash and debris from areas near LA’s freeways.

One of the most troubling parts of this agreement is that officials have decided that everything in the encampments is trash and debris. There’s no mention that human beings live in these spaces with their personal belongings.

Most importantly, sweeps are not the solution for homelessness, and they aren’t even effective. The term “sweep” is correct, and as with sweeping anything, it always returns. This is especially true without a proper homeless housing plan in place. As noted in a recent Los Angeles Magazine article, Los Angeles is a city with 46,260 homeless people and only 16,100 interim housing beds.

Encampment sweeps are actually more disruptive than effective. A homeless person who is constantly moved around due to sweeps will find it very difficult to get permanent housing or even receive assistance.

Many residents of encampments are located in neighborhoods where they either lived while housed or where they get their services. Displacement through sweeps often leaves people without any access to outreach programs or any support system. They are back to square one, and their situations may even get worse.

Sweeps, in fact, are just a “clean-up” approach. Unfortunately, the public is led to believe that encampment occupants have been offered services, so they are safe and in care. But that is not happening.

Elected officials need to focus on true solutions for the housing affordability and homelessness crises instead of conducting inhumane, ineffective sweeps. Many activists call for politicians to utilize the “3 Ps”: Protect tenants through rent control and other tenant protections; preserve affordable housing, not demolish it to make way for luxury housing; and produce more low-income and homeless housing, including the adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

The “3 Ps” represents a long-term solution. Sweeps do not.

Mary Ann Cellini is a housing specialist for Housing Is a Human Right and operates the California field office for the National Coalition For The Homeless.