M. Terry / El Sol

A makeshift tent in a homeless encampment located near Pacoima.

It seems there isn’t a community in Los Angeles that can bury their head in the sand about homelessness.  In nearly every community throughout L..A. County you see people sleeping on sidewalks, pushing shopping carts filled with their meager possessions and setting up tents under freeway overpasses. 

In the City of San Fernando, one long time resident said he came home one evening and saw a middle aged woman urinating on his driveway.  “She was embarrassed.  I went inside my house and got her a bottled water.  She didn’t speak English. I asked her if she had any ninos and she motioned that they were tall and grown. Later, I saw her sleeping on the ground.”

A short distance away, a tent community of homeless has set up under a freeway overpass in Pacoima. They share that they  grew up in Pacoima, but lost their homes, and now canopies and ramshakle tents on the hard concrete are what they call home. The challenges to keep clean and relieve themselves are a struggle they contend with every day.

Melissa Merlino is one of those in the Pacoima encampment dealing with living life on the street. Ironically, she used to be a homeless outreach worker. But last year “I had a relapse” — she wouldn’t say if it was drugs or alcohol — and wound up losing her job and home. 

“I’m disappointed in the fact that the money from Measure H and Measure HHH (to help relieve homelessness in LA county), I think, was used improperly,” Merlino said. “There are so many hotels in the Los Angeles county area [that could be used]…we’re sitting on more than $6 billion for the homeless, starting from 2018 to 2028 — $122 million every year. Where is the money?”

Mayor Eric Garcetti played host this week to a delegation of Trump Administration representatives in town to examine the city’s response to the homelessness crisis, then sent a letter to the president saying they must “put politics aside” to address the issue.”

Garcetti took the unidentified delegates on a tour of the city’s Unified Homelessness Response Center, a pair of homeless shelters and the Jordan Downs public housing complex, according to the mayor’s office.   The Washington Post reported Tuesday that President Donald Trump had dispatched representatives from the White House and Department of Housing and Urban Development to California as part of a wide-reaching effort to address homelessness, with a particular focus on Los Angeles’ skid row area.

The exact nature of the effort was unclear, but The Post, citing two unnamed officials, reported that ideas being considered included eliminating tent camps in favor of new temporary facilities and refurbishing existing government facilities for use as housing.

The Post noted that it was unclear how such efforts would be accomplished and whether the city and state’s Democrat-heavy leadership would be willing to work with Trump, who has pointed to the homelessness issue as an example of what he deems to be failed Democratic political policies.

Garcetti, however, appeared to strike a cooperative tone in a letter sent to Trump, saying the increase in homelessness is “a problem that predates your administration and mine.”

“We must put politics aside when it comes to responding to this heartbreaking humanitarian crisis,” Garcetti wrote. “I hope you will provide the federal assistance that is needed to help cities stop homelessness in America and help our veterans and most vulnerable of citizens. This is our watch. This is our time. This must be done.

“I look forward to working with you and your administration on this issue.”

He started the letter saying he appreciates the visit by administration staffers “to learn about our city’s work on homelessness.”

“Any day that our nation’s federal leaders are willing to listen to Americans living in our 19,000 local communities across this country about the challenges that they face is a good day,” Garcetti wrote.

The delegation’s visit comes just months after Trump said on Fox News that “liberal” Los Angeles and California political leaders were to blame for homelessness and that he may “intercede” to “get that whole thing cleaned up.”

“It’s very sad. Very sad. It’s a phenomenon that started two years ago. It’s disgraceful,” Trump said in July. “… I’m looking at it very seriously. We’re doing some other things, as you probably know … but we’re looking at it very seriously.”

Trump said many US cities are doing well, but others run by his political opponents who have adopted sanctuary policies are not.

“They’re usually sanctuary cities run by very liberal people and the states (that) are run by very liberal people, but the thing that nobody can figure out is, do these governors or mayors, do they really think this is a positive? Do they really think this is OK? Because it’s not,” Trump said. “It’s destroying their city and it’s destroying the whole way of life. And it’s not our country. It’s not what our country’s all about.”

The Washington Post report about a stepped-up Trump effort to get involved in the homeless issue was not met warmly by some politicians. Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin wrote on his personal Twitter page that Trump’s “freaking administration is actually CAUSING homelessness, throwing immigrant families out of housing, cutting health care, contributing to worsening income inequality.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn released a statement saying California does not need a federal “crackdown” on homelessness, but instead needs resources and funding.

“If the Trump Administration is serious about helping address homelessness, we need and would welcome federal resources like more Section 8 vouchers to deal with the years-long waiting list, any federal buildings that can be used for Bridge Housing and funding to build permanent supportive housing,” Hahn said.

City Councilmember Joe Buscaino wrote on his Twitter page that he would be “happy to accept federal funding to build permanent supportive housing to house the homeless and reduce encampments in Los Angeles.”

But he added, “If (Trump) is serious about reducing homelessness, he should stop the proposed (federal) rule change that would kick mixed (immigration) status families our of public housing across the country.”

Garcetti echoed that sentiment in his letter, in which he bullet-pointed five actions the administration should take “immediately,” including eliminating the proposed HUD rules “to evict mixed-status immigrant families from assisted housing and prevent transgender homeless people from accessing federally funded shelters.”

The mayor also called on Trump to back legislation providing grants and mental health programs over the next five years to combat homelessness and approve plans to build 1,200 units of housing for homeless veterans on the West Los Angeles VA campus.

Los Angeles county saw an uptick of 12% in its homeless population compared to last year, rising to about 59,000, and the city saw a 16% increase, to about 36,000.

“Our country faces an ever-higher cost of living, a national economy that has hollowed out our middle class and federal government cuts to vital housing funds and social services,” Garcetti wrote. “We hope the federal government can be part of the solution.”

Garcetti also cited the efforts Angelenos have made by voting in favor of allocating billions of dollars in funding for supportive housing and homeless services in the last 10 years. He said Los Angeles was viewed as a “national model” for homeless solutions during a conference on the issue in Washington, D.C., last year.

Merlino and others, however, are looking for help, not more words or promises.

“We see homeless people on the street every day,” she said. “I would like to see something happen. But when we have an estimated $122 million slated for this year, and they say there are only 147 beds available, I have a problem.”