When I asked LA City Councilman Kevin de León how things were going in the small Eagle Rock village that opened in March, he had some good news and some bad news.
Many encampments have disappeared and those who have lived in tents are now in safe, clean quarters, with access to food and bathrooms. The councilor pulled out his camera to show me the “before” photos of people living in misery, sheltering under highway overpasses and warding off rodents.
But the tiny-home record has been mixed so far, and De León told a story to illustrate his point. He said he was recently on his way to meet a friend for dinner nearby when he saw a storm of police activity at a gas station on the boulevards of Colorado and Eagle Rock.
“We have a gentleman who has a psychotic breakdown, and he has a flare-up,” De León recalls being told by an officer at the scene.
De León said the troubled young man appeared to blow up his mother’s vehicle and the gas station.
“There was a psychiatric team trying to get him involved,” De León said, but it didn’t work. So the police fired less lethal ammunition and arrested the man for a psychiatric commitment.
When De León heard the man’s name, he thought, “I know him.”
The man had been a resident of the small village. Getting people in is hard enough, De León said. But re-directing the lives of those facing serious challenges is complicated by a lack of much-needed services.
“My staff and I, along with the skilled social workers, are doing our job by getting people off the streets and getting a roof over their heads,” De León said. “We need the county to do what they need to do and provide the mental health and drug treatment services that our out-of-home neighbors are clamoring for.”
I had contacted De León because the village in Eagle Rock has been in operation for almost six months and that in nearby Highland Park for almost a year. And in the mayoral race, Rep. Karen Bass and Rick Caruso both have more tiny houses in their pack of homelessness solutions.
Caruso, as part of a nearly $1 billion plan that sounds ambitious at best and impossible at worst, says he will house 30,000 people in its first year. And 15,000 of them would be temporarily relocated to small houses on 300 government lots.
Even if he could complete such a mammoth task and figure out how to pay for it, a close look at the villages in Eagle Rock and Highland Park makes it clear that getting someone to the door is only half the battle.
I’ve asked for the details and am waiting for a response from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, but so much is out there:
Some residents have been evicted for breaking the rules. Some have chosen to leave. Some have received substance abuse treatment and mental health care, while others have not. Some have moved into permanent housing or moved in with relatives, but many are still waiting in a long line for housing, and many of them do not yet have the government vouchers necessary for permanent placement.
“To end homelessness for tiny home residents and all of our out-of-home neighbors, our community needs hundreds of thousands of affordable homes,” said Emily Andrade, director of temporary housing for LAHSA.
Andrade said more mental health and addiction treatment resources are also needed.
I would agree. But what’s hard to fathom, De León told me more than once, is that with a municipal mental health budget of about $3 billion, the streets are home to so many seriously deranged souls.
“You give me three billion dollars, and I’ll get them off the streets,” he said.
A problem other than the obvious failures of massive bureaucracies is a long history of poor coordination and outright feuds between city and county agencies. There was bickering this year after the city agreed, but the county declined to settle a federal lawsuit over tackling homelessness.
The county finally agreed a few days ago to ramp up temporary and permanent housing services in the city, but the numbers aren’t likely to change things. For example, the extra beds for substance abuse and mental health promised by the county are 300. At first glance, I wondered if a zero or two had been accidentally left out.
“There are quite a few people who don’t belong in small houses or Project Roomkey because they are so severely mentally retarded,” says De León. “They belong in a bed with the province… and the 300 beds agreed upon are just not enough.”
Jane Demian, homeless liaison for the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, told me she knows the man who was stopped at the gas station.
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“He has a history of schizophrenia, and he’s been on the streets for a long time, and instead of putting him in touch with mental health services — which may not be available at the moment — they’ve placed him in a tiny house,” he said. demian. “He didn’t do well because he needs more care, and this is what’s happening.”
And yet, Demian told me she is “cautiously optimistic” that the small villages will serve a valuable purpose for their residents and the community. On the latter, she said, people are happy that there are fewer camps, but some who live near the villages have complained about drug use and other activities.
Demian regularly visits small home residents and said, “the majority of them are happy to be there, although some would like more contact with their case manager and more services.”
Outside the small village in Highland Park I met a man who wished he could come through the gates.
“I liked it there,” Daniel said, telling me he’d been kicked out for an altercation while defending his friend Candy.
Daniel told me he works as a security guard when he can, and to be close to Candy, he sleeps in a friend’s car near the village. Both said they were among the first residents in November and are now expected to be moved to permanent residence. But the line is long and they are nowhere in front.
On the street near Eagle Rock village, Gary told me he had been kicked out for an altercation and is back on the streets. Yesenia is still a resident and said she likes being in the village but wants more help with her mental illness.
Ron, who moved from an RV to a tiny house in Eagle Rock in March, seemed grateful for his humble home.
“Some troublemakers have been kicked out, but everyone who is still here has a lawyer to help them, and they help us with just about everything,” said Ron, who told me that at age 65, he had nowhere to rent. Pay. wages he earns in various jobs.
Ron said a much-needed improvement is more mental health care for some of his neighbors, and he thought he would have secured permanent housing by now. But he doesn’t even have a housing receipt yet.
I asked if he knew when that might happen.
“Hopefully soon,” he said.