L.A.'s Westside Wealthy and the Homeless Collide as Numbers Surge
Mayor Eric Garcetti declares a state of emergency as the city sees a 12 percent increase in the homeless population, law enforcement's hands are tied, and Westside enclaves like Brentwood and Mar Vista close ranks (and parks) against the tide of transients.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On Sept. 22, in the face of his city's escalating homelessness crisis, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took an unprecedented step: He declared a state of emergency. Part of that was semantics, as the term legally allows for the early opening of wet-weather shelters ahead of the heavy rainfalls predicted this winter. "But," Garcetti tells THR, "we kind of figured it's an honest assessment of where we are."
Where we are is in dire and uncharted waters, with a record 46,000 homeless in the city, a 12 percent increase in the past two years — victims of the recession and soaring rents amid a real estate boom that has raised L.A. home prices by 27 percent in just three years. Three groups in particular have swelled the ranks, Garcetti says: veterans, many with mental health issues; emancipated foster youth; and nonviolent offenders released from prison after the 2014 passage of Proposition 47 reduced penalties for some drug crimes. Many are migrating out of areas like downtown's Skid Row — where up to 70 percent of the homeless are addicted to meth and other hard drugs, notes Garcetti — and into the shadows of some of the city's most expensive enclaves. L.A.'s City Council District 11, which encompasses Westside neighborhoods like Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Mar Vista, now has one of the largest homeless populations in the city — nearly 1,500, according to one recent count. Scores more "hidden homeless" live in backyards, vehicles and hillside encampments.
"Community members are saying, 'My kid has to walk by tents where people have syringes hanging out of their arms. Do something about it,' " says Garcetti, who has pledged to throw $100 million at the problem annually. The funding will provide housing vouchers that can be used to pay rent in any apartment around town (providing you can find a landlord who'll accept them) and will increase the city's homeless outreach staff, which numbers a paltry 36 workers.
In the Palisades, encampments line Will Rogers State Beach and dot the parched hillside along Pacific Coast Highway. (The number of homeless living in tents and cars has increased an astounding 85 percent in the past two years.) "As long as you keep your shades up and they can see inside, they let you stay," says Mallory, a 43-year-old man who for three weeks has lived inside a green-and-tan tent about 100 feet from the shore.
In neighboring Santa Monica, where there are about 740 homeless (a 14 percent increase from last year), police prohibit sleeping overnight, pushing street-dwellers northward toward the Palisades, which falls under the far laxer jurisdiction of the LAPD. "If we are harder on the homeless, we usually get sued by advocates," explains Garcetti. "We've had a lot of court cases specifically around whether or not you can move them at all."
But the influx of homeless has left Pacific Palisades residents fuming. More than 100 of them packed the local library July 14 for a heated showdown with law enforcement and social services representatives, many of whom echoed the mayor's sentiments: Their hands are tied. (One loophole: The homeless can be evicted if they are deemed by the LAFD to be a fire hazard. New signs declaring the hillside brush zone of Palisades Park a "very high fire hazard severity zone" are set to be erected throughout the area Oct. 7, a move met with much fanfare by the neighborhood's homelessness task force.)
Local papers like the Palisadian-Post and Palisades News, meanwhile, have mounted an all-out campaign against the homeless — with occasional notes of compassion — running horror stories like the one about the naked man napping peacefully in broad daylight on a sidewalk in Palisades Village, or, far more ominously, the case of Brian Thomas Cruz, a homeless man who in August 2014 held a Palisades woman hostage with a box cutter before embarking on a bath salts-fueled carjacking and burglary spree.
Most interactions between the haves and have-nothings are not so extreme, and Garcetti is hopeful that by beefing up social services, it can help the homeless get off the streets and stay off of them. For director Brett Ratner, whose father lived on the streets after years of drug addiction and who serves on the board of Chrysalis, a nonprofit that helps find jobs for the homeless, the answer lies in helping these forgotten citizens to help themselves: "They deserve to get their dignity and pride back, reconnect with loved ones and get back into society."