The other day I wrote about the fake idea of California that I believe in despite knowing it's a lie. Today a more realistic look. Paid subscribers can read that one here.
This week the the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority released the first count of the area's homeless population since the outbreak of Covid. More than 69,000 people a night are living unhoused in LA County they found, a 4% increase since they last counted in 2020.
In light of the recent report, and with a number of new developments in the ways in which California plans to address the crisis, including the establishment of a so-called CARE Court, I called up Andreina Kniss, a volunteer with the group Ktown For All, a Los Angeles homeless outreach and advocacy organization. Find all of their relevant links here and please consider donating to their work here.
Tell us about Ktown For All. What is it exactly that you folks do?
Ktown For All is an all-volunteer mutual aid group here in Los Angeles in the Koreatown neighborhood. Koreatown is one of the densest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and we have one of the highest per capita unhoused rates in the entire city. Every Saturday we go out and provide essential supplies: baby wipes, masks during Covid, blankets, tents, tarps, Narcan, etcetera. Harm reduction supplies as well. And then, during the week, we advocate for them politically, we push messaging. We also do particularly emergent mutual aid. So in regards to this heatwave we've been dropping off frozen water bottles at encampments. During fires we're out distributing masks.
None of us are professionals. We do the best we can with what we have.
What brought you to this type of volunteering personally? Was there an impetus, or is it just something you've done for a long time?
There's just no ignoring the problem once you move to Los Angeles. I've been here for almost four years. I was the child of a farm worker. Here in California, my mom worked in the fields, and we struggled a lot. The only thing that kept us going was community support. Other people sharing their meager amount of beans with us, people picking you up and taking you somewhere that you needed to go, folks helping my mom fill out forms because she didn't speak English. I grew up in a very collectivist community, just for survival’s sake. Growing up undocumented as an immigrant in California, I've always had that kind of concern for the collective, just like inherently. But moving to Los Angeles… this is just unavoidable. When I was looking for something to do there was nothing else I could focus on. There are people pooping on the sidewalk to be very blunt about it. There are people who literally have passed away and people walk over their bodies. I don't think there's anything more horrible you can witness in a wealthy city than this amount of poverty.
What part of California did you move from?
I grew up in Santa Barbara. That's a whole thing in itself. There's just like an underclass of agricultural workers. Back then it was flowers. Now it's marijuana. There’s a lot of greenhouses. And there's a lot of strawberries in the Ventura County, Oxnard area. So there were a lot of migrants that moved there in the 90s, which is when I came over from Mexico.
There was a recent count of the homeless population in Los Angeles. What do those numbers tell us?
69,144 was the count. The numbers are heartbreaking. The Los Angeles homeless services agency is doing like a victory lap because they reduced the increased percentage. But a lot of that comes from the protections we've had during Covid, like the ban on evictions, which they're giving signals that they're considering lifting. I do think the victory that they're holding up is short lived. If they do away with these renter protections I think that number is gonna absolutely skyrocket.
70,000 people is like a massive amount of people. It's kind of unfathomable. It's like the size of a mid-sized town. But we do know that the number is actually much higher. There's an invisible homeless problem, where people will actively try to look as housed as possible to avoid detection from police, from public service agencies, from their friends and family. There's a big hidden population that's missed. Plus there are people that sleep in their vehicles. So this problem is a lot larger than that number, particularly in regards to youth. The city released the numbers, and they showed a giant drop in youth homelessness, but in terms of what we're seeing on the streets the encampments are getting bigger. There's a lot of people that are first time homeless, not just people who have been chronically homeless. There's people who have never been unhoused in their lives who are heading out there right now.
The thing you mentioned with the eviction moratorium ending, that’s the kind of thing I write about here a lot, how Covid kind of forced the government to do some pretty good things – not enough, obviously – across all sorts of areas, and they just don't seem to want to let people get too accustomed to that. It seems like they've been trying to claw everything back, whether it's federal or state or city governments. They're almost scared that people are going to see that they can actually help people and then we’re going to ask for more. Is that the case here do you think?
Yeah, absolutely. The landlord class owns Los Angeles. They own this city. Anytime there's anything good that happens, the California Apartment Association is releasing a statement about how awful this is going to be for landlords and tenants. The rent controlled units in the city of Los Angeles had the strongest protections. There was a rent freeze lasting a year from when the state of emergency has ended. One year after they decide that it's over, then rent increases can go into effect. So we've had a rent freeze going. You're not allowed to evict anyone right now because you have an extra person in your unit that's not on the lease, which I think is one of the biggest protectors from people becoming unhoused. A lot of the time a person is struggling, and even though you'd really like to have them in your place, your landlord is going to evict you if you move someone in without permission. And right now that's not a concern in these particular units, which I think is very protective.
Also there's the universal eviction ban for owing rent due to Covid. Recently the housing department here in Los Angeles released a report that they think it's time to end it. The city council still hasn't voted, but they're sending out their messaging that’s like “We've beat Covid! It's time to go back to normal.” We know that that's just going to lead to a monsoon of evictions. Which is the true cause of homelessness. Recently there's been this push for local and city governments to blame being unhoused on mental health and drug addiction, solely. Not as a result of being poor and becoming unhoused, but as a cause. As an individual failure. The reason people are on the streets is because they're bad and they did drugs is the messaging right now. Instead of they were poor, they got evicted, and now they've got to survive on the streets, which leads them to look for coping mechanisms, which ends up being drugs.
Lack of housing is the main issue. But there's all this talk about “crime” in cities now, and what that really means is there are people living on the streets that wealthier people can see. They don’t like the fact that they have to look at them.
Exactly. Los Angeles passed a municipal code, I don't know if you've heard about it, but the basic premise is they've passed zones where you're not allowed to sleep, lie, or loiter.
This is the anti-camping thing?
Yeah. It's a complete ban of those people existing in 20% of the city. And now they've expanded that around every school, around every clinic, around every fire department. They just keep adding locations to that list. And then they're like, “We don't criminalize the unhoused in Los Angeles.” We have a real “progressive” government that hates to be called anything but progressive. And so that means we don't have sweeps, we have “sanitation visits.” There's this doublespeak that occurs. In Los Angeles everyone's a Democrat, everyone's a progressive, and yet we have the same fascist laws that you could find in the deep south. Tennessee just made camping on public land a felony, and that's the way Los Angeles is going as well because it's an issue of not having to see the poor.
I live in the Boston area, and we've been having a similar situation with sweeps and things like that, and it’s “progressive Boston,” you know? Homelessness is like the one area that people seem to… You can check off all the boxes to tell yourself that you're a progressive, but then if there's some people living on the street near where you live you turn into a reactionary psycho all of a sudden.
Oh man, the things said at Los Angeles city council meetings are chilling. People will say “Let's put them in a camp in the desert. Why can't we just push them to Lancaster? Why can't we pick them all up and put them in the desert and build camps and have the National Guard build tents, and then…” Well, there's no detail after the and then… People will call the city council and say things like that without thinking twice. Like, that's a concentration camp. For being poor.
Well, of course, for people of good moral character this will never happen to them. I'm a good person so I'm never going to end up in dire straits. Nothing to worry about there.
Yeah, absolutely. I see people, especially the first time unhoused, a lot of them are of middle class upbringing, but maybe you stay in the hospital for three weeks for a serious condition, and you've been evicted while you were gone. If you don't have family willing to snap you up, that's it, you're on the streets. Explaining to people, newly unhoused people, how accessing public services work, particularly if they were middle class before – usually it's like a health incident – they're shocked. They're like, how do I get a free apartment? The waiting list in Los Angeles for a section eight voucher right now, on average, is 17 years.
So many of us are walking on a high wire and we don't even realize it. Even people who are fairly comfortable, let's say you have a medical emergency, all of a sudden you have tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt. It can all can turn pretty quickly.
There's nothing to catch you in the United States. Maybe if you're in a small town and there's no demand for vouchers in your area, you might be lucky to get one in a reasonable time when you need it. But if you live anywhere with any amount of people the waiting lists are incredible.
We have a housing voucher system, which is touted as the neoliberal solution to being unhoused. It’s basically a cash giveaway to landlords. But the landlords don't want you. It’s illegal in California, as of last January, to discriminate against people who have vouchers. You have to be considered on an equal playing field for people applying to apartments without a voucher. Yet in Los Angeles, I think, for 60% of people who are given vouchers, they expire before they ever use them. Because landlords just simply are not taking them.
As with so many of these neoliberal solutions for so many problems, it’s like, just give the money, or the housing, directly to the people so they can pay their own rent instead of having to do it through this sort of middleman type of bullshit. These extra steps.
Yeah, those vouchers are the privatization of public housing. We're paying these landlords insane market rents through our tax dollars to house these people, when we could have our own buildings that are guaranteed affordable, that are guaranteed maintained. But then we'd have to cut out the landlord class, which is, you know, completely unacceptable. But that's the only solution that is ever thrown out. I'm so tired of hearing about vouchers. It's never going to solve homelessness. A partnership with landlords, who have a full incentive of making every last dime they can on property they own, will never solve homelessness.
There was a recent sweep in your neighborhood. What does that look like? Public Works comes in, or the police?
Both. They call them CARE+ sweeps. Because, of course…
Which is such a dystopian kind of euphemism. We don't just care, we care… plus!
The CARE+ team is the one who does sweeps in our area. They post the list publicly of the sweeps they're gonna do, and we try to have sweep watchers out there. So folks who work odd jobs or have off hours might take the morning to go out there. Because they do show up with the police, and the police, newsflash, are not very nice to the unhoused. We've seen just awful behavior on the behalf of LAPD at these encampments. We realized that when we're out there, using our privilege of being housed, and presenting as being housed, and recording, that they're a lot nicer, obviously.
What happens during a sweep is sanitation and the police show up. There's a person there with a timer who gives you a black plastic bag. You usually have ten to fifteen minutes, whatever the person wants to give you, to fill it with your belongings, and anything not in that bag gets thrown away.
This is particularly disastrous for people with disabilities, obviously. They'll hand a bag to someone that doesn't have hands. Someone that doesn't have legs. And if you're gone, all your stuff is out. If you went to a doctor's appointment, if you went to public services, applying for a job, or housing, you come back and all of your belongings have been thrown away.
It’s such a violation. And that's another thing, there are people, and I don't know what the exact numbers are, but there's certainly a significant amount of people who are working jobs in a day, minimum wage jobs probably, and they just can't afford rent. They're at their job and they come back and everything that they have has been thrown in the fucking trash.
They do a demographic survey, and I think 50% of all unhoused people in Los Angeles reported recently working or actively working. So a lot of folks do have jobs, a lot of them do work minimum wage jobs. Which is one of the reasons that a lot of these people are not in shelters. Shelters, as we have them here in LA, are very carceral. They're very stringent in terms of regulations to get a bed. Los Angeles has about 30% capacity of shelter beds compared to our unhoused population. There's about 14,000 available shelter beds. If you'd like to get some treatment at one of these shelter beds you have to show up around one or two and get in line, because it's first come first serve. And then you have to be in bed by six or seven, lights out, and then you have to be out by around six in the morning. No exceptions. Period.
Clearly that makes it hard to keep a job.
That's completely incompatible with a lot of gig work, a lot of fast food jobs. If you want to stay in the shelter, it's basically the antithesis of being able to hold down a job as well.
The people that you talk to, what do their stories tend to be? Are there consistent themes, or is it all different walks of life in different circumstances that brought them to the street?
I think right now it's becoming a lot more varied. There are some old reliable characteristics. The vast majority of youth that age out of foster care are gonna be unhoused. That's a big portion. Whenever you see a young person out, you can bet that they're probably foster youth aged out of the system. So that's a constant. There are veterans. There's a large portion of them on Skid Row. They even have their own street called Veterans Row. For women, often they are domestic violence survivors. They had to crawl out the window and leave with nothing.
Right now one of the largest growing populations, that's increasing in just leaps and bounds, is elderly people. Again, maybe they got sick, and then while they were sick they got evicted. Those stories are very common. When elderly people are in the hospital, Social Security stops paying out to them. If you're ever in a facility, Social Security considers you housed, so you don't need your social security that month. If anyone develops anything serious at the hospital, and they're losing their social security that's keeping them afloat, they come out with nothing. It’s particularly heartbreaking because the elderly are so medically fragile if you're on the streets. Cancer, diabetic wounds not healing up. They honestly have the most gruesome experience out here.
Last week I met a 78 year old man who's living at the park, across from Union Station here in LA. He was a teacher. He has a master's degree in English, and he was having a good time talking to me about novels that I should read. He has late stage cancer, and he lost his apartment because he sought care and was unconscious for three weeks, and doesn't have a family that's able to support him, because they're also in dire straits. So he's out here in the park, you know, and sadly, all I can do for him is give him a tent and a sleeping bag and food and water and keep him alive for another day. While our society fails him.
Another thing I wanted to mention regarding the sweeps is the amount that they're spending on the trucks, and all the cops standing around, probably on overtime, and all that type of shit. Again, just give that fucking money to the people instead of spending it on this theater that makes the mayors look like they're cleaning up the streets.
The waste is incredible. A lot of the problems that people have with seeing unhoused people could be solved with effective investment in public infrastructure. We don't like to see human waste on the ground. Okay. Well, Los Angeles doesn't have any public bathrooms. You literally cannot find a bathroom for miles if you're not a paying customer.
Similar in Boston.
I don't like seeing needles on the ground. Okay. Well, there should be trash cans around. There's no trash cans within like six blocks of me. I was walking my dog on a really long walk, and it hit me one day, like, wow, I can't throw the poop away because I can’t find a single fucking trash can. Imagine being unhoused, and you're an addict, and you're using needles, and you have to walk two miles to drop off a needle in the public trash can. That's unrealistic. If you're tired of seeing people in tents, then put them in a house, put them in an apartment.
Or safe injection sites. Look, I don't want needles on the sidewalk. I don't think that's a good thing. But a lot of people would oppose having a safe injection site in their area as well. It all goes back to the idea of just get them out of my face. I don't care what happens to them, I just don't want to have to see it. That’s the empathy disconnect we’re talking about. These are not sub-humans or whatever. They're not a different species. They are you after a couple of bad breaks. How little empathy people have... I'm sure you see it more than most.
I have a little cart I go out with, and I've had people be like, “Don't give them anything! You're the reason they're here because people give them free stuff.” Some are like “They have more money than we do! They're not paying rent.” It’s just ridiculous. I've had people get confrontational about me being out there. They foam at the mouth when they see that you have clean needles to give out. It’s like, well, would you rather have a community full of hepatitis and HIV? We hand out sharps boxes as well. At the end of the day there's this demonization, that these people are out there because they're doing drugs, because they're bad people, they made bad choices. They like to do crime. My experience has been the complete opposite, where drug use is either self medication or a survival tool. Women who are unhoused do meth because they need to stay up all night so they don't get raped. And then to sleep during the day they do a little heroin. And I'm sure to calm whatever traumas they've experienced. In my experience, most people end up using drugs after they have become unhoused because of the trauma of being unhoused. It's the only medication on the streets.
As horrible as the over-prescribing of opioids epidemic was, you might have at least hoped that that would have shown people how addiction works. So many middle class or rich people got addicted to opioids, and yet people still have this idea of the good addict the versus the bad addict. If you're a well off person who has a problem it's spoken about in these like hushed tones. Oh the poor guy. He's struggling. But then if you're poor it’s like…
In 2008 there was the crash. The first thing that people stop buying during an economic downturn is flowers. So my agricultural family were all immediately laid off. At that point we had nothing. The only thing that kept us from being on the streets was my aunt moved us in. My parents stayed there until they saved up a deposit for a new place. They got new jobs in the meanwhile. We only got those jobs because my family made it up to a management position at a nursery that still had work to do. I just reflect on me being marginally housed all my life. Migrants live in these tiny travel trailers with no water and electricity. We did that for a while. We were a hair’s breadth away from being unhoused ourselves frequently. The only thing that saved us was being part of a close knit community that swooped in. A lot of these people on the streets weren’t lucky enough to have that. They either come from foster care where they don’t have any family at all that they know of to reach out to, or their family’s moved on without them. They see their failure as a moral failure, or of being lazy.
That idea that it’s some sort of relaxing life. Oh, to not have to go to work! No. Nobody wants this shit.
No. There’s this common myth of the lazy bum that’s relaxed, not having to pay bills. It’s almost like a jealousy in this imagined fiction. People become so hostile. “They don’t want to work, they’re doing drugs all day. I have to pax taxes! I have to work!” That makes people feel possessive of public spaces. “They’re not the public, we are. We pay taxes.” That’s commonly what you hear about the parks being sweeped.
Did you hear about the Echo Park sweep? That was, as you said, this kind of theater. It costs like two million dollars that one night, plus whatever that stupid fence cost. And homelessness has gone up. Taking people’s possessions starts them at zero every time. Getting them new IDs can be impossible. A new birth certificate.
That’s something else that happens if all your possessions are taken. Maybe someone is working their way back, doing their best, and then, whoops, all of a sudden your papers you had stored are thrown in the trash and now you’re fucked.
There was a woman I met who told me she has two years of disability payments in a bank account she can’t access because she has no form of identification. We got started looking for it. I reached out to her city’s registrar, jumped through all their hopes, talked to a thousand people trying to explain that this person is unhoused and couldn't verify their identity a traditional way. Finally someone was like, fine, take it, and we got her birth certificate. The day after we got her birth certificate she was gone for a moment and they threw all her belongings away. I’ve never seen her again. There was nothing for her in that spot anymore. You have to move along and find supplies elsewhere.
Can you blame someone for just saying fuck it.
Fuck it let me start using.
The trauma and pain experienced by people on the streets, I would be using drugs.
I can barely function in a comfortable existence.
I have a comfortable bed and shower and air conditioning, and I sometimes go into these deep depressions. I can’t imagine what resilience it takes to wake up in a tent in Los Angeles, California every day.
The isolation too. The psychological torture these people experience because of how alienated they are. Folks are very happy if I just sit down and talk to them. Most people don’t even look them in the eye or respond when they talk to them. Shop keepers will mutely take their money if they purchase something and then shoo them out. Folks on the street don’t even want to acknowledge there’s an unhoused person near them. They’re either scared or disgusted. I can’t imagine what that would do to someone’s emotional state. You live in one of the busiest cities in the world and you haven’t talked to anyone in two weeks. During Covid I was like, fuck it, I’m just gonna get Covid. So many people wanted to give me a hug or a handshake and I couldn’t deny them that. You develop relationships. I just made sure I was wearing my PP.
What is CARE Court?
This is Gavin Newsom’s baby. He’s very excited about this. It passed unanimously and he’s about to sign it. It basically creates a third court system. There’s the criminal system, the civil system, and then the CARE court. It’s a special court where the people who can report you to it are probation officers, your roommate, family members, and first responders. When they report you to this court you’re in the jurisdiction of the CARE court judge who will order you to complete certain tasks. If you don’t you are under conservatorship of the state. The state at that point could forcibly medicate you, institutionalize you, put you in a mental health asylum, or a group home. Whatever they want you to do. You have no agency.
This is of course being talked about as a compassionate alternative.
Absolutely. They’re framing it with progressive vocabulary. “We are building a court that doesn’t criminalize people who need help” is the framing. First, that's not necessarily true. You're under the supervision of a judge. What happens when you don’t listen?
It’s very cruel to me that we haven’t tried anything else. We’ve jumped straight to removing agency from people. Purely just being unhoused is one of the reasons you can end up in CARE court.
We’ve tried this before. California famously had large mental asylums where people were overmedicated, abused, sexually abused. We’re still making giant payments for these settlements where people experienced horrors beyond our imagination.
This court provides zero additional funding for housing, health care, any public services. Even if it worked as they are excited to stay it will, they’re forcing people into a system that is completely tapped out in its ability to support anyone.
These judges are going to come up with care plans, like, if you don't want to be conserved, get a job, get housing, go to rehab, and come back in three weeks or whatever. Ok, but the housing waitlist for low income housing is like twenty years. The section eight vouchers are fifteen years. All of the detox beds that accept Medi-Cal are full. You end up in this situation where the state is your parent at that point. Maybe the only detox bed is up north and they’re going to put you on a bus and ship you there.
At the end of the day it’s just prison with extra steps. We’re making imprisoning the poor and mentally ill sound nicer. I think if you described it as they do, most people would agree, yeah, people that are severely mentally ill should have someone step in and assist them and get them on the right track, but I am very skeptical that the state of California is going to be able to justly intervene in people’s lives. Particularly because we haven’t tried anything that we know works.
A lot of addicts that I meet on the street would love to go to a rehab, but like I said there are very few detox beds available. I know someone who overdosed waiting for a bed that they told him was one month out from being available.
We have systems that we completely let collapse or are ineffective, and we’re saying, well, that didn’t work, let’s try this new thing, without ever implementing public housing, more social workers, larger detox facilities that accept Medi-Cal. We haven’t tried any of that and we’re skipping straight to institutionalizing people. Let the state control them and shove them where people don't need to see them.
The way we treat the people even trying to help this problem plays into this as well. We need more social workers. Ok, well social work pays shit, and you have to take out tons of loans to go to school, and if you ask for canceling those loans it’s like fuck you.
Every person out there is a symptom of our cultural and systemic rot. They’ve chipped away at collectivism so much that this is exactly what happens. People are seen as individual failures. And the numbers increase year after year. There’s no sign of it slowing down. Other than when the government put its foot down, during Covid, when they said you’re not allowed to evict people. It’s almost like we know what works: keeping people in their homes and preventing landlords from evicting them. It’s really that simple. You prevent these deaths of despair, which is what being unhoused is, by simply reigning in the landlord class. They’re not dying, they’re just making slightly less profits. But being unhoused is deadly.