California Legionnaire — Over the last decade, homelessness in Los Angeles County has exploded. Statistics compiled by the L.A. County Sheriff projected the number to hit 80,000 by the end of 2021.
Of those 80,000, more than 10 percent are veterans. In 2019, there were 13,000 homeless veterans in the county. The count, however, was suspended for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reasons behind the year-to-year increases are numerous: failed measures and propositions, jurisdictional battles, narcotics decriminalization, efforts to keep law enforcement out of the issue, limited resources and the inability to regulate public space.
L.A. government’s limited resources have been taxed even further with the influx of homeless people from out of state. Money spent by the county and city, earmarked exclusively for homeless programs, approached $1 billion in 2020-21. And while the homeless numbers continue to rise, so do the number of homeless deaths, which are estimated to be five per day or nearly 2,000 per year.
Combined, the situation has negatively affected property values, tourism and the health and safety of many communities. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva argues that law enforcement should be involved.
“We are literally the backbone of a civil society,” Villanueva said last summer. “Because we can’t regulate public space, we’re enabling dependency.”
Villanueva’s point is that certain nonprofit agencies are providing the homeless with food, clothing and other products they can survive on indefinitely so why should they move off the streets?
Eight years ago, LASD changed its approach to reducing homelessness by launching the Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST). It’s a co-response model using specially trained deputy sheriffs working together with civilians from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“From its inception, our mission is to enhance public safety and preserve the rights and dignity of people experiencing homelessness,” said Lt. Geoff Deedrick, who spoke to the members of the American Legion Ronald Reagan Palisades Post 283 on March 16. “We’ve learned that there are windows of opportunity for engaging.”
Lt. Geoff Deedrick and Lt. William Ketcham of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department join Ronald Reagan-Palisades Post 283 Commander Jim Cragg following a briefing to the Post membership.
HOST consists of a lieutenant, one sergeant and four deputies. Each member completes a 32-hour crisis intervention training class, which is led by the two psychologists.
“We partnered with two of the leading psychologists in the department and had them look at some of the things we did and how we could change our methodology to more conform with what our outcome should be,” Deedrick explained.
From the start, he said using traditional law enforcement methods when dealing with the homeless don’t work and never did so the whole thrust is breaking the narrative that law enforcement is the problem. With HOST, the goal is to allow someone to transition off the streets and not into a jail. The team looks carefully at the root cause, and it begins with an identification and an assessment of each person.
“We have 72 hours to make an assessment. And we find out a lot about the people—who their children are, where they went to school, did they play sports, etc. Once we find out that information, we can start figuring out the best solution for each one. A lot of it is family reunification. For many of them, it’s the first time they have been asked these questions,” he said.
When the HOST team goes out to do engagement and outreach, a mental health team will go out with the deputies.
“Having our mental health partners on the scene at that moment has proven to be invaluable,” he said.
The approach is crisis stabilization and de-escalation. Over the years, HOST deputies have had thousands of conversations with the homeless population and through those conversations they’ve learned that many people are vulnerable and crying out for help. While some engage easily, others are scared or reluctant to talk to law enforcement fearing they might end up in jail.
Those early conversations build trust and eventually the homeless person accepts the opportunity to transition off streets knowing that he or she will be provided with safety and security. HOST deputies then collaborate with many outreach organizations to help with the transition, including West Coast Care, St Joseph Center and PATH.
“You need food and water to survive. If you have that, you can live. The next step is safety and security. If you don’t have that, your life will suffer,” says Deedrick. “And that is what was happening in Venice.”
Last summer, LASD sent HOST into Venice to help with encampment cleanups even though it is the City of Los Angeles’ jurisdiction.
“If you ask me now, we should have done it three months sooner. And the fact that we were able to accomplish what we did, I’ll take any criticism from a council member about allowing conditions like that to happen,” Deedrick added.
Versions of the HOST model are currently being used by county sheriff departments in several other regions.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Several veterans from Post 283 asked where they could get involved or volunteer. One is the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness (PPTFH). Co-president Sharon Kilbride attended the meeting and spoke briefly. She encouraged attendees to visit: www.pptfh.org.
Volunteer opportunities are broken into categories on the site. A nonprofit outreach, PPTFH commenced operations in 2016. Since then, it has placed 101 homeless people into permanent housing and taken another 159 off the streets, meaning into some form of housing.
“With the large numbers arriving from out of state, we launched “Project Home Coming” where PPTFH will contact a family member who’s willing to accept them and we pay for their travel back home,” Kilbride explained, which is an example of “off the streets”.
The area PPTFH covers stretches from the border of Santa Monica to Coast Line Drive in Malibu, and they work closely with the Los Angeles Police Department. PPTFH has seen an alarming number of mentally ill who are also drug addicted, and they are close to hiring a clinic case manager.
“We really need somebody from the mental health field to get involved.”
The position is being funded by a three-year grant. Despite the challenges, which includes constant fund raising, she says their model is working.
“We have a lot of different communities reaching out to us to mirror our model, such as Malibu, Westwood, Hollywood and Manhattan Beach so we spend a lot of time educating and helping those cities get up and running.”
Post 283 is a charter funding partner of the organization.