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LA sanitation needs $17M to keep up with homeless encampments

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The bureau has a backlog of thousands of unanswered service requests

Homeless encampments
Sanitation workers are responsible for cleaning up around—and often removing—homeless encampments.
Photo by David McNew, Getty Images

Tasked with cleaning up rapidly multiplying numbers of homeless encampments, Los Angeles sanitation workers have asked the city for more resources to handle a backlog of thousands of service requests.

On Wednesday, the city council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee recommended increasing funding for the Bureau of Sanitation in the city’s next budget and asking workers to focus on areas that receive the most requests related to homelessness.

The committee didn’t recommend a particular dollar amount, but sanitation officials say they have requested $17 million to bring on new staff trained to clean in and around encampments—up from about $6 million this year.

In 2016, as LA’s homeless population soared, city officials approved a new law designed to cut down on the size of homeless encampments. It allows sanitation workers to seize bulky items and other possessions kept on streets and sidewalks after providing advance notice to owners.

By making a call to the city’s 311 hotline, residents can request cleanups at encampments in their neighborhoods—but they often have to wait a while for a response. The bureau has close to 6,000 open requests, and roughly one-third are more than 90 days old, according to sanitation director Enrique Zaldivar.

Downtown residents and business advocates argued that workers needed more resources to keep sidewalks clean in Skid Row and beyond.

Estela Lopez, director of the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, told the committee that sanitation workers are asked to do an “impossible task with insufficient resources.” She suggested that more cleanup crews would help prevent health problems for homeless residents.

“They are the thinnest firewall between Downtown LA and a public health epidemic,” Lopez said.

Even though they supported a boost in funding, committee members questioned whether it would have much immediate impact.

That’s because the hiring process isn’t quick. Testing and background checks for a newly hired sanitation worker responsible for encampment cleanups takes more than one year.

Bureau officials said they were working on speeding up the process, but offered no estimates on how much time could be shaved off the lengthy hiring period. The committee asked staff to report back on strategies to quicken the background checks.

Beyond questions of funding, the committee also grappled with the moral implications of encampment cleanups, which often result in the loss of belongings for homeless residents.

“There isn’t a good way to take stuff from people who are down on their luck,” committee member Marqueece Harris-Dawson told sanitation officials. “But we’ve charged you with that task.”

The committee also asked city staffers to report back on ways to expand the city’s shelter system, adding beds and services in the Skid Row area.

Committee member Mike Bonin suggested that tactic should be applied citywide, providing people with new alternatives to living on the street.

“We have chosen as a city to tell people to sleep on sidewalks,” Bonin said. “Instead of cleaning up encampments, we should be getting rid of encampments.”