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LA mayor announces more ‘sensitive’ approach to cleanup around homeless encampments

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Sanitation officials say the city’s current strategy isn’t working

Los Angeles Tops The Country In Homeless Population
In this 2017 file photo, sanitation workers prepare to clean the area near a homeless encampment in Los Angeles.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To address rising levels of homelessness and widespread illegal dumping in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed today to overhaul the city’s approach to street cleanups.

The new strategy will be “more nimble, targeted, and sensitive,” Garcetti said at a press conference. It will also allow sanitation workers to “lead with services, not law enforcement” when cleaning in and around homeless encampments, according to the mayor.

Now under consideration by the City Council, the plan was drafted by the city’s sanitation department and calls for more than $6 million to fund new sanitation teams dedicated to street cleanups.

These groups will be known as CARE teams (short for Cleaning and Rapid Engagement). Instead of responding only to service requests made through the city’s 3-1-1 reports system, they’ll be assigned to specific areas where they’ll make regular cleanups.

Thirteen of those teams—out of 30 total—would be equipped with mobile hygiene centers and would be trained to work with homeless residents and connect them with necessary services.

“We’ll get to know each block,” said Garcetti Wednesday. “We’ll get to know each street, and the people who live on those streets as well.”

Still, the mayor also pointed out that the piles of trash and unsanitary conditions commonly found in Downtown LA and beyond are primarily the result of illegal dumping.

Citing statistics compiled by the sanitation department, Garcetti said that 80 percent of the waste collected by city workers comes from illegal dumping—something he attributed to property owners who save on costs by not contracting with a city-selected trash collector.

He promised that the city would be proactive about finding and citing those who are not in compliance with the city’s trash collection program.

A report last week from the LA County Department of Public Health noted that in the Downtown area, some businesses use the presence of homeless encampments as “cover” for illegal dumping, and Garcetti acknowledged Wednesday that residents often “conflate” homelessness and illegal dumping.

At a City Council committee meeting Tuesday, department of sanitation officials acknowledged that the city’s current approach to encampment cleanups hasn’t been effective.

Sanitation teams, sometimes accompanied by police officers, have “inadvertently set people back on their pathway to housing” by confiscating and disposing of valuables and personal items, according to a report from the department.

It’s a complaint long made by homeless activists and even the city’s own homeless outreach teams.

Earlier this year, a coalition of activists with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Democratic Socialists of America, and other groups launched a campaign called Services Not Sweeps to protest surprise cleanups.

Members of the coalition applauded parts of the new approach Tuesday, but expressed wariness that the CARE teams would function in the same way as sanitation teams in the past.

“We cannot just put a new name on something and thing that we’re going to walk away and say that’s better,” said coalition member Jed Parriott.

Councilmember Paul Krekorian said Wednesday that situations in which sanitation teams come into contact with homeless residents should be “opportunities to reach out a hand and help pick people up.”

Under the new approach, homeless residents might also be trained and hired to clean city streets and sidewalks themselves, said Garcetti.

What’s not clear yet is how the new sanitation strategy, assuming it’s approved by the City Council, would affect enforcement of a city ordinance limiting the amount of property residents can store on sidewalks and other public spaces.

Following a legal settlement last month in which the city agreed to stop seizing items in the Skid Row area for the next three years, officials are working with homeless advocates to regulate the storage of bulky items citywide, Garcetti told reporters Wednesday.

“Stand by,” he said. “We’ve gotten close to something we can all agree on.”