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Homeless cleanup teams were focused on outreach. Then city leaders changed their minds.

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Outreach workers have less influence now over what homeless residents living on the streets can keep with them

The city’s municipal code limits the size of items homeless residents can carry with them and store in public areas to what can fit in a 60-gallon container.
AFP via Getty Images

In June, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to the public that crews cleaning up homeless camps would start to “lead with services, not law enforcement.”

At a press conference, he announced the creation of new teams named CARE, short for Cleaning and Rapid Engagement, where sanitation crews would be joined by outreach workers trained in mental health and community engagement skills who would be devoted to not just cleaning up streets but also building relationships and addressing “the needs of unhoused Angelenos.”

“CARE is about something bigger,” the mayor said. “It’s about the humanity we will give back.”

That model launched four months later. It lasted about four weeks.

In December—as the city’s growing homeless population, sidewalk encampments, and trash-strewn streets became the subject of unprecedented media coverage, including the resignation of LA’s homeless services director, which made national headlines—the city quietly reverted to a model that puts sanitation workers, not outreach workers, at the helm of cleanups.

The makeup of the teams hasn’t changed. But outreach workers, all of whom work for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA, have less influence now over what homeless residents living on the streets can keep with them, according to social service providers speaking on the condition of anonymity. Crews were retrained in late November and were told to toss out everything that does not comply with the city’s size limits for items stored on sidewalks and streets.

That marks a major policy shift from how CARE teams were originally positioned to the public, one that sources say is hampering the city’s response to the crisis. It also demonstrates how city leaders are being barraged by demands for more humane treatment of LA’s unhoused population while simultaneously being inundated by complaints of blocked and littered sidewalks—and failing to deliver results on both fronts.

“How can we have deployed this program thinking things were going to improve?” Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez said at a December meeting of the council’s energy, climate change, and environmental justice committee. “I appreciate LAHSA coming into crews and developing their relationship. But we can’t leave it up to them to decide whether something is trash or isn’t.”

City officials insist that, even from the beginning of CARE deployment, environmental compliance inspectors who work for the city’s sanitation department have always had authority within CARE to enforce the municipal code, known as 56.11, that determines the size of items residents are allowed to store in the public right-of-way.

But social services providers familiar with how city policy was communicated say there’s been a clear, coordinated shift away from prioritizing outreach in favor of enforcement.

That’s supported by comments made by elected leaders in December, when the four councilmembers—Martinez, Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz, and Mitch O’Farrell—who spoke at the environmental justice committee meeting assailed CARE, with Martinez describing “mountains of trash” accruing in her district. “It seems my district is not cleaner,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s getting worse.”

“I don’t know that we’re as concerned about the outreach element. Of course we want it,” said Councilmember Paul Koretz. “But if our primary mission is to create a strong sanitation program, it has to take somewhat of a back seat.” He said staffers in his office had asked to get rid of CARE.

Some directly blamed LAHSA’s involvement for not having cleaner streets.

“We have a mission to keep our neighborhoods clean, safe, and get people into housing. I am not sure that LAHSA has that same mission—it is very unclear to me,” said Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. “We work with LASHA. We work quite well with them. But if the decision making is starting to be taken away from the electeds and being made by folks who are not accountable to anyone, including us, and yet our constituents are the ones who are suffering, that’s a real problem.”

At the end of the December meeting, the committee voted unanimously to mandate a report from city staff justifying “why we should continue this program.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the mayor said nothing had changed in CARE’s approach “or with our commitment to providing critical outreach and services to unhoused Angelenos. The City has an important obligation to keep the public right of way clean and passable, and we will continue doing that in a humane and respectful way.”

During the first CARE team training in September, according to social service providers who were not authorized to speak publicly, workers were told that CARE cleanups would be different than cleanup efforts of the past. They would focus less on 56.11 compliance and more on housing placements.

A training document from September obtained by Curbed says that CARE “aims to shift the focus... away from strict enforcement of 56.11, and towards improved public health outcomes and supporting unhoused Angelenos [sic] return to more stable housing.”

When CARE teams rolled out to camps in October, outreach workers helped negotiate which items would be thrown away by sanitation workers and which items homeless residents could keep, sources say. Outreach workers could make the case that a resident needed to hold onto a certain blanket, tent, or sleeping bag, or particular electronic devices, even if they were too large to be allowable under 56.11.

At a meeting at the the United Homelessness Response Center in late November, CARE team managers were told that enforcing 56.11 was no longer optional. A presentation from the United Homeless Response Center in November says the “disposal of materials that are not allowed under 56.11 is NOT voluntary.”

Without the authority to decide what residents can keep—and what gets thrown in a dumpster—outreach workers say it will be difficult to build trust with residents. They now have 10 to 15 minutes, not 30, to warn residents to comply with 56.11—and they often spend most of that time trying to soothe residents who are upset that their belongings might be taken or are confused about where to go.

As they hustled to dismantle their tent on Selma Avenue in Hollywood on Wednesday morning before a scheduled cleanup, Keni Brooks and Gray J. said they’ve had important items, including medical documents, a sentimental childhood blanket, and a locket with Brooks’s father’s ashes tossed out by city crews in the past.

Every Wednesday, they lug their clothes and other possessions outside an enforcement zone established around a temporary shelter on Schrader Boulevard that’s part of the mayor’s Bridge Home initiative. Since the shelter was erected, residents have been able to move within that boundary during cleanups, but today, they had farther to go. This week, Los Angeles Police Department officers told residents to move completely outside the zone—the boundary of which extends about 0.8 miles west to east and and 0.5 miles north to south—during cleanups, which start around 7:30 a.m.

“It seems like they’re trying to expand the enforcement of these sweeps, and they’re making it more difficult for people to come back,” says Jane Nguyen, a spokesperson for Ktown for All.

LASHA outreach workers were on hand briefly to tell residents that as soon as the temperature climbed to 50 degrees, they would have 10 minutes to relocate.

“There’s been leniency and now there’s not leniency,” LAPD Det. Shannon Geaney told camp residents. She said that decision was made after a sanitation worker in the area was assaulted.

“The residents of this community deserve clean sidewalks,” Geaney said. “We have to allow sanitation to do their jobs.”