By Mary Velan
In Los Angeles, California, social services experts are tracing a significant portion of the city’s homeless population back to jails, foster homes, hospitals and state prisons. When individuals are released from these institutions, many of them have nowhere to go and wind up on the streets.
Neither the county or the state track how many people are released from public institutions into homelessness, but officials estimate up to 20 percent of the 32,000 state prisoners discharged at Los Angeles County under realignment, and 10 percent of the 8,000 to 10,000 who leave county jail monthly become homeless. The public institutions that receive these individuals are not equipped to treat them and then also provide resources to prevent homelessness. Thus, Los Angeles County is developing a plan to fight homelessness by specifically addressing individuals coming out of public institutions, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Over the past two years, the county has reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness – which equates to about 44,000 more people living on the streets on in encampments in the region. The city of Los Angeles has already declared a state of shelter emergency and officials have created a $100 million blueprint on how to combat the problem in accordance with countywide efforts. To better address the homelessness problem across the county, officials are focusing on foster children as about half typically end up homeless within two years of leaving the system. The county extended housing and services to emancipated foster children ages 18 to 21 to make the transition easier and more successful for the young adults, The Los Angeles Times reported.
According to social services experts, Los Angeles County can reduce homelessness by taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA has extended mental health and substance abuse treatment to much of the homeless population. Similarly, many local and state criminal justice systems are moving homeless mentally ill individuals out of incarceration and into institutions with offering the appropriate services, The Los Angeles Times reported.
County officials report a variety of roadblocks standing in the way from ensuring all homeless and at-risk individuals receive the necessary services to maintain housing and employment. For example, obstacles preventing ex-inmates from finding jobs and housing range from incomplete medical evaluations to difficulty overcoming a criminal record. Officials recommend keeping track of how many people are exiting public institutions and ending up homeless. Once the county has a better idea of this number, it can start to develop programs to reduce homelessness, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Double Edged Sword
Many cities nationwide have growing homeless populations that they must manage and reduce. Madison, Wisconsin, has long been revered for its humane approach to homelessness and extensive services offered to this population. However, the city has seen the number of homeless individuals skyrocket as of late because Madison’s generous social services and food-sharing programs has created a surge. Madison even offers a specific section in its downtown area where homeless individuals can gather without being held to anti-loitering laws, The Wisconsin State Journal reported.
While Madison has worked hard to create a safe haven for homeless individuals, the growing population has pushed public opinion in support of new legislation to restrict and regulate homelessness. The city has adopted a ban on sleeping outside the City Council Building, which used to be considered an unofficial shelter for the homeless. Madison’s mayor is now considering further regulations amid public frustration, The New York Times reported.
Despite the efforts of cities like Madison, Portland and New York, only offering services and amenities to the homeless population is not enough to keep the community safe. Rather, many municipalities are finding themselves in a balancing act between social services and legal regulations.
In fact, 27 percent of cities have criminalized sleeping in specific public spaces, while 18 percent ban people from sleeping outside in cities all together, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported. Between 2011 and 2014, there was a 43 percent increase in bans on sitting or lying down. After a homeless person is arrested for violating one of these bans, they are released back into the community with no other option but to re-offend, and have now been strapped with a court fee that they cannot pay.
Because many of these regulations live in a legal gray area, cities find them contested in court. The Department of Justice explains it is unconstitutional for a city to ban sleeping in public if there are not enough beds in homeless shelters available to meet demands.
Los Angeles, however, boasts some of the strictest laws against the homeless community in the country, and it still reported a 12 percent jump over the last two years. Los Angeles is among the 9 percent of cities with regulations that ban food sharing with homeless people – services often provided by churches or community organizations. Many cities argue food sharing programs deter homeless populations away from food banks, which often connect individuals to other public services. On the other hand, advocates of food sharing programs contend the gatherings should supplement not replace food bank services, and often help communities offer services at a lower cost, The National Coalition for Homeless argues.