In Los Angeles, city officials grappling with an ongoing homelessness crisis have turned to an idea that for decades was politically unpopular and considered radical: a government-funded tent encampment.
Other cities, including San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa, Fla., have opened similar programs in recent years. But the high public cost of LA’s first sanctioned campground — more than $2,600 per tent, per month — has advocates worried it will come at the expense of more permanent housing.
The campsite opened in late April on a fenced-in parking lot beside the 101 freeway in East Hollywood. The lot-turned-campground can accommodate up to about 70 tents in 12-by-12-foot spots marked by white squares painted on the asphalt.
On a recent afternoon, the site was nearly full. A row of port-a-potties stood along one side of the camp. The program also provides showers, three meals a day and 24-hour security. Campers get entered into the county’s database for matching unhoused people with social services and housing resources.
It’s meant to corral the tents and cobbled-together structures that currently stand in parks, on sidewalks and below freeway overpasses, while providing homeless people with services and a potential steppingstone to permanent homes.
“The thing that we can do here is just deal with the basic needs,” says Lena Miller, CEO of Urban Alchemy, the nonprofit hired to run the new campsite. “Hygiene, food, medical attention.”
For camper Prince Page, the site provides a sense of peace that he couldn’t find in a tent on the street.
“That sense of security, it’s hard to find,” he says. “That’s really what I’ve been looking for. Somewhere I could think, get my thoughts together, know what my next step is. And I’ve been able to do that so far.”
Some advocates for people without housing, however, worry about the program’s expense.
According to a report by the city administrative officer, the new East Hollywood campground costs approximately $2,663 per participant per month. That’s higher than what a typical one-bedroom apartment rents for in the city, according to the website RentCafe. While the per-tent cost covers services, meals, sanitation and staffing, some are concerned that the city is investing too much in short-term Band-Aids over long-term solutions.
“If you can paint lines on a sidewalk for the same cost that you can give someone the rent for an apartment,” says Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, “I’m concerned that our city is making the choice to paint the lines rather than actually get people into housing.”
City Controller Ron Galperin, LA’s primary budget watchdog, says that while the East Hollywood camping pilot is expensive, “doing nothing also costs a lot of money.”
“When people are on our sidewalks, that is already costing us money in terms of public safety, police and fire emergency services, paramedic, sanitation, street services, hospitals, jails,” he says.
Another concern is that more government-approved campgrounds will mean more police enforcement for those who refuse or aren’t able to enter the sites.
“It can’t be the type of offer that leads to criminalization and displacement and the shutting down of other public spaces,” says Myers of Legal Aid.
LA City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, meanwhile, says enforcement is part of the point. He wants the city to outlaw camping on sidewalks and in parks altogether. To do that legally, courts have said, city officials first must provide alternatives.
“Right now in the city of Los Angeles, it’s a free-for-all,” says Buscaino. “You can camp, sleep, lie anywhere and everywhere that you so deem.”
Miller, whose organization runs the new campground, understands that it’s not a long-term solution.
“Is living in a parking lot ideal? No,” she says. “Is it better than being exposed to everything out there without access to food, water? Hygiene? Yes.”
Still, the program isn’t meant to last. Technically a pilot program, it’s scheduled to wind down by the end of the year. That’s when the parking lot is scheduled to become a construction site for a new affordable housing project.