Study Shows L.A. ‘Street Sweeps’ Are Not Helping the Homeless

New LAHSA data reveals the stark reality of programs purportedly meant to aid the homeless in Los Angeles

With Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declaring a “homeless state of emergency” as her first official act and promising “a sea change” in the way the city addresses the ever-worsening crisis, she might want to reconsider conducting “sweeps” like the one that helpfully cleared out an encampment adjacent to City Hall just in time for her inauguration. According to a new report, the practice isn’t doing anyone any good.

The controversial sweeps—also known as “sanitation cleanings”—are ostensibly intended to keep the city tidy and move unsheltered individuals into housing. A new report in LATaco, however, begs to differ, finding that these sweeps may be much less productive than the city would like us to believe. Data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reveals that very few homeless individuals have actually been moved indoors as a result of the outreach associated with encampment sweeps.

Los Angeles, CA – September 23: A view of a homeless encampment on Skid Row on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Los Angeles, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In the past three years, more than 30,000 unsheltered individuals in L.A. have enrolled in the CARE (Cleaning and Rapid Engagement) program. However, only ten percent of those enrollees have been moved into a temporary housing facility. Less than one percent have been moved into permanent housing, according to LAHSA data. Instead, people are being pushed out and forced to move from one block to the other, often losing their personal property and irreplaceable belongings in the process.

The CARE program was launched in 2019 with the stated goal of being a “services-led” approach to homelessness instead of the previous reactive system that focused on public complaints and police enforcement of vagrancy laws. According to LAHSA’s most recent count, however, “visible” homelessness has grown by 15 percent since the pandemic began. Taxpayers have paid more than $150 million for the CARE program, according to LATaco, calling into question the actual success rate of the policy changes being put in place.

Not only do the “CARE cleanings” displace people and deprive them of their property, the actions, which critics say are effectively law enforcement raids under euphemistic name, can also have serious impacts on the health of their targets. One study reported by LATaco found that the loss of belongings often has a direct correlation with an individual’s health. Street sweeps may result in the loss of important medications and medical supplies, not to mention the mental health struggles that result from losing sentimental possessions.

Still, those in the system say the system is working. Elena Stern, a public information officer at the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation (LASAN) commented that the role of the program “is to provide sanitation and hygiene services,” and that, “Our partners at LAHSA provide housing services. It is our responsibility to ensure that the public right of ways are safe and clean for all—for pedestrians, residents, customers, business owners and those experiencing homelessness”.

On average, 90 percent of interactions between homeless individuals and the CARE outreach program result in a return to the streets or a “loss of contact,” meaning unsheltered individuals seldom make it past the initial communication, according to the report. As a result, homeless communities have given the program the nickname “CARE-sus” in response to what they regard as apathy and lack of meaningful engagement.

Such dire results fuel speculation that these programs are not intended to help the homeless, but to ease the way for more luxury apartment buildings and further gentrification.

A homeless man pushes a cart with his belonging along the Boardwalk in this beach community adjacent to Santa Monica on February 7, 2022 in Venice Beach, California. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Enrollment in CARE + programs this year has decreased by almost 50 percent. However, the number of people being moved into temporary shelters has increased. Chief Program Officer for LAHSA, Molly Rysman, told LATaco that the biggest issue the L.A. system is facing is a lack of permanent supportive housing. Instead, homeless people who are lucky enough to receive temporary housing get stuck there, with no hope for a permanent solution. This leaves the small number of temporary housing facilities indefinitely occupied and thousands of people still living on the streets with no place to go. 

Many expect this problem to deepen as Los Angeles gets closer to hosting the 2028 Olympics. Sweeping, policing, and displacement are traditional aspects of preparation for the games—often beginning years in advance and continuing as a permanent fixture after the games conclude. L.A. already saw thus during the 1984 Summer Games. Officers on horseback encroached on Skid Row, issuing jaywalking citations and the forced dispersal of unsheltered individuals as a means of “sanitizing the area.”

“My mandate,” Mayor Bass said in announcing the state of emergency, “is to move Los Angeles in a new direction with an urgent and strategic approach to solving one of our city’s toughest challenges and creating a brighter future for every Angeleno.”

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