On Feb. 8, the city of Los Angeles unveiled the newest addition to the streets of Downtown: six bright orange homeless donation meters, which funnel passerby donations to homeless outreach programs that provide mental health, medical and housing resources to the homeless.
Yet, these conspicuous meters equipped with smiley face emojis may raise more questions than funds or awareness. For one, do these meters actively encourage more Angelenos to donate to and grapple with the mounting problem of homelessness? Do they provide any means of engaging with and facing L.A.’s homeless crisis? And if Angelenos can support more quasi-parking meters, why can’t they support the construction of more affordable housing?
The homeless donation meters attack only one facet of the equation: the lack of adequate funds to fully tackle homelessness. The next hurdle — which concerns how to resourcefully and effectively put more and more public dollars to full use — requires more public support and creativity than mere additions to the sidewalk.
With the rise of the “Not in my Backyard” movement, which often opposes new developments in residential neighborhoods — even with the tens of millions of dollars already garnered by Proposition HHH and Measure H, respectively — the struggle for physical space and public support persists. And with San Pedro and Venice residents fighting not only housing, but also proposed storage units for the homeless, concerns continue to grow over where money and housing units can be allocated across the city. Los Angeles is composed of diverse populations with diverse desires, but also with regard to pressing questions of public policy and morality.
In one sense, these donation meters perpetuate the same “NIMBY” mentality. Angelenos can support housing for the homeless, just not in their backyards, with financial support through putting coins in a meter. But homeless individuals remain out of sight and out of mind.
Fortunately, encouraging news emerged the day after the debut of donation meters, when the Los Angeles Times reported on the City of Los Angeles revising plans to convert public parking lots into affordable housing.
In the midst of a car-buying craze in the post-World War II years, the City of Los Angeles bought 119 public lots to accommodate its gas-guzzling economy and residential culture. But the city launched a public effort to divert drivers to public transportation and an increasingly unaffordable housing market, leaving little space for more development. Now, the conversion of these lots represents a more economically and otherwise feasible, long-term approach to housing low-income renters and the homeless. Yet, the city must grapple with lost revenue from the loss of parking meters, and concerns over changing quality of life in neighborhoods where these lots would be transformed.
Los Angeles can also tap into the collective creativity and resources of the private sector, especially schools such as USC, where architecture students pioneer tiny home projects similar to micro housing units proposed in San Jose. These innovative homes, though they are often temporary fixes, possibly provide much-needed, cheap and accessible roofs for the thousands of unsheltered Angelenos.
This focus on new units reflects the growing influence of the “Housing First” homelessness assistance model, in which securing the human right to housing comes as a prerequisite before integrating other services, such as job-training and mental health treatments. The hope remains that a roof over one’s head can not only initiate but also facilitate the transition off the streets and into a home, as well as rehabilitation and other necessary services.
Just a few weeks ago, over 6,000 volunteers hit the streets to tally our homeless neighbors, and though data has yet to be released, little hope lingers after the last Homeless Count found a 23 percent uptick in homelessness in just a year, raising L.A. County’s homeless population by a whopping 57,794. Coupled with recent trends in homelessness data and ever-rising rents with the recent closing of the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment, and Los Angeles expects another surge in its unsheltered population.
In the midst of this housing crisis, Los Angeles must couple growing resources with growing resourcefulness to addressing homelessness. As citizens of Los Angeles, we too must grow not only their donations and sales taxes, but also their consciences and collective awareness. In the City of Angels, Angelenos may not live in heaven, but every one of them deserves to live in a home.