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Photo by Brian Addison. Above: an encampment used as shelter by those experiencing homelessness on the east bank of the LA River.
Speaking at the Zaferia monthly meeting this past November, 3rd District Office Director Nina Moussavi was enthused to inform the group of local business and property owners that the office of Councilmember Suzie Price had allocated funds in order to hire a special prosecutor that goes above and beyond the City Prosecutor to “handle the transients and the low-level crimes they commit.”
According to Price’s Chief of Staff, Jack Cunningham, the office eschewed “furniture, or office decorations, or food for community meetings, and reducing—not increasing—staff costs” in order to garner some $18K to pay the special part-time prosecutor.
Moussavi noted that those experiencing homelessness often create “chop shops,” or collections of either stolen or thrown away bike parts in order to, depending on who is framing the situation, help out other folks on getting around more efficiently or use the parts to trade for drugs or money.
When I was working on a piece that was never finished about homelessness and bikes, I met a woman named Brooke, whose living situation at the time bounced back and forth between the Belmont Pier and behind Chuck’s Coffee
“Sure, some of it’s stolen, some of it is trash that people think we stole—it’s a no-win kinda thing,” said Brooke. “Some see an opportunity, you go for it. I try to find stuff in the trash and give it to my friends. A tube here or a seat there. It’s the only way we can get around fast.”
When asked if folks in the Shore protect their bikes correctly, Brooke simply laughed.
“Wide open spaces,” she began to sing, mimicking the Dixie Chicks song.
I’ve been explicit about my feelings about how folks lock their bikes, which are in and of themselves a new form of currency. Price herself had her bike stolen off of 2nd Street while she has dealt with a plethora of complaints about bike stealing issues.
“As for the program, this is the same prosecutor program that occurs downtown and is funded there by Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA),” said Cunningham. “The goal is to have the prosecutor work with the community and the police department to improve enforcement of repeat offenders, and in this case it is specifically in the Belmont Shore and Belmont Pier area.”
The only issue is that, with my work at the DLBA as their former Communications Manager, that was not remotely the case.
While Broc Coward, Chief Operating Officer of the DLBA, did not want to be quoted for this article, there are significant differences between the DLBA and the 3rd that I can easily testify to.
For one, in terms of the DLBA’s Community Prosecutor Program, they have Antoinette Hamilton, their Homeless Outreach Specialist, that works day-to-day, face-to-face with those experiencing homelessness—to the extent of knowing the vast majority of them by name as well as their background. Her tactics are typically paired with a Quality of Life Officer and DHHS representative. The focus would be on habitually dangerous individuals; not low-level crimes. Meaning those who have mental illness medications they are unable to access, those who threaten the lives of others on a continual basis, or those that present a health concern to themselves or others.
Following that—and only following that—would the DLBA turn to the Community Prosecutor. In fact, in my first year at the DLBA, the amount of cases the DLBA referred to the prosecutor? One.
And that is mostly likely because the DLBA is targeting homelessness and the misdemeanors attached to them through personal intervention and mental health security first before taking them under the legal wing of being prosecuted. Even more, the DLBA’s program is not specifically directed toward low-level crime or crimes committed by those experiencing homelessness; they were geared toward what were often called “hot spots” where we’re not talking stolen bike parts; we’re talking drug dealing, gang affiliating, prostitution (sadly sometimes in exchange for food or drugs), and other issues.
Perhaps the 3rd should take a cue from the DLBA and look into hiring, first and foremost, a Homeless Outreach Specialist, someone who not only understands the law but also the human factor of the experience of homelessness, why they resort to crime, and how to create social norms through face-to-face interaction rather than law. Having such a specialist marks a particular turning point for how a community can addresses this issue: putting a day-to-day person dealing with those experiencing homelessness face-to-face.
Cunningham, however, seemingly disagrees
“Having a specific prosecutor handling the cases from this target area will expedite the connection to services for those persons in need of mental health, substance abuse assistance, and other services,” Cunningham said.
For the 3rd, the prosecutor him or herself will “focus efforts in a targeted manner” so those that are experiencing homelessness “are getting the treatment and services they need, either prior to filing criminal charges or as a term of probation, and to ensure that a stay away order is put into place that stops repeat offenders from returning to the same location.”
While I am sure many are cheering the arrests of those experiencing homelessness for stealing a bike wheel, I can assure you that it would behoove us—if we’re going to stop giving City Staff minor wage lifts or providing snacks at community meetings—that maybe the extra money could be spent on creating more Antoinettes.
Take, for example, the efforts her and partners Mental Health America of Los Angeles and Urban Community Outreach (UCO) took to help those getting displaced at Lincoln Park in order move forward with construction of the new civic center: 65 contacts were made with those approached are provided all the information they need in order to connect with services, including travel if need be. This is in addition to the weekly outreach efforts that were occurring in the park, where an average of 25 contacts were made.
Even more, the homeless population has many members who don’t even call Long Beach home. These folks are simply trying to get home or find a connection—and in the case of the efforts of UCO last year, 12 people had been given complimentary travel in order to reconnect with lost family and, just as importantly, get a roof over their head.
“Homelessness isn’t always a permanent state for those experiencing it,” said Arlene Mercer, Executive Director of UCO. “In these cases, the people we were dealing with were passing through and actually trying to get to places beyond here… We assisted not just with travel but with reuniting them with their family. Sometimes, we take for granted our connection to our family…For some, it’s been lost and they need a helping hand to figure out how best to reconnect with their family and friend support system again.”
UCO and Antoinette’s efforts don’t stop there. The following weekend after those efforts back in March of 2016, four families were given motel vouchers while other families that needed assistance with a utility deposit, food and gas funds were assisted.
“We even had a man who has just had a hip replacement get brought into a motel too because his apartment has 31 steps and no elevator,” Mercer said. “Memorial Hospital is helping by sending out their nurses and physical therapists and my chef is bring him food every day. This is the perfect example of great community effort.”
Community effort is more than just enforcing laws.
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