The Long Beach City Council’s Public Safety Committee has started workshopping ideas for new ways to limit homeless encampments and keep unhoused residents from taking over public spaces.
The committee met Tuesday afternoon at the Michelle Obama Library in North Long Beach where more than 20 people spoke about their concerns and frustrations about the growing unhoused population.
Councilmember Kristina Duggan, who is vice chair of the committee, has been pushing since June for the city to come up with new policy options to deal with stubborn homeless encampments and public safety issues that have been connected to some unhoused residents. But she emphasized Tuesday that she does not want to criminalize the unhoused.
“I think that if they’re in an unsafe space, they need to be moved,” Duggan said after the meeting. “We don’t want to see 20 bikes in an encampment. When we do take these people into interim housing, they can only take two bags.”
Duggan and her two fellow committee members can recommend policies to the full City Council, but to be enacted, they would still need a majority vote in the nine-member body. The Public Safety Committee meets quarterly and it plans to discuss this issue at least one more time before making any recommendations, something that likely won’t happen until January at the earliest.
Duggan’s push for new options to move homeless people out of public spaces was sparked by a stabbing spree by an unhoused man in Belmont Shore, and the issue gained new urgency last month when a woman walking in the East Village was followed and knocked to the ground by a homeless man local prosecutors have said may have been trying to sexually assault her.
At Tuesday’s committee meeting, resident Bob Kruse asked if something was going to be done about Los Angeles County Metro’s end-of-the-line policy that means trains are emptied at the First Street platform in Downtown each night, something that residents and business owners have said contributes to the growing unhoused population in the area.
Kruse said that there’s been a lot of focus on the rights of the unhoused but not so much on residents, adding that he’s been “accosted many times.”
“I don’t feel safe going out in my own city,” Kruse said.
Nancy Downs, who lives Downtown, pointed to the playground next to the recently opened Gaucho Grill restaurant at Alamitos Beach. She said children are not able to use it because of a persistent encampment. Downs said police have been called numerous times but the officers say they can do very little outside of issuing a citation.
“So, unfortunately, you have a new playground down there that no child is ever able to play on,” she said.
The tenor of the meeting was calm, with some speakers cautioning that whatever new rules might be pursued should take into account that unhoused people are people who have rights under the law.
“I just want us to keep thinking that these people are citizens just like we are,” said Hollis Stewart, a Downtown resident.
Some speakers suggested creating work programs to help people living on the streets gain employment while others said the city needed to enforce existing laws—particularly those that prohibit drug use—or risk becoming labeled “another San Francisco.”
When the City Council was recently given an update on the progress the city has made during its declared emergency on homelessness, the city attorney’s office highlighted some policies in other nearby cities.
Santa Ana, for instance, has a law that prohibits camping in public parking lots, streets or public areas.
Los Angeles’ City Council can pass an ordinance on any given week to prohibit camping within 500 feet of specific locations like schools and other “sensitive areas.”
San Diego may have the most stringent law on the books, which prohibits camping on public property within two blocks of a school, shelter, near trolly tracks, in city parks or other open spaces.
However, City Attorney Dawn McIntosh said that those rules had yet to be tested in court so it’s unclear if they’d be viewed as constitutional.
A court decision known as Martin v. Boise governs what most of the western U.S. can do when it comes to restricting where homeless people can gather. The ruling states the government cannot criminalize sleeping outdoors if it doesn’t have enough shelter beds for its unhoused population.
Long Beach had 3,447 homeless residents according to its last count, but it has far fewer shelter beds, with city officials saying earlier this year the city had access to around 1,300. The city is in the process of converting a motel and building out new facilities that could add about 120 new beds, but those projects have been delayed and are not expected to be ready until next year.
Members of the City Council have been reluctant to consider new strategies to limit homeless encampments, but last week—in response to a high-profile crime—they voted to call for “an enhanced and renewed” focus on the Downtown.
Duggan said she hopes any recommendations her committee suggests to the full City Council will still provide dignity and respect to those on the streets, but she added that residents want to be heard.
“I would hope that we could come up with some pragmatic and responsible solutions that can maybe meet the expectations of our residents,” Duggan said.