As homeless encampments spread, Long Beach may increase efforts to clean them up

With more homeless encampments popping up along freeway onramps, riverbeds and sidewalks across Long Beach, city officials are looking to increase efforts to clean them out and get their inhabitants into area shelters.

The first step will be to appropriate more funding to the city departments involved in cleanups. Next month the Long Beach City Council will be asked to approve nearly $800,000 to help bolster encampment cleanups across the city.

A recent memo from City Manager Tom Modica to the mayor and City Council asks the council to release funding previously earmarked for small businesses impacted by civil unrest last summer and redistribute it to several city departments that coordinate encampment cleanups. The council is expected to vote on the reallocation in March.

The city created a $1 million grant program for businesses damaged during the protests that followed the death of George Floyd last May, but only $213,206 of that money was approved, according a city memo. Deputy City Manager Teresa Chandler said that the city approved 34 requests for aid with these funds, but it also received over 150 incomplete applications and requests from ineligible businesses.

Chandler explained that homelessness and cleanups have been prioritized by city officials and thus targeted with the remainder of the grant money after millions in both city and federal funding were dedicated to small business recovery last year.

“Homelessness efforts is and remains a high priority of the City and is something the City is committed to,” Chandler said in an email. “There are limited resources and projected future shortfalls, however. How resources are allocated will need to be reviewed and evaluated as part of the proposed budget process, and ultimately City Council can choose how to allocate city resources.”

A majority of the funds would go to the city’s public works and fire departments, but the city’s police, health and parks and recreation departments could all receive additional funding as they’re part of an interdepartmental team that responds to issues around homelessness.

The funding could provide additional refuse operators, outreach workers and a weekend HEART Unit, a team in the fire department that responds to calls involving homeless individuals.

Cleaning encampments requires the city to post notices that certain sites are going to be cleared and also requires the city to hold any belongings collected in a city storage facility. While the city is working on a program that would allow for a longer storage window for those who accept shelter, currently the city’s policy is to dispose of the items after 90 days.

The goal is to connect people to the city’s homeless services system, Chandler said, but she acknowledged that it’s each individual’s choice to accept shelter.

“We still want to still make sure that more public health hazards don’t grow because of the encampment,” Chandler said. “We also want to prevent it from becoming a bigger public health hazard if we’re not cleaning it up regularly.”

The memo comes as the number of homeless individuals across the city has increased over the past few years and encampments become more prevalent. Between 2019-2020 the number of people living unsheltered in the city rose by 24%. The city did not conduct a count of unsheltered persons this year due to the pandemic.

However, the visibility of encampments and concern over their spread has continued; this week firefighters responded to at least three fires in encampments across the city. From 2019-2020, 124 homeless individuals died in the streets of Long Beach.

Guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year—and a lack of city resources—led to a slowdown of cleanups. Jurisdictional issues between county, state and city-controlled property has also made progress slow in some areas, but Chandler said the city is working with their partners in the region to address issues associated with encampments.

However, Chandler said that encampments along the Los Angeles River will remain challenging to address because of all the different agencies that need to be involved, but the city officials are working to coordinate those efforts.

Some residents have already taken things into their own hands.

Duke Givens, a local photographer and founder of Care Closet LBC, a non-profit that has distributed 500 sleeping bags to those living on the streets this year, started cleaning up encampments last month.

Givens said he sees himself as a complimentary part to the city’s effort to clean up the city. He estimated his team of about 20 volunteers have cleared 2,000 bags of trash from 16 encampments since January.

“We’re talking about the worst sanitation and living environments that you could possibly imagine,” Givens said Tuesday while taking a break from cleaning a site near Willow Street and Lakewood Boulevard. “You might as well be in a third world country.”

He noted that it can be dangerous work but he’s used his connections, like a woman named “CoCo” who he said is his homeless ambassador, to earn trust with those living in the encampments. He also comes with donations of tents and sleeping bags and payment for their help to clean up the sites.

“I’ve been using every cent I get and give it to them as an hourly wage,” Givens said.

While Givens’ work will lighten the load for city workers in the months to come, cleaning up all the encampments and getting people into permanent or transitional housing will still be a huge task.

The city has increased its capacity to house people through a number of partnerships and city-run sites. In October, the city opened the Atlantic Farms Bridge Community Center, which has capacity for 100 beds.

An agreement approved by the City Council in November will allow the North Neighborhood Library to operate as a winter shelter through the spring. The city has also seen motels in the city converted into homeless housing through its own purchases of property and partnerships with the county.

Having additional room during the pandemic has been critical as the city has fought to keep the spread of the virus to a minimum. The memo noted that city workers have encountered multiple people sleeping on the streets who refused to go into congregate living situations due to fear of contracting COVID-19.

Of the 592 additional beds brought online during the pandemic, only about 316 remain because some were temporary pop-up shelters or other short-term shelters that have since closed.

About 175 of the remaining rooms will be non-congregate settings once all the motel conversions are brought online in the coming months, according to the memo. But Chandler said more beds are expected to come online with help from the county.

“It’s a national crisis,” Chandler said. “But I feel very confident in our system of care.”

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.