Column: Could extreme heat be just what California needs to finally solve homelessness? (Los Angeles)
The California heat wave that killed two young brothers has brought to mind another tragedy: the devastating fires of 2003 that devastated the city of L.A. and the surrounding area. But the heat wave itself, while devastating, was less of a crisis. People in many parts of the state were dealing with a very different crisis.
With temperatures in the 90s, the wildfires of 2003 swept through the state with terrifying speed, killing seven people, destroying thousands of homes and forcing a huge cleanup. The heat wave was far less of a concern because fire season lasts throughout the year, and it didn’t come every summer. But in the spring and early summer of 2017, it was nearly impossible to get out of town or run a successful business in L.A. because the heat was so intense, buildings were baking and trees were browning like pancakes.
As a result of the fires, the mayor of L.A. was forced to announce that “homelessness is the top priority of what we need to address now.” While fires and the homeless are different problems, the two are related. While firefighters struggled to get to the bottom of the fires, the police were dispatched to the homeless encampments. In the end, both problems were linked because the homeless people could never leave their encampments.
The homeless population in L.A. was estimated at 1.5 million people at the end of 2017, up from about 1.2 million people in 2016. At the height of the homelessness crisis in 2011, there were only about 130,000 people living on the streets.
Yet, the situation has not improved. Nearly 7,000 people slept on the streets in L.A. last year, and there are an additional 2,000 people who are chronically homeless, living in shelters and on the streets. The majority of the homeless live in Santa Monica and West L.A. — areas that were devastated by the wildfires.
Despite the fact that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted last year to provide $50 million for housing and assistance to the homeless population, a staggering 45,000 homeless people remained homeless in 2017 in Los Angeles County, up from 33,000 in 2016. One in four people who live in the homeless shelters have a mental health or drug or alcohol related illness, according to the L.A. County Health and Human