Los Angeles, what with its population of over 40,000 people who are homeless and with the nation’s largest concentration of chronic homelessness, is an interesting (and distressing) city to live in. Or to visit. Unless you limit yourself to staying within the sanitized realms of either Disneyland or La-la Hollywood-land.
I was in downtown L.A. for four days recently to attend a national writers conference, but also to see if I could get some sort of context to the problem of homelessness in this giant car-centric sprawl of city–a city like no other. Not being from Los Angeles, it is difficult to decipher what is real and what is just another stage set. Where else would Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of Mad Men saunter through a writers conference and serve as guest editor for a literary magazine’s special edition on advertising writing? (Yes, this really happened, and yes, he is even more handsome in person.) And where else would car crash scenes complete with dazed people staggering around with bloody heads happen right outside one’s hotel? (Yes, this really happened as I was trying to walk from my hotel to an art museum–I almost stepped in to help out with the human carnage before I realized it was actually a stage set.)
On my first day in L.A. I noticed these curious ‘private property’ bronze plaques all over the sidewalks. They basically say, “Move along all you tempest-tossed tired and homeless. Move along. You don’t belong here.”
And these homeless- deterring benches at bus stops. Although–look closely–this one comes with its own food pantry. A man pushing a shopping cart nearby who stopped to inspect these cans told me that people drop off food for the homeless and that cans of vegetables don’t get picked up very quickly. He happens to like vegetables and took all the cans. I had arranged to do a site visit at the Homeless Health Care Los Angeles‘ Center for Harm Reduction in the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. The director, Mark Casanova, graciously gave me a tour of the facility and talked with me about their work. I’ve visited the Insite safe injection center in Vancouver, BC, so I thought I knew what to expect. Insite is North America’s first and only legally-sanctioned safe injection site and syringe (‘needle’) exchange, although several cities in the U.S.–including my hometown of Seattle–are considering opening one to help address the current heroin epidemic. (See Seattle Times article, “Heroin, cocaine users in Seattle may get country’s first safe-use site,’ by Daniel Beekman, April 4, 2016 for more information.)
Visiting the L.A. Center for Harm Reduction with Casanova while it was in operation was an eye-opening experience for me even though I have long been ‘sold’ on the concept and practice of harm reduction: treat people in a non-judgemental and respectful manner and work beside them to find ways to minimize harm to themselves and to other people. From a public health perspective we know that this approach works to save lives and protect everyone’s health.
The eye-opening part was mainly the sheer scale of the need for services such as those provided by the Center for Harm Reduction. They have a syringe exchange that must be one of the largest in North America in terms of quantity of ‘needles’ exchanged. They serve an average of 145 people per day. They also have an on-site wound care clinic and soon will add an on-site drug treatment program. And they have a very successful overdose prevention program where they train clients in the proper use of Naloxone (also known as ‘Narcan’), a non-addicting prescription drug that temporarily blocks and reverses the effects of opioids (prescription opioid pain medications, as well as heroin). Naloxone is available in either an injectable form or a nasal spray. So far, the Center for Harm Reduction, through their own on-site staff and through their street-based program, have prevented over 400 overdose deaths. Here is a photo of the current map showing their overdose reversals. Remember, one of these lives saved could have been your daughter, son, friend, etc.
Notice the sign in the photo below, asking clients to report police harassment, especially in terms of confiscation of either their syringes or Naloxone/Narcan. Los Angeles has a problem with criminalizing homelessness. Not just with bizarre ‘Private Property’ bronze sidewalk signs and with arrests for and confiscation of drug paraphernalia, but also with a limitation on the ‘size’ of homeless rough sleepers’ personal belongings. The day before I toured the Center for Harm Reduction, L.A. City Council had just passed a resolution limiting the rough sleepers to whatever personal items (including tents, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, and food) to what can fit into a 60 gallon container. They say the rest will be confiscated and destroyed.
On a much happier, up with people note, I was impressed by the fact that the Center for Harm Reduction has a companion Healing, Arts and Wellness program next door where they provide space for arts and writing programs, karaoke, a lending library, yoga, acupuncture and cranio-sacral treatment, Zumba fitness classes, and life-skills training. Here are some of my photographs of this very health-promoting space and artwork by participants. Thank you Mark Casanova and all the wonderful staff of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles for all the important work you do.