Down and Out in Beverly Hills During the Pandemic
When the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority released the numbers of its annual count in June, it came as yet another shock in a year of shocks. From January of 2019 to January 2020, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, the population of unhoused individuals in Los Angeles County had surged by nearly 13 percent to 66,433. Researchers appended the number with a sense of dread, noting that the figure had been calculated before the global pandemic and resulting economic recession.
But buried in the Excel rows and columns, the City of Beverly Hills stood out as a hopeful anomaly. According to the count, Beverly Hills had only 19 unhoused residents, down from a peak of 31 in 2017. In contrast, West Hollywood counted 131 individuals in 2020. To the West, Westwood counted 142 and Culver City registered 236.
Even as a measure of population, the low number seemed like an aberration. But according to experts, the number reflects the insulating civic architecture of Beverly Hills and high investment in social services that take unhoused people out of the City.
“I don’t think there’s a great mystery, once one looks at this, as to why Beverly Hills is not inundated with homeless individuals,” says Dr. Rod Shaner, the former Medical Director of Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
Shaner, a psychiatrist who has spent decades involved in the public policy of homelessness, severe mental illness, and addiction, explains that places with high concentrations of homelessness, like Skid Row, emerge out of a mix of self-reinforcing attractors and deterrents. “There is a high concentration of onsite human services: food distribution, health, other sorts of things that someone who is homeless would highly value,” he said. “Because of that, they become discharge sites for people-post incarceration and post-hospitalization. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, because if you have a concentration of social services in the area…and then you just discharge a lot of people into a particular community, then it means more shelters and more services.”
Geography also plays a role in why Beverly Hills has less of a homeless problem, said Shaner.
“The transportation network plays a role in that as well. There is no Beverly Hills off ramp for any freeway in this universe. And in the original plan, there was going to be one,” he noted.
Despite the low official numbers, the perception of many residents during the current pandemic is that the homeless problem in Beverly Hills is getting worse.
“I have been flooded with calls and messages telling me there are abundantly more transients during COVID-19 than ever before,” Human Relations Commission Chair Ori Blumenfeld told the Courier. “I remind our residents and business owners that being transient is not a crime and to feel free to contact Human Services or the Ambassadors if they are otherwise unsure. We have also gone to great lengths to assist so many homeless, including veterans recently.”
Officials point out that the City devotes a high amount of spending to aiding the 19 unhoused residents and others, more transient homeless individuals who pass through — over $1 million in the last fiscal year. While the precise number of transients passing though Beverly Hills in response to the global pandemic remains elusive, the City’s Human Services Administrator James Latta estimated that between 2,000 and 2,500 transients pass through the City monthy.
Beverly Hills addresses its homeless population through a multipronged approach, with different outreach efforts designed to connect with struggling individuals at varying points in the process, whether they are actively seeking assistance, sleeping in the park, or facing possible trespassing charges.
Human Services Clinical Program Coordinator Rachel Evans told the Courier that there is a high level of coordination among different City departments.
“We strive to really work together, whether it’s with police, fire, our outreach team, and the outside organizations that we contract with to really offer these services,” she said. The City’s Human Services Division only has three social workers, but it contracts with outside organizations to provide additional services. And though Beverly Hills has no shelters of its own, its contract with People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) affords the City five beds in Hollywood to offer its homeless residents.
This setup has drawn criticism, with the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board in 2016 calling out Beverly Hills among other cities, for taking a narrow, overly-local view to fighting homelessness.
“Homelessness is not a Skid Row problem or a Venice problem or a Santa Monica problem, but a problem in every part of the county, including residential neighborhoods, outside schools, near freeways and beneath underpasses,” the Board wrote in 2016. “Without all levels of government working together to provide housing and services to the county’s 47,000 homeless people, the county doesn’t stand a chance of solving this difficult problem.”
But according to Latta, the lack of shelters is a byproduct of the Beverly Hills real estate market. “If you could tell me where we could get a shelter bed for $50 a night in Beverly Hills, I’d be happy to give that a shot,” he said. “It’s just cost prohibitive.”
In addition to helping transients find shelter through the County’s Winter Shelter Program, now extended through September in response to the pandemic, and the temporary Los Angeles City shelters at various recreation centers (including Pan Pacific, Westwood and Cheviot Hills), the City works with and provides grants to several other programs.
On average, the City conducts 10 needs assessments with transient individuals each day, Monday through Friday. Both City Rangers and Ambassadors, which patrol City parks and the Beverly Hills Business Triangle nonstop, are able to offer the assessment to individuals who appear they would qualify and who express an interest in getting help.
As part of the interaction, individuals are informed what services are available when they’re ready for assistance, such as food, shelter, a shower, mental health services, physical health services and benefits.
Latta observed, “There was a time when we knew every single person well who was in the City. Now, we placed most of those people. There’s only two or three who remained chronically homeless in our City that we know well. Others are just passing through. We’ve helped those who wanted help. Most folks, they either come to Beverly Hills from back East because they want to be a rock star, actor, or the weather’s better or they’re coming here because they want to be safe. Would you rather be in Skid Row or in Beverly Hills if you’re homeless, living on the street? We offer a good balance of help versus rules. And a lot of areas, there just are no rules. I have teenagers, I know what happens when there’s no rules.”
The rules are enforced, added Latta.
“We give folks every opportunity to get help and have choices. Now, if someone is refusing and we find them there the next night and we warn them again. We give them several chances and then we involve the police. We work with the police and they get what’s called authorization to arrest for trespass. And then the police will identify the person and then give them a last warning. So probably there’s been five, 10, sometimes even 20 warnings by the time the police are involved because we’re trying to help people. And then the next time they’re seen in there, they get a citation for an arrest citation. And then with that, they go to court and we work with our City prosecutor. And we make sure that when we’re in court that we offer treatment as an option,” said Latta.
He added, “From my perspective, I think it’s a shame that people are allowed to be mentally ill and literally die in the streets. There’s not treatment available. I can’t speak to all of the homeless population. I can only speak to our Beverly Hills population, who tends to be chronically mentally ill and homeless. Treatment really isn’t an option. And if you’re so mentally ill that you can’t tolerate or be organized enough to house yourself, that’s just a disservice to the person and, I think, to everyone.”