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LA Council To Vote On Controversial Homeless Ordinances


And with Los Angeles seeing a rise in its homeless population, the city council will decide today whether to make it easier for police to clear homeless encampments from city sidewalks and parks. The controversial new ordinances are being proposed following a new survey that shows over the last two years, homelessness is up by 12 percent here in Los Angeles County. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: That new homelessness survey revealed that on any given night in the city of Los Angeles alone, there are more than 17,500 people sleeping on sidewalks or in parks.

GARY BOATWRIGHT: Hi. My name's Gary.

SIEGLER: Gary Boatwright is one of them. When he got out of jail last December, he didn't want to go back to skid row where thousands of homeless people go for services and temporary shelter. So instead, he landed in this improvised tent city beside an on-ramp to the Hollywood Freeway. He says he feels safer here.

BOATWRIGHT: We take turns watching each other's stuff.

SIEGLER: Every morning at dawn, the cops come and order the people in this camp to take down their tents and vacate the sidewalk. If they don't, they could face tickets or even jail.

BOATWRIGHT: And here, we have - oh, here's the tickets that I've received recently.

SIEGLER: Social workers have tracked an 85-percent rise in new makeshift homeless encampments around the city. There are a range of possible explanations. The one you hear the most is that rising rents are forcing people onto the streets. There's a whole lot of pressure to do something, and for now, the city council wants to give police more authority to remove and destroy bulky items like tents and shopping carts from sidewalks and parks. This makes Boatwright mad.

BOATWRIGHT: Criminalizing homelessness does not work. It's been known for a long time.

SIEGLER: Homeless advocates are mad, too. But business groups and civic leaders say the camps need to be cleaned up and cleared because they're dirty and unsafe for the people stuck in them and for those who live and work around them. At a recent hearing, city council member Mike Bonin said the fact that these tent cities are spreading across the city is only making it harder to get at the root of the problem and put people in stable housing.

MIKE BONIN: To my way of thinking, it seems logical to me that if you're living on a sidewalk, you have less access to services, you have less access to caseworkers, you have less access to help. Therefore, you're far more likely to wind up being homeless longer and therefore become chronically homeless.

SIEGLER: There are signs that the council may push for a softer approach when these ordinances come up for a final vote today. The backlash over them has sparked a much bigger debate. That is whether LA's decade-long strategy of aggressive enforcement is working or whether more funds should be diverted from police to social services. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.