The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to ramp up efforts to move homeless people out of encampments in high-risk fire areas.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger recommended enhancing relocation efforts during fire season, noting that homeless individuals often seek shelter on secluded hillsides at risk of fire or along waterways in areas likely to flood.
“During extreme summer and winter months, these same locations become increasingly dangerous for persons experiencing homelessness and the surrounding communities,” Barger said in her motion, co-authored by Supervisor Hilda Solis.
The motion mentioned the December 2017 Skirball Fire along the San Diego (405) Freeway in Bel Air that burned 422 acres, damaged 12 structures and destroyed six homes. That blaze, which prompted the evacuation of roughly 700 homes and an apartment building, was determined to have been caused by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment.
Some homeless advocates have said officials were too quick to pin the wind-borne blaze on an illegal campfire started by a homeless person and argue that housing developments in high-risk fire areas are the bigger issue. However, spurred by the preliminary finding as to the fire’s cause, firefighters began to map out encampments.
Under the county’s plan, a database showing encampments in high-risk fire areas will be shared with teams from various agencies — including the sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team — which will work to offer assistance with relocation and connection to services and housing. Teams will also focus on cleanup efforts and removing potentially hazardous materials.
Mounds of debris in more urban homeless encampments have raised health concerns about rats and disease, and cases of typhus have been confirmed in the Skid Row area. As city and county workers scramble to keep pace with the trash, the ability to clear encampments is tied up in various court challenges.
Homeless advocacy groups have challenged the constitutionality of seizing property during sweeps by law enforcement and sanitation workers. In a March settlement reached by Los Angeles city officials relating only to Skid Row and surrounding streets, employees can toss out large pieces of furniture and hazardous materials, but are barred from hauling away other personal property. Area residents, including some living in the Union Rescue Mission, have sought to block that settlement and give the city more latitude in enforcement.
Barger’s motion cites both the need to protect people experiencing homelessness and the lives of those in surrounding communities, leaving open how aggressive the county’s cleanup efforts in less visible areas will be.
As Supervisor Hilda Solis honored members of the Sheriff’s Department Homeless Outreach Services Team prior to the board vote, Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick stressed the positive relationships his deputies have been able to build with those living on the street.
“We constantly have that balance of public safety and the respect and dignity of those who are experiencing homelessness in the community,” Deedrick said.
The board voted to approve the motion on consent, rather than holding it for a presentation by staffers or comments by the board.