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LA to send outreach workers to nonviolent 911 calls involving homeless

The mayor hopes the move will free up police resources, given the LAPD receives about 140,000 calls related to homelessness annually.

(CN) — Starting in December, Los Angeles will begin a bold experiment and send unarmed outreach workers and trained crisis responders instead of police officers to respond to nonviolent homelessness-related 911 calls.

The pilot program will cover only two neighborhoods, Hollywood and Venice Beach, both of which have large unhoused populations sleeping in tents and vehicles. These so-called CIRCLE (Crisis and Incidence Response through Community-Led Engagement) teams will comprise 48 outreach workers, many of whom used to be homeless. Set to run through June 2022 the program will cost the city $2.2 million and the county $30 million.

"We are never going to arrest our way out of this crisis," said Mayor Eric Garcetti at a press conference Tuesday morning. He noted the LAPD receives roughly 140,000 calls relating to homelessness every year. The pilot program, he said, would free up police officers to respond to crime-related calls and investigations.

"This is a big pivot for Los Angeles," said City Council member Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and most of West LA. "Cops should not be on the front lines dealing with homelessness."

The mayor hasn't held a press conference on homelessness since February 2020, and Tuesday's event occurred just hours before the LA City Council debated a motion by Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the southernmost district in LA, to place a referendum on the June 2022 primary ballot that would, among other things, prohibit homeless encampments in public spaces. The Council effectively tabled the proposal, sending the motion to a committee.

In LA, a referendum can be placed on the ballot by either the City Council or by petitioners gathering nearly 65,000 signatures. Buscaino, who is running for mayor in that same 2022 election, said in a statement that he will begin gathering signatures in January, with the goal of placing the measure on the November general election ballot.

"My City Council colleagues showed today that they are more interested in the right to sleep on the sidewalk than the right to housing," said Buscaino in the statement. "I will not be dissuaded by this Council’s inability to act and will get this measure onto the ballot with a signature gathering campaign."

Buscaino's proposal would also give the mayor emergency powers to speed up the construction of homeless shelters and other forms of temporary housing by waiving local zoning ordinances. It would ban a person from camping in public only if they are first offered a shelter bed and they refuse. Buscaino has said people who refuse shelter would face "citation or arrest." The exact language of the proposed ordinance has not yet been written and many of the finer details are yet to be ironed out.

Garcetti said he opposed the initiative. "I’m skeptical of reclaiming public space without resources," he said. "We don’t want cynical solutions saying, 'You can’t be here.'"

Carol Sobel, a West LA attorney who has sued the city numerous times over homelessness enforcement, called Buscaino's plan "a desperate ploy from a failing a mayoral campaign," adding, "It’s the wrong approach. It’s a total waste of money."

Heading a referendum will effectively allow Buscaino to run two campaigns at the same time. His ballot measure committee is allowed to raise money with no contribution limits. And its campaign advertisements can cite Buscaino as its main proponent, showing his picture as well. The ballot measure committee has already been sending out mailers, listing as the campaign's main contributors two locals from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, influential unions which represent employees of the Department of Water and Power.

LA City Attorney Mike Feuer is also running for mayor. He has said he plans to offer up his own ballot measure during the November 2022 election to double the size of City Council, from 15 to 30 members.

During the pandemic, Los Angeles took a largely hands-off approach to homeless encampment cleanups. As a result, they grew in both size and number. In July, the City Council voted to restrict camping in certain public spaces, including schools, parks and libraries. The ordinance marked something of a compromise between what Buscaino wanted and what other, more progressive council members wanted. Councilman Mark-Ridley Thomas co-wrote the ordinance and three months later was indicted for bribery and mail fraud.

Buscaino's colleagues on the City Council met his proposed ballot measure with resistance. A number of them said the plan was better suited to the council's normal legislative process, rather than a hastily written referendum. Councilman Gil Cedillo called the idea "not yet cooked," and Councilman Paul Krekorian proposed that the motion be referred to the homelessness and poverty committee. That motion passed 11-2, ending debate.

"This body has failed to treat this homelessness crisis as the emergency it is," a visibly angry Buscaino said. "People are dying in the streets."

Krekorian said he was offended by that assertion.

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