BEFORE THE BUDGET CUTS, the HOPE team was one answer. The team also consisted of sanitation workers and LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) outreach workers. The multidisciplinary program had two goals: connect homeless people with housing and services, and maintain the public health. HOPE was a long-due recognition that arresting or fining individuals for sleeping on the streets doesn’t work.
By 2016, Garcetti had called for an “all-hands-on-deck” and “innovative and powerful” approach to solving LA’s homeless crisis, saying a collaborative effort between police officers, outreach workers, and sanitation workers would lead to better community cleanups and access to help for the vulnerable. Standing by him was Councilwoman Nury Martinez, whose district in the San Fernando Valley housed the first HOPE team. Martinez described it as “a great start” and “a balanced approach to homeless encampments.”
Then public sentiment toward the police soured. After George Floyd’s death in May 2020, many anti-racism activists focused conversation about racial justice on policing: They claimed police officers enact too much violence with too little accountability. Some discussed specific policing reforms, but a loud group of activists insisted that police departments were broken beyond repair. Activists in LA demanded cutting 90 percent of the city’s police budget.
“Honestly, after the police leave, I’m not sure how much we can perform our job.”
The “defund the police” group raised many of the same concerns that led to the creation of the HOPE team in the first place: Should dealing with homelessness be the responsibility of a police officer, who’s armed with deadly weapons and more than likely unequipped to handle complex psychological and social issues? Why invest so much money in policing instead of in agencies better suited to handle social issues? The group also pointed to troubling statistics: In the first six months of 2020, one-third of LAPD officers’ use of force involved a homeless person.
In many major progressive cities, the “defund the police” voices drowned out the “police reform” voices. Public pressure successfully pushed many mayors and city council members to slash police department budgets—some said a refusal to do so was synonymous with not caring about racial justice. Garcetti was one of the mayors who reluctantly caved: In June 2020, he proposed to redirect $150 million from the LAPD budget to social programs in disadvantaged communities. Backing him once again was Martinez, who led the City Council in voting to slash $150 million from the LAPD budget. In a statement, she said the council will be “looking at public safety through a very different and more accurate lens.”
That same month, an LAHSA supervisor sent an impassioned email to all her co-workers, urging LAHSA to “immediately dissolve” its partnership with any law enforcement agencies, including HOPE, and expand its operation without the police. The supervisor, who’s white, argued she can’t make meaningful connections with black homeless individuals with police by her side. She then drafted a petition demanding LAHSA cut all ties with the police. More than 9,000 people signed.
A $150 million reduction from the LAPD’s gargantuan $1.8 billion operating budget was a symbolic gesture aimed at briefly satisfying public demands. But six months later, the council’s plan to direct about $88.8 million of those funds to projects such as street resurfacing, street sweeping, and exercise equipment for parks drew the ire of activists, who called it “glorified pork barrel spending.”