The Pasadena City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday will hear how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted homelessness in the city, and how various city departments have worked to help families and individuals experiencing homelessness cope with the complex challenges they face as the pandemic continues.
City officials were unable to conduct an unsheltered homeless count this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the Department of Housing was able to continue working with local stakeholders and partner agencies to gather data and observations pertaining to people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
The city’s Homeless Outreach-Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) and Pasadena Outreach Response Team (PORT) street outreach teams reported there has been an increase in unsheltered homelessness since the onset of the pandemic, most notably near freeway embankments. Staff who oversee the removal of abandoned personal property have observed larger sizes of encampments spanning across the city boundaries. The Los Angeles Homeless Outreach Portal (LA-HOP), an online platform for submitting requests for street outreach services, also received a significant increase in requests from concerned community members in 2020.
According to a memorandum from Housing Director Bill Huang, the HOPE team responded to a slightly greater number of calls for service related to homelessness in 2020 compared to 2019, an increase of about 3%. Pasadena’s Citizen Service Center also saw an uptick of 30% in the number of requests specific to homelessness in 2020 compared to 2019, including the removal of unattended personal belongings and human waste. The memorandum said these increases in requests and calls for service could be attributed to the interruption of service provision among homeless service agencies and a decrease in the presence of existing street outreach teams, as direct services were largely suspended during the initial six months of the pandemic.
“During that time, there was still much to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features of the COVID-19 virus and appropriate PPE for outreach workers and service providers was difficult to obtain,” Huang’s memorandum states. “The widespread closure of public restrooms as well as common hygiene and sanitation facilities throughout the pandemic markedly impeded the ability of people experiencing homelessness to take care of their basic hygiene needs.”
Huang’s memo added homelessness has been made more visible in the Pasadena community as a consequence of the pandemic, and of the resulting closure of public indoor spaces where people experiencing homelessness had tended to congregate during the day. COVID-19 forced this segment of the population into more visible outdoor spaces.
“Similarly, site-based shelters had to significantly reduce their capacity in order to accommodate physical distancing and other safety protocols to protect the health and well being of both clients and staff,” Huang wrote.
Huang’s memo also reported that the number of available congregate shelter beds in the city dropped by nearly 75% in 2020 despite projected increases in homelessness related to the pandemic. As businesses shut down, street outreach teams also observed an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness occupying those spaces.
The memo, however, noted that a more noticeable homeless population “does not necessarily indicate that there are more people experiencing homelessness,” only that they are more visible than they may have previously been.
Regarding the law enforcement aspect of homelessness, the Pasadena Police Department reported that data do not indicate that there has been an increase in crime related to the increased visibility of the unsheltered population. A more encouraging detail is that arrests involving people experiencing homelessness dropped by 57% or more than half in 2020 compared to 2019.
There were 917 transient-related arrests recorded from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, far fewer than the 2,139 individual bookings made throughout 2019, the memorandum stated.
At the Public Safety Committee meeting, which begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Huang will also report on how the city worked to protect and preserve the health of Pasadena’s homeless population by rolling out a variety of services to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19.