Los Angeles has opened a sanctioned tent encampment to help provide services amid an ongoing homelessness crisis. Some are concerned about the high cost of providing a camping spot in a parking lot.



In Los Angeles, city officials grappling with a homeless crisis have turned to something that for decades was a political non-starter - - a government-funded tent encampment. But the high cost of providing a camping spot in a parking lot is raising eyebrows. KCRW's Anna Scott reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: LA's new Safe Sleep Village, as it's called, sits on a shapeless parking lot in East Hollywood. About 70 dome-shaped tents stand in rows inside 12x12-foot squares painted on the asphalt. Restrooms are lined up along one edge of the lot.

LENA MILLER: They're porta potties. They're immaculate. They smell good. And we make sure that they're that way all day.

SCOTT: Lena Miller is the CEO of Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit hired to oversee this parking-lot-turned-campground. Miller's organization already runs three similar sites in San Francisco. For LA, this is a first, but officials are considering building more. This campsite isn't ending homelessness. It's an attempt at containing it while providing unhoused people with services.

MILLER: The thing that we can do here is just deal with the basic needs - hygiene, food, medical attention, those kind of basic needs.

PRINCE PAGE: That's a sense of a security that you - people need - hard to find, you know, a sense of security.

SCOTT: Prince Page was one of the first campers when the site opened in late April. He says the people who work here provide a sense of peace.

PAGE: They talk to me every day. They ask me how I'm doing. That's the stuff I've been asking for. Like, nobody ever really cares, you know. And I can't say that. But they actually asked me to see how I'm doing, and that just makes my day.

SCOTT: That's something he couldn't find living in a tent on the street.

PAGE: That's really what I've been looking for, to get somewhere and think, get my thoughts together, know my next step is. And I've been able to do that so far.

SCOTT: But some homeless advocates worry about two things. One is money. According to a city report, the new East Hollywood campground costs about $2,600 per tent per month. That covers staff and services, but it's higher than a typical one-bedroom apartment in LA.

SHAYLA MYERS: If you can paint lines on the sidewalk for the same cost that you can give someone the rent for an apartment, I'm concerned that our city is making the choice to paint the lines on the sidewalk rather than actually get people into housing.

SCOTT: Shayla Myers is an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Her second big concern is that offering designated camping areas could eventually mean making it illegal for homeless people to camp anywhere else.

MYERS: It can't be the type of offer that leads to criminalization and displacement and the shutting down of other public spaces.

JOE BUSCAINO: You can camp, sleep, lie anywhere and everywhere that you've so deemed. So these are the continued frustrations that we have.

SCOTT: Joe Buscaino is an LA City Councilmember who says eventually banning camping on streets is part of the point.

BUSCAINO: Right now, in the city of Los Angeles, it's a free for all.

SCOTT: And he says that's not good for anyone, unhoused people or housed people upset by the thousands of tents on sidewalks and in public parks. Lena Miller, whose organization runs the site, understands that it's not a long term solution.

MILLER: Is living in a parking lot ideal? No. Is it better than being exposed to everything out there without access to food, water, hygiene? Yes.

SCOTT: Still, this official campsite isn't meant to last. By the end of the year, it's scheduled to become the construction site for a new affordable housing project.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.