Medical services for the homeless in LA being kicked to the curb

05 Dec

by Will Wright

Every Wednesday, rain or shine for the past 13 years, the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project sets up on the corner of Sycamore and Romaine, smack in the middle of North Hollywood, to deliver health services to the poor.

At a time when headlines have focused on the Affordable Health Care Act’s problematic website, the Mobile Clinic Project has been a successful and reliable service provider for hundreds who would otherwise have no health care at all. But the care being given to these homeless people is in jeopardy as complaints from local businesses and residents mount.

Curbside service, literally

For the past five months, the program has been under pressure to leave the neighborhood, with regulatory roadblocks that on the surface appear to be callous and running contrary to the welfare of all citizens, rich or poor. The Bureau of Street Services has told the volunteer students running the project that they can no longer set up tables and chairs for their clinic treatments.

Since then, patients have been getting their medical treatments while sitting on the curb. Tana Noorani, an undergraduate coordinator for the program told theGrio in an email, “For some of them this is the only time during their week where someone takes the time to ask how they are feeling and yet they can not even be granted a chair to sit in. With this change we have been sitting side by side with our clients on the sidewalk continuing to fulfill their medical and social needs as best we can. In addition, clients with disabilities have a lot of trouble sitting on the ground.”

And Noorani said patient comfort is not the only problem this mandate has created. “The other night when it rained at the clinic, nearly all of the patient medical files became wet from the rain. In previous years we could have placed the files under the tents that we had, but now there is no place to take shelter in times like these.”

The issue is the visibility and positioning of the poor and homeless, in light of the wealth of the surrounding community. Merchants and residents feel these huddled masses bring with them an unsettling blight of problems that just simple social services such as medical help and food giveaways just do not solve. Alexander Polinsky, an actor who lives in the neighborhood, told the New York Times, “They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next door neighbor’s crawl spaces. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”

As complaints came rolling in, the city was prompted to enforce ordinances that superseded this compassionate care of the homeless. The Bureau of Street Services told the mobile clinic volunteers that their tables, chairs and occasional shelter tents block the sidewalks, limiting the public’s right of way. “We operate a highly organized clinic with 15 caseworkers, undergraduate UCLA students,” says Noorani. “The juxtaposition of our street-side clinic and the wealth found on Sunset Blvd have always been in the back of our minds; however, it has always served as motivation to speak with a louder voice for our clients who lack the advocacy they need.”

A case of urban NIMBY?

The UCLA Mobile Medical clinic works alongside the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition’s meal outreach. Every day for the past 23 years, the food coalition has been handing out free meals in public spaces in Los Angeles. As reported by theGrio last week, that organization is also being pressured to relocate their services. Free food and health services to the poor and needy are compassionate acts that anyone with a heart would look at and applaud.

But what if it happens on your block or in your neighborhood or in front of your place of business?  That’s the dilemma these charitable organizations face as they move to close the gap in care and services that the city and federal governments fail to close. “Not in my back yard” has been an age-old cry of communities organized to oppose services that they feel degrade their property values or slow the neighborhood’s revival. Whether allowing affordable housing projects or regular street-side food and health services, neighborhoods have to wrestle with shame and guilt when moving to protect what they feel are legitimate fiduciary responsibilities.

It’s a moral dilemma that leads to the poor being further pushed to the bottom and out.

The search for solutions

The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition and the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project have created teams to search for locations that would allow them to operate with more freedom and fewer regulatory restrictions. Volunteers from both groups have written some 50 letters to the LA City Council asking for cooperation and understanding in their efforts to support the less fortunate in the communities they serve.

For the past three years, Nicholas Warstadt has been a volunteer caseworker for both the GWHFC and the MCP and is presently serving as the chief financial officer of the MCP.  In a letter to the LA City Council, he wrote, “Collectively I think everyone has the same goals, wants and needs; but we are separated by the paths we take to achieve these goals and the compromises we’re willing to make along the way. Many view homelessness as a reminder of failure, a threat of some sorts to their sense of security, and their own fears cause them to hate the very sight of it.”

But as you examine each layer of this story, one sees how complicated it truly is. TheGrio reached out to the Bureau of Street Services for a response. This is the statement in total:

“Los Angeles Municipal Code Sections 56.08 and 56.11 prohibit the placement of objects on sidewalks without a permit.  The Bureau of Street Services enforces laws or rules related to the use or misuse of the public right-of-way.

The enforcement of prohibitions against illegal encroachments is not related to specific activities such as homeless medical services.  The advisement given the Mobile clinic is the same as given anyone illegally encroaching on public property regardless of the reason.

The purpose of these laws is to ensure clear and passable sidewalks for pedestrians as well as compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.   The removal of encroachments is not intended to restrict the medical clinic activity. The goal is to maintain a safe environment for clinic operators and pedestrians.”

So it would appear as though the use of regulations and city departments are tantamount to a bureaucratic proxy to shield communities from appearing to be “the bad guys.”

It will take teamwork on both sides to come to an equitable agreement that services the poor and allows the surrounding communities the space and comfort to grow and prosper.

Resolution is still a long way off; meanwhile the Mobile Clinic Project and the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition continue their work in the face of strong resistance and growing frustration in communities torn between compassionate understanding and their vision of community development.


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