Letter: An Existential Threat

It is clear that all of our city council and staff is seeking the best solution to the homeless camps and the increasing threat these encampments pose. Had the recent Tuna Fire occurred during a high wind event, the results would have been a fire that in minutes reached the ocean, consuming homes but also consuming those camping further down the canyon.

While the data shows that most of those “unhoused” are vagrants who prefer a lifestyle of no responsibility and plenty of drugs, there is also the small percentage composed of the mentally ill and others who have lost housing, but will accept help. I suspect that most of the homeless in Malibu originate from other states and that none are home grown. Regardless, we must not dilute our resources to help those who don’t want it.

I recently thought that failure to find a solution to enforcing our No Camping ordinance would mean gambling that the many homeless camps around Malibu wouldn’t result in a catastrophic fire. The fire last week in Tuna Canyon and the one in the Highlands a month ago have changed that thinking. The camps have become an existential threat to Malibu and everyone who lives here. They have become a public safety issue that we have never faced before. If another three or four hundred homes burn, Malibu will be forced to lay off city staff and it will likely be the last straw for the few insurance companies that still write policies here. Worse will be knowing we failed to act, should our neighbors’ homes be destroyed and that we failed to protect the homeless men and women who may die.

The homeless camps have become a public safety issue. The drought has already accelerated the high fire danger in the Santa Monica Mountains, Both residents and the homeless themselves are at increasing risk. Sheriff Villanueva has said that individuals have no right to take over public space. He made a definitive statement to the LA City Council that his authority extends to all of LA County, regardless of other jurisdictions. The sheriff ‘s primary duty is enforcing public safety. Consequently, Sheriff Villanueva must remove all camps in the Santa Monica Mountains as a public safety measure, whether in the city or county.  

We must stop enabling those who are illegally camping and we must be resolute in protecting these folks from the very real danger posed by dry brush and strong winds. Those in charge in Paradise knew their escape routes were inadequate. They failed to act and consequently 88 people died. A fire like in Tuna that starts in the homeless camps during a Santa Ana wind event will provide almost no warning to those downwind. It requires us to see the camps as public safety issue with existential consequences. 

While the long term solution may be a facility in Eastern LA County that both houses and treats those with substance abuse and mental illness, we do not have the luxury of time.

Our deadline is mid-October when the Santa Anas start blowing.

So what can Malibu can do to help, recognizing that we are a tiny city of 11,000 people already challenged with the many visitors who enjoy our beaches and the Santa Monica Mountains.

While we could install some sort of ADU, apparently near City Hall, that will require 24/7 policing but will provide no support for the mentally ill and substance abusers. And it would be very small – maybe ten beds. Would it only bring more homeless to Malibu? Other cities, like Torrance, have said that over 90 per cent of the homeless refuse any help, and most of the remainder leave the housing provided within two days. The Sheriff has said that for every homeless individual the government houses, 1.5 additional people arrive. We see this in LA, where all free stuff – tents, sleeping bags, medical care, food, and disability payments – has resulted in a huge influx of homeless from the rest of the country. Reports state that California now has 70 per cent of the nation’s homeless. What we are doing is not working. This is not a problem of lack of affordable housing.

If required by the sheriff, we should consider vouchers that deputies and homeless outreach workers can offer the homeless in the Santa Monica Mountains. The details of such vouchers should be investigated immediately by our city manager, Steve McClary, working in conjunction with the Sheriff, so that the homeless task force knows what is available.

But safety for the public, which includes those camping in the hills, must be foremost to all of us. In the few months before fire season we must quickly arrive at a solution that will allow our deputies to remove those camping on both public and private land. The proposed task force, city council and staff, concerned citizens, and LASD must work together to find and implement that solution.

Scott Dittrich

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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