This story was produced in partnership with Next City.
On a sparsely developed corner, on Skid Row in Los Angeles, where tent cities sometimes stretch the length of entire blocks, a line is forming outside a storage facility known as The Bin. At 8 a.m. most mornings, local residents wait outside the building’s entrance to access one of the nearly 1,500 storage bins arranged in rows inside. Patrons of The Bin are in one state or another of homelessness and, for many of them, their assigned bins contain the only remnants of life before the streets — clothing, books, cell phones, family portraits, birth certificates, prescription medicines, social security cards.
One by one, they make their way into a small reception hall inside the facility. After checking in with staff, their assigned bins are wheeled out of a large holding area and into the reception hall, where patrons retrieve or add to their belongings.
For a person who is homeless, secure storage at The Bin means not having to haul your things around the streets; it means being able to do what needs to be done — receive services, look for a job, or seek shelter — without worrying that your possessions will be lost or stolen. The City of Los Angeles provides the bins to anyone who needs them for as long as they need access to them, provided that nothing stored is dangerous or illegal.
Fifty-year-old Ethan Hiatt is grateful for the service. “I come once or twice a day,” he says. “If I didn’t have this bin, I’d have to get rid of most of my stuff. These bins are really great to have.”
The recognition that those experiencing homelessness have possessions that are valuable and worth protecting is at the heart of a delicate balancing act for Los Angeles and many other cities facing homelessness. It informs how they deal with the fundamental tensions that emerge when human tragedy collides with pragmatic matters like public health and sanitation.
As Next City has covered, earlier this year the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved the placement of portable toilets and handwashing stations in Venice Beach, primarily to serve the area’s homeless population. Los Angeles, as well as other cities, have established pop-up laundry services to serve people experiencing homelessness. And Orange Sky, a private company that deploys vans to drive around several cities in Australia to provide free laundry service, recently received a $1 million grant from Google to develop an app that connects community groups and nonprofits that provide mobile services.
Homelessness isn’t unique; on any number of policy issues — criminal justice, education reform, growing the economy — the best answer will likely be the one that most carefully calibrates competing priorities. Last year, an outbreak of Hepatitis A in San Diego was found to have originated from homeless encampments, which have cropped up in cities across the country, and where unsanitary conditions can make the spread of disease more likely. Los Angeles is guarding against a similar outbreak, particularly as the number of encampments has grown in recent years. Between April 2016 and the end of 2017, cleanup requests from community members to the bureau nearly tripled.
Over the past several years, the city has piloted several new approaches to street cleanup in partnership with FUSE Corps, a nonprofit that embeds executive-level fellows from different sectors with government agencies for one year. One of these new approaches was CleanStat, a data-driven tool that collects real-time information about the level of cleanliness of every street in the city, allowing sanitation officials to deploy resources to the streets most in need of cleanup faster and more efficiently.
The city is calibrating these efforts with the need to preserve the dignity and property of people forced to live on the streets, underscoring the complexity of homelessness and the extent to which cities like L.A. must balance often-conflicting demands. Facilities like The Bin are the kinds of nuanced solutions that can emerge when these tensions are acknowledged.
“It’s about honoring people’s property,” says James Winfrey, a Senior Operations Manager with Chrysalis Enterprises, the nonprofit that manages The Bin. “We honor that it’s their stuff and only their stuff.” Winfrey says staff go out of their way to protect people’s belongings. The facility holds unclaimed property for 90 days before destroying it — nothing is resold. “We will literally hold that bag until five o’clock on the last day.”
The hardest thing that Winfrey has had to throw away was a Master’s degree. “It was mounted on a piece of wood,” he says.
Reginald Moore supervises the warehouse and tracks unattended property brought from encampments. “Our main thing is making sure we don’t give out someone’s possessions to the wrong person,” he says. “It’s a humbling experience.”
Bin patrons also store official documents like social security cards, driver’s licenses and marriage certificates — things they may need to eventually get back on their feet. One young man kept his mother’s ashes in his bin.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay-area writer and journalist. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, CityLab, Politico Magazine, and more.