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The homeless. I can’t help but notice.
There is simply no way I can avert my eyes. They seem to be everywhere I turn.
By last count, there are over 52,000 throughout the county.
It’s heart-wrenching and painful to see, and I feel so much shame just walking by as if they were not there.
But there they are: sleeping on or under freeway overpasses, huddled at bus stop benches, living in makeshift homes of tarp or cardboard, in semi-Hooverville encampments and shantytowns sprouting along embankments, on downtown sidewalks, under shade trees, and in parking lots, parked cars, alleyways, and freeway off-ramps.
They’ve taken over foreclosed homes and vacant buildings. They took over our parking lot at work (and I grew tired of cleaning human feces off the entryway).
Families, most often headed by single women, sleep in cars, cheap motels, or make it to the safety of emergency shelters which now scurry to address the needs of the growing population of homeless children.
I see them as they saunter through intersections with overflowing shopping carts. They rummage through trash bins at night looking for uneaten food and recyclables they can trade in for cash.
Homeless women often seek their own space to avoid sexual exploitation. Masses of downtrodden, unemployable men gather in the area we know as Skid Row, described by one Los Angeles Times writer as a “teeming Dickensian dystopia.” The words could not be more apt.
California’s image problem:
The City of Los Angeles itself emanates a sheen of tremendous wealth.
Why wouldn’t it? California has the fifth largest economy in the world. The Sunshine State is bursting with innovation and enterprise. Recent data for property in Los Angeles County shows median home prices over $615,000.00 and median rents for a two-bedroom apartment over $1,750.00 per month. In a staggering display of wealth, a 35,000 square foot Bel-Air mansion recently went back on the market for $35 million, shaving $13 million off its original price offering.
Thus it may come as a surprise that beneath that glimmering sheen, there is a disturbing portrait of extreme poverty and income inequality.
California has the highest poverty rate in the country and Los Angeles County the highest in the state, with nearly 10 percent of the country’s homeless population—and the majority of that population is people of color.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school district in the county. Roughly 80 percent of the 600,000 students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. At the Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, located at the northern end of the San Fernando region of Los Angeles, with a majority Hispanic population, about a quarter of the students qualify as homeless. And this is happening while some business pages tout healthy GDP rates and lower unemployment levels.
Why are there so many homeless?
While it is true that many homeless—in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the world—suffer from mental illness, domestic violence, and substance abuse disorders, there are other factors that play an equally large role, especially here in Los Angeles, including job loss, financial strain, and the lack of affordable rental housing.
There just simply isn’t affordable housing for low-income renters and the working poor. For those who have recently suffered an insurmountable job loss, the crisis is even more acute.
I recently met with the senior grant writer at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles, in the heart of Skid Row. She is of the opinion that the most recent factor in the rise of homelessness and in homeless families is the predominance of tenant evictions. Eviction rates in Los Angeles are pretty low (0.38 percent in 2016) compared with other parts of the county as the state has fairly good laws protecting renters (North Charleston, South Carolina had the highest rate at 16.5 percent).
Matthew Desmond of the Eviction Lab, a research group at Princeton University, argues that the country as a whole is in the midst of an eviction crisis, one highly correlated with race. At one time a rare occurrence, there are now moving companies specializing in evictions. Low-income renters and the working poor, with stagnant wages, caught in a series of economic downturns, with median rents having increased by 32 percent over the past two decades, cannot begin to keep up with the pace of economic change.
The homeless in American history:
Before exploring further the current homelessness crisis in Los Angeles County, let’s dispel the belief that homelessness is a modern-day crisis.
It is an evolving piece of a complex American story, more often than not the historical response to wartime trauma, economic shifts and downturns, as well as the widening gap in income inequality.
The homeless have been with us since the arrival of the first Europeans on the eastern seaboard. Whether indentured servants released from bondage, escaped or newly-freed slaves, propertyless laborers, impoverished immigrants, or physically and psychologically wounded soldiers, their numbers surged during periods of wartime, especially during the American Revolutionary War of the 18th century and the Civil War of the 19th.
The tumultuous economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution cannot be underestimated. Work flowed to urban centers in the east, and away from rural communities where families and land ownership formed the basis of more locally-controlled and stable communities. It wasn’t until the expansion of the railroad network that the homeless became a larger presence in rural America.
The massive unemployment of the Great Depression, at an all-time high in 1933 at 25 percent, added two million to the homeless population. While not so draconian, the Great Recession of 2007 exacerbated the crisis further. The recession took place concurrently with the ongoing shift of manufacturing and production to countries overseas with cheaper labor and lax environmental regulations.
According to the Union Rescue Mission, “in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, Los Angeles had a population of 1.2 million people and Union Rescue Mission served 134,000 meals. In 2010, during the Great Recession, Los Angeles had grown to 3.6 million people. That same year the Mission served 1.4 million meals, 10 times that of 1934.”
Let those numbers sink in.
Civic government, nonprofits, and faith-based calls to action:
The temptation to succumb to hopelessness in the face of what may look like an intractable crisis is huge, but look deeper and there are rays of light, with many amazing people out there doing incredible things to address the needs of the homeless.
This includes the City of Los Angeles and other local governments, together with numerous nonprofit and faith-based organizations. I’ve hyperlinked those measures and programs below that have good success rates in dealing with homelessness here in Los Angeles so you can find out more and see if there is a role for you in one of those programs.
If you are not from Los Angeles, look at what is being done to help the homeless and working poor in your communities. I can assure you the need is mostly everywhere.
After County officials announced the severe shortage of shelters as recently as October 2018, local governments were allowed to seek funds from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program. The City of Los Angeles is dedicating their share of funds toward the City’s Bridge Home Program. The program is designed to provide temporary shelters in each council district while more permanent housing is built in the coming years. It is also providing support services within Skid Row.
Initial attempts, however, to even discuss the construction of a temporary shelters in one area in the City met with harsh resistance and massive protests. Since that time, the Los Angeles City Council has voted to approve two temporary bridge housing facilities. One has already been completed.
In 2017, Los Angeles voters approved Measure H, which raised the sales tax by a quarter of a percent to fund services for the homeless. The measure is estimated to raise $355 million annually over 10 years. Voters also approved Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to provide supportive housing for the homeless, with a focus on stabilization through support services. While rising construction costs and other factors have led some to speculate that the City will fall short of its goals, the majority of voters are solidly behind efforts to find solutions to the homeless crisis.
Union Rescue Mission, The Midnight Mission, the Downtown Women’s Center, and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) are but some examples of the many nonprofit organizations dedicated to providing temporary emergency shelters, food, support services, bridge housing, job placement, and pathways to permanent housing for the homeless. Union Rescue Mission, where I volunteered this Thanksgiving season, deep-fried 500 turkeys for their Thanksgiving dinner.
Faith-based ministries continue to do their good works. The Angel’s Flight Youth Center and Covenant House of California both focus on youth and runaways facing homelessness and human trafficking. The Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children works to “empower women and their children to move from homelessness to self-sufficiency, through housing, employment, and support services offered with dignity and love.” The Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles also provides shelter and other services to address the needs of the individual, the family, and the community.
Further calls to action:
Given the sheer number of homeless in Los Angeles County, it may be that the current efforts in place will not be anything more than putting a bandage on a gaping societal wound.
Some argue that it will take the investment of billions of dollars and something like a Marshall Plan that rebuilt Japan and Germany after the war to tackle not only homelessness, but the glaring inequities in our society that contribute to the crisis in the first place.
The magnitude of the effort required need not discourage us all from doing our part. There is a role for us all to play.
It all starts with caring.
We all know, for example, that homelessness exists. We must, however, care enough to become more aware of the depth of the crisis and how it impacts communities everywhere, not just Los Angeles. We also need to change the way we see and speak about the homeless, not as failures, but as people who have experienced profound crises in their lives and need support.
We can also donate our time as well as our funds to the numerous efforts out there. Get involved and volunteer at a local shelter. (In an incredible display of community support, barbers and hairstylists have gone down to Skid Row shelters for an afternoon of free haircuts.) Make a phone call and find out what your local congressperson or council is doing on behalf of the homeless. Advocate for and support efforts to build permanent housing and fund support services.
These small steps do help to move solutions forward.
After the eviction of a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange County, south of Los Angeles County, culturally-diverse and lower-income Santa Ana become the first council district to approve a 200-bed shelter. It’s been great step in the right direction.
Let’s all do our part to keep it moving that way, wherever your caring heart might live.