Los Angeles has earned the title of "homeless capital of America," according to a recent article on the Huffington Post.
There are more than 51,000 homeless people living in L.A. County, the article reports, and the percentages of homeless families, seniors and veterans have seen double-digit increases in just one year. More than 20 percent of homeless families are without shelter, which is double what the proportion was two years ago.
That's because Los Angeles doesn't have enough shelters. The Reverend Andy Bales, the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter in Downtown L.A., said that there have never been enough shelters in any of the places he's worked.
"For some reason, L.A. thinks it's sufficient to have less than one-fifth of the shelter beds that are actually needed," he told OnCentral, estimating that there about 12,000 of those beds in the county. "Those aren't nearly sufficient." Bales also disputed HuffPo's 51,000 figure, saying that the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County is "much more than 50,000 -- that's just best guestimate anybody could do."
Bales said the shortage of beds has to do in part with the city's emphasis on permanent supportive housing as the "silver bullet" to end homelessness, effectively stripping transitional housing programs, shelters and recovery programs of their resources. "That is not the one-size-fits-all solution to end homeless," said Bales. "We need a both/and approach. We didn't need to go just one direction -- we need the multi-pronged approach. We need the both/and to even make a dent in homelessness."
Bales said since the city began emphasizing permanent supported housing as a panacea of sorts, the number of people on Skid Row has doubled. He also estimated about 90 percent of the people on Skid Row are from South Los Angeles.
"These are L.A. people -- mostly South L.A. people -- and mostly African-Americans from South L.A. It just shows you the plight that people from South L.A. face."
One of South L.A.'s city council members is well-acquainted with that plight -- Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry has, according to the Huffington Post's article, pushed the county to fund year-round shelters. Resistance is strong, Perry told HuffPo, because many "communities don't want to have homeless people in their neighborhoods."
Her appeals to the county to get it to use its public facilities for shelters have also been declined, she said.
Bales said Perry is "on the right track."
"We need year-round shelters and we need them regionalized so that every neighborhood takes care of its own," he said. "I hope someday to decentralize some of the services that are downtown and put some out in each neighborhood. It's going to be a battle but every neighborhood ought to take care of its own."
Carol Picott, a program manager for homeless women and children at Homeless Outreach Program/Integrated Care System on Broadway, said those who say "not in my backyard" ought to be more active.
"Come down and get involved and see what we do to service these types of people," she said. "See what you can do to help and make a change in your communities so we won't have homelessness."
Bales, who called homelessness the "worst human disaster in the United States," echoed that. "These are your own neighbors," he said. "These folks could be you. All that has to happen is you lose your job for long enough and can't pay your rent and lose your home and have no one to turn to and this could be you. This is your neighbor and we are not treating people correctly by dumping them on Skid Row. Everybody belongs in their own neighborhood if they wish to stay there and I think we have a duty to help our neighbors rather than drop them off somewhere when they hit hard times. The best thing we could do is prevent our neighbors from falling into homelessness."
Picott also emphasized that homelessness "could happen to anybody."
The Huffington Post's article makes it clear that not all homeless advocates agree with Bales -- some say that there needs to be less focus on shelters and transitional programs, and more resources directed to a long-term solution: supportive affordable housing. And because those resources have become more scarce due to the economy, there's sometimes not enough for the multi-pronged approach Bales is pushing for. But for some advocates, that just means the community has to step up.
"If you want to be a community where kids and their mothers being homeless is not tolerated," Cate Steane, executive director of the Family Emergency Shelter Coalition told HuffPo, "then individuals and businesses have to step up and provide the means to do that. These families are suffering out there in the streets."
Photo by Tom Brandt via Flickr Creative Commons.