The State Of Homelessness In L.A. – Must Read Article

Anyone who has lived in L.A. (or really any large U.S. city for that matter) like I have, knows all too well about the explosion of homelessness in our country. There are massive amounts of people living on the streets – in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And it feels like there are just so many more even than there used to be. I remember when I first moved out to Los Angeles over 20 years ago – I had never quite seen anything like it. And now it feels like a drop in the bucket.

So, it was interesting to read this article in Politico, about the state of homelessness in Los Angeles, and what some very concerned people and administrations are trying to do about it. The one fact in this piece that stood out to me the most – pretty well sums up the root of the problem:

The explosion in L.A.’s homeless population in recent decades, as in other cities with soaring real-estate values, is in part a matter of simple arithmetic. In 1980, the median gross rental price for an apartment in Los Angeles was $261. That year, the monthly general relief check—cut by L.A. County for indigent individuals ineligible for other government benefits—topped out at $228. By 2012, the median gross rental price for an L.A. area apartment had reached $1,233, and it has only risen since. Currently, the maximum amount for a county relief check distributed on Skid Row is $221.

There it is. That one fact alone explains so much. We don’t take care of those less fortunate that us nearly as well as we used to, at least from a governmental perspective. People are continuing to slip through the cracks, and until we really decide to do something about it – I’m afraid that’s just going to continue to happen. My fear is that it’s no longer a crack – it’s a big gaping hole, and is becoming too massive to actually fill.

Reinventing Skid Row

The Skidrow area of LA and the area around Main Street in DownTown LA.

At the Pussy & Pooch boutique on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, the array of bejeweled collars, canine aromatherapy candles and post-modern cat scratchers demonstrates just how good life has become for the privileged pets of the neighborhood. Pussy & Pooch even boasts a Pawbar, providing local Chihuahuas and English bulldogs with the kind of fine dining experience that their owners routinely enjoy at the cafes crowding the avenue. Among the standouts on the Pawbar menu is a plate of fresh raw meats drizzled with gourmet sauce, accompanied by Bowser beer and followed by a dish of Yoghund frozen yogurt. “You live a stylish and progressive lifestyle,” the shop assures visitors to its website, “and your pet companion should too!”

It wasn’t so long ago that the only dogs and cats in this rapidly reinventing stretch of downtown L.A. were the strays that darted across Main—desperate and without shelter, like the men and women who stumbled on its sidewalks, or squeezed their way beneath accordian gates at night for the relative safety of the garbage-choked entrances to what had once been some of the most opulent office buildings west of the Mississippi.

This is Skid Row, or at least the far western border of it, and for several decades, the only signs of commercial life along this stretch of Main Street were dive bars, grimy convenience stores and gritty “single-room occupancy” hotels, home to the poorest of the city’s poor. Yet today the sidewalks bustle outside shops selling vegan cinnamon ice cream, $50 bottles of Rioja, artisanal cupcakes and those designer products for one’s pooch. Hipsters with beards worthy of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg emerge from lobbies of restored loft buildings where a two-bedroom apartment can go for as much as $3,000 a month. Longtime flophouse hotel residents on federal assistance vouchers now share floors with budget-minded travelers and aspiring artist types still some years away from a luxury loft upgrade. Skid Row, the homeless capital of the United States, is going upscale.

Amid the urban boom of the last decade across the United States, many downtown wastelands have undergone such transformations. The original Skid Row in Seattle—named in the 1860s for the greasy road used by day laborers transporting logs from timber stands above the city and eventually shorthand for a zone of drunkenness and destitution in an otherwise thriving young metropolis—has long since given way to a predictable mix of galleries, smart cafes and pricey lofts. So has the legendarily dissolute Bowery in New York City.

L.A.’s Skid Row was not the first of its kind but may well have become the worst, a 54-block island of despair west of the L.A. river, stretching north from 7th to 3rd streets and east from Main to Alameda, that has long had the distinction of hosting the largest concentration of homeless people in the country. For decades, it was an economic black hole in the middle of the city, where the helpless and hopeless washed up and would remain, very much out of sight and out of mind.

For decades, this was a wasteland, the homeless capital of the USA. Which makes it all the more striking that the march of gentrification, of yoga studios and big real-estate developments, is pushing into the greatest concentration of human misery to be found in all the United States.

Which makes it all the more striking that the march of gentrification, of yoga studios and big real-estate developments and more than 23,000 new residents in just the last seven years, is pushing into the vicinity of soup kitchens, of shelter beds, of sidewalk encampments—of the greatest concentration of human misery to be found in all the United States. That march has brought the inevitable conflicts, as rents rise and worlds intersect, and undoubted benefits, as L.A.’s downtown has suddenly become “a neighborhood as electrifying and gritty as New York in the ’70s,” as GQ called it in a recent travel article that trumpeted its “reoccupation” and declared it well on its way to becoming “a Great City in the heart of the City That Destroyed Cities.”

But perhaps more surprising than this urban hipster upgrade has been another consequence of the vanishing buffer zone between Skid Row and the rest of L.A.: It seems, finally, to be forcing Angelenos to open their eyes to how the city treats its most vulnerable residents.


With its endless sprawl, L.A. for decades has been called “the city without a center.” In fact, Los Angeles once did have a center—and it was right where Pussy & Pooch now stands. In the late 1800s, cheap hotels began opening around Central Station to accommodate the thousands of day laborers, fruit pickers and fortune seekers taking the Southern Pacific Railroad to the end of the line. At the border of this transient district, Main Street arose as the city’s hub of power and influence, where its real estate barons, citrus moguls and financiers built Beaux Arts office blocks of granite and marble and bronze with their names chiseled above the front doors. In top-floor executive offices and private clubs, they enjoyed a panoramic view of a city whose future they were shaping. The grandest monument of them all, just a few doors down from today’s Pussy & Pooch, was the Pacific Electric Building, which served as the headquarters for the streetcar magnate Henry Huntington. In its basement was arguably the busiest commuter station in America, the terminus for 1,100 miles of Pacific Electric track leading from L.A.’s mushrooming suburbs to the heart of a city on the move.

In 1914, a produce dealer-cum-self-promoting-preacher named Tom Liddecoat opened the Midnight Mission only a five-minute walk from all this prosperity, serving a 12 a.m. dinner to the crowds of poor and hungry men who had clustered in what he called “Hell’s Half Acre.” By the Great Depression, the area was well on its way to becoming a disaster zone in the center of town, a sketchy neighborhood whose fate was sealed after World War II with the waning of Huntington’s Pacific Electric System. Once the last of L.A.’s streetcar routes was scuttled in 1963, the conquest of the automobile was complete.

By the end of the 1980s, L.A.’s banks, corporations and white-shoe law firms had all decamped to a thicket of modern office towers built on a bluff to the west, convenient to one of the busiest freeways in the world. In the ghost town of the old city center, the grand hotels that had once welcomed Charlie Chaplin and Woodrow Wilson were now housing the poorest of L.A.’s poor, and an estimated 30 percent of the neighborhood was living on the streets, sleeping on sidewalks and alleys by the thousands and overwhelming the shelters, soup kitchens and vermin-infested rooming houses that had come to symbolize the neighborhood as much as its Gilded Age splendor ever had.

Efforts to rehabilitate Skid Row never seemed to go anywhere—one downtown strategic plan after another vanished into the forgotten records of the city bureaucracy. An idealistic developer named Ira Yellin spent nine years turning a former office building into lofts—and even scored the actor Nicolas Cage as a penthouse tenant—but Yellin had a hard time finding converts. “Downtown still doesn’t have the critical mass that makes you feel it is a place you need to be in order to be connected or part of the community,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “There are so many alternatives that seem closer, safer or whatever. The fact that the city is so dispersed keeps a sort of centrifugal force going that takes us everywhere but to the center.”

In 1999, Los Angeles made another attempt to bring in investment, despite the crime, squalor and prevailing wisdom that people live in Los Angeles to escape urban grit, not to embrace it. The city council passed an adaptive reuse ordinance for the historic core, lifting certain code and building restrictions that had made Yellin’s project such a long and expensive ordeal and streamlining the approval process for conversion of bygone commercial real estate into residential housing.

That same year, aided by enormous government subsidies, another maverick developer—this one with maybe $20,000 to his name—began transforming a square intersection of downtown into a would-be hipster paradise. Tom Gilmore, a 6’4” ex-New York restaurateur whose prodigious charm and pitch-perfect spiel about recapturing a city’s soul belied the fact that he would have had a hard time qualifying for a luxury car on credit, managed to buy four buildings around the intersection of 2nd and Main streets for $6.5 million—securing a $26.7 million loan backed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy the buildings and convert them into lofts. Gilmore rebranded his new domain “The Old Bank District.”

His tenants and the patrons of his new bar and grill found themselves perpetually dodging people begging for change or passed out on the sidewalks. Still, Gilmore’s gamble proved that the neighborhood could attract urban pioneers. Development companies with far more experience and capital began waging bidding wars—spending tens of millions of dollars for buildings that just five years earlier were worth less than a typical four-bedroom home in Beverly Hills. By the last few years it had become a full-scale real estate boom, with the 65-block area of what is officially considered L.A.’s downtown attracting $16 billion in investmentsfrom 1999 to 2012—including about $6 billion in residential real estate, with 3,400 new units built between 2008 and 2013 alone, recession be damned. Whole Foods will open downtown L.A.’s second grocery store next year, occupying 42,000 square feet in a luxury apartment building.

Meanwhile, retreating east into the ragged depths of Skid Row, the homeless have made themselves scarce. But this is still the center of the biggest, most intractable homeless problem in the richest country on Earth. According to HUD’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, overall homelessness is down 9 percent since 2007. But that still translates to 610,000 people living on the streets.New York City claimed the highest number of homeless people of any American city in the survey, with an estimated 62,040 people living in shelters or on the streets on a given January evening. While L.A. placed second, counting 53,798 that same evening, the report still made a strong case for L.A.’s continued dominance as the nation’s homeless capital. Of all major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles had the highest percentage of homeless with no shelter whatsoever (almost 80 percent). It also had by far the largest number of chronically homeless. An estimated 14,840 people in L.A. lacked a permanent place to live for months, years or decades, and tended to suffer from mental disorders, physical disabilities, grave injury, or alcohol and drug addiction. That’s nearly triple the number in New York. Approximately 5,000 of these homeless live on Skid Row.


The explosion in L.A.’s homeless population in recent decades, as in other cities with soaring real-estate values, is in part a matter of simple arithmetic. In 1980, the median gross rental price for an apartment in Los Angeles was $261. That year, the monthly general relief check—cut by L.A. County for indigent individuals ineligible for other government benefits—topped out at $228. By 2012, the median gross rental price for an L.A. area apartment had reached $1,233, and it has only risen since. Currently, the maximum amount for a county relief check distributed on Skid Row is $221.

Political and business leaders … have come to realize that police sweeps, no matter how frequent or draconian, are not going to oust people who have nowhere else to go.

Just as crucial a factor was the end of any serious federal effort to keep people off the streets. Before leaving office in 1976, President Gerald Ford demonstrated the greatest commitment to curing homelessness of any U.S. president, hoping to fund 506,000 new low-income apartments across the country, and Jimmy Carter continued that commitment; during his presidency, in 1978, HUD’s budget topped out at $80.6 billion. With the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, funding to house the homeless took a blow, and it has never recovered. By the end of Reagan’s presidency, HUD’s annual budget had plunged to $19.6 billion, federal subsidies for new housing had fallen by more than two-thirds and the government had ended direct federal funding to house Americans suffering from serious mental illness. If there are no concrete numbers to measure the surge of homelessness during the Reagan years, it was because for at least the decade prior, there had been little need. “In the 1970s, there had been no homeless problem,” says Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “at least as we speak of it today.”

As Christmas 1988 approached, Reagan sat down for his last interview at the Oval Office, a crackling fire in the hearth, a bald eagle statue over his shoulder. ABC News correspondent David Brinkley asked the president for his thoughts about the homeless people who were sleeping in a park 200 yards from the White House. Reagan rejected the criticism that his administration bore responsibility for the mounting crisis. “[T]here are always going to be people,” Reagan said, “they make it their own choice for staying out there.”

Neither George H. W. Bush nor Bill Clinton did much to reverse the gutting of federal programs to house the homeless instituted during the Reagan years. In fact, Clinton approved one annual budget for HUD substantially lower than the lowest Reagan had ever signed. Surprisingly, it was George W. Bush’s administration, in 2003, that launched the first serious presidential initiative against homelessness since the 1980s. In so doing, he changed the terms of how the federal government confronts homelessness itself.

Bush’s homeless czar embraced a “housing first” policy, easing longtime restrictions that denied permanent housing to homeless people until they brought their drug or alcohol addictions under control. The fact that most homeless people would be more likely to kick their habits with a roof overhead than with all the stress and temptation that comes with living on the streets certainly made intuitive sense. The president’s initiative, launched in 2003, promised to eradicate chronic homelessness in 10 years. It didn’t, but the chronic homeless population began to shrink—between 2005 and 2012, the number dropped 43 percent, from 176,000 in 2005 to 100,000 in 2012, though it inched back up to 110,000 last year.

Los Angeles, though, still saw homelessness as a criminal problem, one that could be attacked by endless police sweeps and night busts. This policy only intensified during the initial years of the downtown boom over the last decade. In the spring of 2006, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even tore out all the public toilets that the Skid Row homeless used. That September, he launched the Safer Cities Initiative in concert with LAPD chief William Bratton, and a 50-officer task force was sent to Skid Row to arrest the homeless—sometimes for felonies but more often for jaywalking, drug use, sleeping on the streets during the day, and urinating or defecating in inappropriate locations, a criminal activity that had only gotten worse since the mayor’s wholesale scrapping of the public toilets.

Eventually, the stepped-up enforcement led to two lawsuits that forced the city to start rethinking its approach. In 2006, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered L.A. to stop its zealous enforcement of a law fining homeless people for sitting, sleeping or lying on any street or sidewalk with a penalty of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail. The city’s lawyers had argued that there were enough shelter beds and permanent housing to make sleeping on the streets a choice. “We went to every place listed for Skid Row,” recalls Carol Sobel, the lead attorney on behalf of a group of homeless plaintiffs who had been arrested under the law. “And basically we were able to demonstrate that there were half the units the city said there were.” Sobel won another federal appeals court decision against the city for seizing and destroying homeless people’s possessions when they left them temporarily to shower, get food or go to the bathroom.

In 2004, while Sobel was still pursuing these lawsuits, an economic roundtable underwritten by the city housing authority published a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles County. Among the report’s self-evident findings was that the greatest concentrations of homeless people tended to be in the county’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. After two years of apparent inactivity, the plan was reintroduced at a press conference held in a Skid Row mission—only now it had a new name: “Bring L.A. Home.” City and county leaders vowed to spend $50 million to prevent homelessness and expeditiously bring people off the streets.

“Some would say this is just another press conference,” Villaraigosa said at the time, “that the recommendations are a litany of the things we have to do, that there’s really not a plan.” Certainly, that was Sobel’s impression. “It was a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles,” she says. “Between the cover page and the last page, there was no plan.” After the press conference, Bringing L.A. Home wasn’t heard from again.


But new ideas were entering the long stale politics of homelessness—both nationally and, finally, reluctantly and in small ways, in Los Angeles itself. All that gentrification in all those cities over the last decade had exposed just how visible the homeless problem was.

In the past few years L.A.’s homelessness efforts have become more streamlined, more sharply focused and marked by a spirit of cooperation after years of conflict among local government agencies, nonprofit providers and political and business leaders who have come to realize that police sweeps, no matter how frequent or draconian, are not going to oust people who have nowhere else to go.

These local efforts stem in part from a broader national movement. In 2010, the Obama administration announced a bold anti-homelessness campaign. “Opening Doors” proposed to eliminate chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015 and to end homelessness among families by 2020. These heady goals were to be achieved through better targeting of existing resources, rather than through any dramatic increase of funding from Washington.

It was a program well suited to President Obama’s governing philosophy—the embrace of Big Data and better, if not bigger, government and the idea that even if there wasn’t much new money to be found to build housing for the homeless, government could do a better job than the uncoordinated bureaucratic mess that most homeless people encounter when trying to get what help is available.

Crucial to Obama’s Opening Doors initiative is a 2009 congressional amendment to homeless legislation that compelled nonprofits, religious organizations and nonprofit providers to begin working together more closely, or else lose their federal funds. Together, these interest groups were required to implement a Coordinated Entry System—a single process for identifying and prioritizing clients who apply for housing and to more effectively reach those who don’t usually apply.

This new pragmatism has started working. City by city, Coordinated Entry has been met mostly with civic enthusiasm. Amid all the criticism directed at Arizona politicians for their stances on illegal immigration and gay rights, for example, Phoenix’s leaders have recently garnered good press for declaring that the city had housed all of its 222chronicallyhomeless veterans. Salt Lake City soon followed, announcing that it, too, had conquered veteran homelessness, with the mayor describing the effort as a “wonderful friendly competition between the two cities.”

But L.A. is a harder case. No major American metropolis seemed more ill-suited to come up with a concerted effort to combat homelessness. While the five counties of New York City’s five boroughs are one and the same, Los Angeles County is made up of the city of Los Angeles and 87 other cities of various sizes, plus large swaths of unincorporated area administered by the county. Relations between county and city agencies, and even among nonprofits and religious groups on Skid Row, have long veered between indifferent and hostile.

Christine Marge—director of a project with the United Way called Home For Good, which seeks to end chronic homelessness in Greater L.A. by 2016—tried anyway. Sheapproached heads of county and city agencies, missions, secular nonprofit service centers and low-income housing developers. Since the United Way had been a longtime funding source for homeless programs on Skid Row, Marge was able to sign up often-feuding partners. Besides, under Washington’s new funding rules, they no longer had much choice.

She had a new approach to offer: a 100-day crash course in cleaning up Skid Row and helping as many homeless people as possible. Beginning a year ago, case managers, outreach workers and low-income housing representatives were sent to boot camps and assembled into teams to fan out around Skid Row into a 100-day crunch cycle, designed by a Connecticut-based organization called the Rapid Results Institute. Rapid Results had achieved impressive results getting stalemated government agencies in places like Sierra Leone and Iraq to participate in lightning-strike solutions to issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to pension reform. Marge had learned about Rapid Results from her partner, Becky Kanis, a charismatic former U.S. Army Signal Corps officer who is credited with solving the homeless problem around New York’s Time Square. Kanis had worked with Rapid Results on her project called 100,000 Homes,a national effort by a foundation called Community Solutions to house 100,000 homeless people by July of this year. Marge decided Rapid Results could work in Los Angeles too.

Both Marge and Kanis were sure this kind of radical new thinking was required. “What appalled me about the sector initially is that it was driven by ideology and personal opinions,” says Kanis, who reports that, with five months left, her 100,000 Homes campaign is already close to achieving its goal. “You need to change the paradigm. If you have something that’s working, then get momentum. Let’s get some wins on the board.”

In L.A., recalls Rapid Results program director Daniel Manitsky, the 100-day plan had a particular benefit of bypassing most of the stalled bureaucracy and feuding decision makers who for so long had charge of the homeless problem and failed to do much about it. “One of our messages,” Manitsky says, “was that nobody’s smart enough to really solve this, except maybe the front line-workers, because they have the knowledge and creativity, and with experimentation they can develop some solutions. You can’t go into a back room and plan this out.”

The teams would approach homeless individuals, take down personal information and enter it into a unified system, then measure that data according to a single assessment tool that prioritized candidates for supportive housing based on the severity of their need. The team would navigate the client through the bureaucracy—serving as that person’s leasing agent, paperwork procurer, ombudsman and source of moral support and encouragement—and accelerate the housing process from what used to be as long as a year or more to a matter of weeks. They would be allowed to improvise, and they were required to report back on what aspects of this new process seemed to work, what needed to be tweaked and what needed to be rejected altogether for the system to be viable.


On a hazy Wednesday morning, a maintenance worker trains his pressure hose on the sidewalk fronting the Gateway Apartments, a brand-new $28 million housing complex for the homeless built by a nonprofit developer. This is where a lucky few homeless reached by the Rapid Results teams will end up.Aside from this one well-tended area, San Pedro Street—like the rest of Skid Row—is a place of total desolation. There are hundreds of people dozing in the gutter, crouching under tarps or tents, waiting in a bread line, arguing, singing, murmuring or shouting to themselves, nursing open wounds.

To pass through the apartment building’s security gate is to be transported worlds away. River rock borders the Zen-like courtyard inside, and the façade is a study in playful post-modern jumbled geometry. With their coordinated bedroom sets of walnut veneer, the 107 single units look like dorm rooms for college students who have won the campus housing lottery. They are occupied by men and women who have struggled for years on the nearby streets and in shelters. Eighty of the 108 rooms were reserved for the chronically homeless—those who have lived on the streets for years or decades, who suffer from physical disabilities, psychological disorders, addiction and/or debilitating injuries, and who were until recently the least likely to compete successfully for housing with the kind of support services crucial to their survival. Now through Home For Good, they are given priority.

Angeleta Burton was among the first to move into Gateways, soon after last November’s grand opening. For eight years, Burton had been homeless in Los Angeles, but the brutality that brought her to Skid Row began decades earlier, in Fayetteville, Texas. At age 13, she was raped, became pregnant and delivered her first child. Two years later, she married and then had 10 more children. She eventually fled her husband’s beatings, taking three of her daughters to L.A. and losing track of the rest of her kids.

“I thought I could come here and make it on my own,” Burton recalls. “But it didn’t work because I was dealing with mental issues.” After a year, she was assaulted and robbed. “My head was cracked open, and they couldn’t repair some of the nerves in my brain,” she says, “and so ever since then I’ve had petit mal seizures.” Her daughters were moved to the San Fernando Valley while Burton remained in Los Angeles to struggle alone. In 2010, she was diagnosed with lupus. Complications from infections and contagions that routinely rage through the sidewalk encampments and the shelters sent her repeatedly to the emergency ward.

During her time on Skid Row, Burton would resolve to find some way out. “Every day, I told myself, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that,’” she says. “But sometimes I’d be in so much pain … I didn’t feel my life was worth anything.” When Darrel Oats, the navigator from Americorps who first reached out to her, offered to secure her a shelter bed that evening and her own apartment soon, she told him she would have to think about it for a couple of days. “We want housing,” Burton says of her hesitation, “but we don’t know if we’re strong enough, or if it’s just a joke or a gimmick, or just all talk. We don’t have within us the willpower to have the strength to get up and go.”

Until recently, Burton would have been one of the less likely candidates to get housing. Raymond Fuentes, the leasing placement manager from the Skid Row Housing Trust who matched her up with her new home, remembers what the process was like when one of the seven or eight different waiting lists he spent so much time maintaining would open up, and flyers would be passed around Skid Row showing where to apply. “We would have a line in front of our office and around the block—hundreds of people trying to get housed. The people who were in most need of housing weren’t usually in the front of those lines, because they’re usually older, have more health problems. People who were younger and stronger would outmuscle them.” Even if a few somehow got onto a new waiting list, their disabilities would often preclude them from getting the right identification and showing up for an appointment months or years in the future when a room finally opened. When Burton applied under Coordinated Entry, her case was made an instant priority because of her health problems and how long she had been on the streets. Within weeks, she moved into Gateways.

Burton will soon be starting her first semester in a local college, working toward a degree in human development while studying for her GED. She attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and by having her own sink and shower and a room to herself, she’s avoided infection and the hospital. Among her visitors at Gateway are her grown children, two of whom have enrolled in college themselves, and her grandchildren. At church, she says, “I sing on the praise team. I believe that God has something better planned for me, and I knew that it wasn’t to be homeless and sick. I knew I could come back.”

In the presence of such gratitude and hope after so much suffering, one gets a visceral appreciation of what a profound difference the new approach toward the chronically homeless can make for individuals. But seen through a wider lens, the battle against even this portion of a much larger homeless problem seems destined to be a losing one. With Obama’s Opening Doors program already halfway toward its deadline of ending chronic homelessness, the 2013 HUD survey showed a 24 percent drop in the homeless veteran population and a 16 percent drop in the number of chronically homeless people. But the gains of the past several years aren’t necessarily permanent. In many parts of the country, homelessness may be disappearing from booming city centers, but it’s also turning up in stagnating suburbs where it was never before found.

“All forms of federal dollars have shrunk dramatically,” Douglas Guthrie, director of the L.A. housing authority, tells me. “We tried everything to keep on an even keel in 2013, but what we are going to have to work with will do nothing to address the needs of affordable housing in the city.”

Every day, I told myself, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that,’ … But sometimes I’d be in so much pain … I didn’t feel my life was worth anything.”

Jerry Jones, director of the National Coalition of the Homeless, applauds efforts like L.A.’s to house the chronically homeless more effectively. “Stretching limited dollars, eliminating redundancy and having one unified intake strategy,” Jones says, “That makes a lot of sense. There’s a certain logic to it.”

Nonetheless, Jones believes that much more significant progress could be made if at least some of the passion and energy poured into data-driven efficiencies could be directed toward pressuring politicians to fund housing adequately. “If we’re honest with ourselves,” he adds, “not just homeless advocates but the anti-poverty sector more broadly—we have to say we’re not doing so well. The LGBT movement and the immigrants’ rights movement have figured out how to break through and change the parameters of what’s possible. The folks who are championing the needs of homeless people haven’t figured out how.”

“In my sector,” Jones continues, “there’s actually been too much emphasis on, ‘How do we squeeze the most impact of the limited resources we have?’ But there is far less emphasis on thinking, ‘How do we win more resources of affordable housing for people?’ Because at the end of the day, unless we can expand those resources, it doesn’t matter how smart the intake process is.”

If the national homeless population continues to drop at the current rate, almost half the number of homeless veterans and nearly 70 percent of chronically homeless on the streets in 2010 would still be there by Obama’s deadline of 2015. In Los Angeles, the newly streamlined system hasn’t made much progress toward ending chronic homelessness by the 2016 target date. Despite all its emphasis on data, the Coordinated Entry System doesn’t keep a weekly or even monthly tally of the total number of chronically homeless housed under its aegis. According to Christine Marge of the United Way, as of Feb. 25, the most recent statistics available showed a total of 127 chronically homeless people housed so far, as Home for Good nears the completion of its third Rapid Results 100-day cycle.

Marge clarifies that this represents a conservative estimate, that the final numbers from L.A.’s most recent 100-day plan aren’t yet in, that Home For Good has made other placements through other means than coordinated entry and that hundreds of housing opportunities for the chronically homeless will soon come on line.

But L.A. would need 130 new Gateway apartment complexes, at a cost of $28 million apiece, to meet the goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2016. No investment of that scale—or anywhere close to it—is in the works.


It’s the end of morning recess at Las Familias Del Pueblo. Alice Callahan looks up from her desk to watch the entire student body flowing back into the Skid Row storefront that she has transformed into a daycare center, a charter school and a post-office box for the homeless. The students—mostly Latino, mostly children of garment workers who labor in L.A.’s sweatshops—settle down onto carpet squares in the kindergarten and first grade classrooms, separated by a wheeled divider.

Las Familias is essentially a one-woman operation. “I’m the director,” says Callahan, an Episcopal priest. “And I’m also the janitor, the toilet plunger, the washer, the housekeeper, whatever.” And during her 35 years working on Skid Row, Callahan has arguably achieved more for its poor than all the government agencies, missions and other nonprofit leaders combined.

Within a year of establishing Las Familias in 1980, Callahan had relocated 1,500 families living on the streets, in shelters and in grubby hotels to safer housing elsewhere in the city. She went around the hotels warning managers never again to rent to men and women with children. In the late 1980s, she launched the Skid Row Housing Trust and purchased transient hotels, renovated them for the poor and protected them from demolition or market-rate conversion.

But she is hardly delighted by the economic boom that has reached her doorstep.Where others see the rebirth of a once-great American city, she counts the loss of cheap housing—estimating 1,200 units that used to house poor families are now gone—and the cynical indifference of the newcomers to the poor they are displacing. “I think that young gentrifiers are not a very empathetic group, because if they were, how could they live here?” she says. “How could you sit in a fancy restaurant on Main Street and look out the window at a homeless person on the sidewalk unless you’ve already decided that that person spent all their wealth on drugs and that’s why they’re there, by choice?”

Callahan’s doesn’t see much intelligence in L.A.’s new policy of bumping the chronically homeless to the top of the master list either. “The assumption is that there’s a set of people who cannot take care of themselves, and so if we indeed house them, then everyone else will be able to find housing on their own,” Callahan says. “But people have to understand that there’s a very finite amount of housing, and it’s shrinking. So it’s wonderful that we’re housing somebody, but not so wonderful if we’re trying to take political credit for reversing an escalating homeless situation. We’re not. We’re just choosing this homeless person over that homeless person, and we are saying the other one will stay on the sidewalk because we’re not offering them anything.”

As Callahan steps out into the Las Familias courtyard, the sunlight falls onto a brunette bob, a round unlined face and piercing blue eyes. She grabs a seat at a picnic table. Slightly built, wearing a collarless gingham blouse, Callahan looks more like a New Yorker essayist from the 1950s than the powder keg who has strong-armed generations of politicians and persuaded corporate CEOs to mitigate the suffering in an area that used to be at the city’s heart, but which had been left to stray animals, the homeless and the poor.

There can be no underestimating the civic impact of downtown’s transformation from a state of squalor and neglect to what has become Los Angeles’s most celebrated new neighborhood. Older couples in West L.A. who 10 years ago might have thought that to visit the area was to take one’s life in one’s hands have moved into downtown lofts for their retirement, and every weekend patrons pour in from across L.A. for nightlife that oozes authenticity. Many see the transformation as in its early days still. Cedd Moses, arguably the historic core’s most successful club owner, waxed poetic to GQ about a new future for downtown that will remake L.A. itself. “Right now, downtown is Brooklyn,” Moses explained. “But that’s going to change. This is going to be Manhattan. And all the outlying areas, the outlying areas of Los Angeles, are going to be the boroughs. I don’t have a doubt in my mind.”

For Callahan, the conquest that has already occurred, and the one still likely to come, represent nothing short of a calamity. She may be on the losing side of history, and there is a sense in talking with her that she knows it, but she is going to speak up, for the part of Skid Row that is not saved, for the part that may never be. “Nobody’s opposed to developing downtown or inviting another population,” Callahan says. “But to come in and take Skid Row, where people who have no choices—so that these other populations can come and have their sort of Disneyland Manhattan experience—is outrageous.”

Ed Leibowitz is a writer-at-large at Los Angeles Magazine.

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