LA View: State of Emergency declared on LA homelessness

By Isabel Nelson

In September of this year, the Los Angeles City Council declared a state of emergency on homelessness, calling for $100 million to help address the situation.

This is the first state of emergency declared by Los Angeles since the Northridge earthquake of 1994—a disaster that killed 60 people and revealed underlying infrastructure problems the city had long ignored.

The state of emergency on homelessness is uncovering systemic problems too, but discussions on how to address them have run into roadblocks.

Rising housing costs and unemployment numbers are two major factors, as well as the limited amount of Section 8 housing—a government-subsidized housing plan that, unfortunately, landlords are not required to provide.

According to data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), at last count there were 44,000 homeless people in the county, with nearly 26,000 of those living in the city of Los Angeles.

L.A.’s climate has long been a draw for homeless individuals, but the numbers have jumped by 12% in the last two years.

The most famous area in crisis, Skid Row in downtown L.A., is becoming increasingly jammed with tent cities and makeshift encampments.

"Phase 1 of Skid Row Super Mural" by Stephen zeigler - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons -
Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles (image: Stephen Zeigler/wikipedia commons)

Homelessness has always been an issue for the downtown area, but increased gentrification is pushing more people out of their homes.

These people may not be able to leave the area, as it is also the location for low-income clinics and other care.

This means certain blocks have people lying literally elbow-to-elbow on the pavement, protecting themselves from disease and the elements with what little resources they have.

Disease is rampant: human waste and hypodermic needles are not uncommon gutter decorations.

A public servant handing out water bottles on Skid Row contracted three deadly kinds of bacteria—E. coli, strep, and staph—in a small blister wound. Even with medical care, he eventually had to have the leg amputated.

I spoke with Nathan Sheets, Director of Programs and Operations at The Center at Blessed Sacrament—a secular 501-c3 non-profit dedicated to ending isolation and homelessness in Hollywood (When I informed Sheets I would be interviewing him for Ireland Today, he told me that, while his Irish ancestry is too far back to be significant, one of the best weekends of his life was spent at TradFest in Dublin and he can’t wait to go back.)

He works in a team of only 12, but they provide interactive groups, trauma support, and connections to housing for this vulnerable population.

Hollywood has a glamorous image, but the problems here are worsening in similar ways to those of Skid Row.

“I’m seeing a lot of people in Hollywood who are inhibited by mental illness,” Sheets says.

Most people who come to the center have some kind of trauma-incurred mental illness that debilitates them from a lot of things, even standing in line for a social security card—which is the bare minimum you need for housing.

The Center at Blessed Sacrament works with the Coordinated Entry System in LA: a way of placing people on a vulnerability index to prioritize people who are at the most risk and providing them with housing opportunities.

Factors include diseases, risky behavior (such as needle exchanging or prostitution), and duration of homelessness.

Although the index is effective at identifying the people most in need of help, Sheets says it is not without its problems.

People who suffer from mental illness are often less able to take advantage of programs that could help them long-term as they may not be able to advocate for themselves.

"Hollywood Sign" by Thomas Wolf, - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons -
The other side of Hollywood: LA is suffering from a major homeless crisis (image: Thomas Wolf/wikipedia commons)

Sheets believes that the expectations placed on those most in need of housing are unreasonable for what they may be capable of achieving.

“If a person has done the assessment, and been matched to a housing opportunity, in order to get into the place, they have to have: a government-issue ID, a Social Security Card, and established income (social security, general relief, disability, etc.).

“But if you’re one of the most vulnerable people, who struggles with, say, severe schizophrenia, it’s really hard for you to wait in line at the DMV and get an ID.

“You may have trouble making it to appointments, finding money for the bus, or using maps to get to the government buildings.”

The other option is to find a homeless shelter, but that is not smooth sailing either.

Sheets says that the process for getting into one is tricky—intentionally so, to avoid overcrowding.

You go to a designated spot, often a city park, and wait for a bus that may or may not be able to take you:

“I went to visit a few last week to make sure we knew where we were sending people.

“They wait in lines to get on the bus, and not everyone gets to go. The shelters can’t take walk-ups—the bussing system is an extra layer of buffer.

“When you get there, it’s somewhere that might have a hot meal, and you’re crammed into a hall –one of them just had 100 army cots pushed up against each other.

“It’s better than nothing, but it still doesn’t seem very humane.”

Even if you do get in, Sheets says, they kick you out early—sometimes at 5 AM.

The Center at Blessed Sacrament doesn’t have the resources to offer beds, but it is in conversation with those that do— and with the powers that be – who are scrambling to find a suitable response to the crisis.

“We’ve dumped more and more money and resources and thought into the issue, but in L.A. there just isn’t enough affordable housing,” Sheets says.

“Landlords aren’t required to accept Section 8 and in Hollywood there’s almost nowhere that does.

“Most of the housing is in South L.A. but if your community is Hollywood and you have to take public transportation, [South L.A.] isn’t an option.”

Sheets points out that people are being redistributed like a commodity, which isn’t fair.

“Sure, there are places in the country cheaper to live but L.A. is their home.

“You can’t move them out of their community to the middle of nowhere.”

The impending El Niño is adding pressure to an already tense discussion.

Those living in the streets or sleeping in dry riverbeds will be the first to experience the devastation of the expected storms.

City officials have just months to figure out a plan but with the way they’ve responded in the years leading up to this moment, many people doubt there will be an answer before the downpours come.

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