Bringing hope to Los Angeles’ homeless community

Hunter Desportes

Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons / Hunter Desportes. As population continues to grow in LA, the need to address the homeless population is becoming increasingly prominent.

Los Angeles County has the largest population of any other county in the nation, with nearly 10.4 million residents over its 4,084 square miles. As the population of LA County continues to increase, the issue of homelessness is becoming more prevalent throughout the 88 cities despite recent reports from national and local officials.

“These are some of the filthiest streets you will see in the entire United States, and I stand by that without hesitation,” said Stephen Nichols, senior lead officer assigned to the central division with the Los Angeles Police Department. “This is like a third world country with paved streets, on occasion.”

Many are wanting to transform Skid Row and the streets of LA County. However, current methods in actually tackling this issue are extremely controversial among government officials, police officers, non-profit organizations, health clinics and residents with new recent insight on the homeless budget, population statistics and health care improvements at the start of the new year.

Population statistics

In the 2013 Homeless Count, LA County totaled 57,737 homeless people, a 15 percent increase from the previous count in 2011.

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an organization for both the City and County of LA, is the leading agency for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, coordinating and managing the annual funds for the federal, state, county and city resources, which provide a variety of services to the homeless community.

Every two years, LAHSA conducts a Homeless Count, which is the largest homeless census in the U.S., gathering 6,000 volunteers to walk the LA districts, counting residents who are living in streets, alleys, riverbeds and cars. The 2015 Homeless Count took place on Jan. 27 and was completed on Jan. 29.

The official results of the 2015 Homeless Count are in the process of being tallied, and are projected to be publicly released by the end of April according to LAHSA Director of Communications George Mcquade, coordinator of the census.

Courtesy of Creative Commons / Laurie Avocado

Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons / Laurie Avocado. Skid Row, located in Los Angeles City, is dense, filled with thousands of residents occupying the streets.

“Homelessness in LA and Skid Row is vastly increasing and does not go away with statements made,” said Union Rescue Mission Chief Executive Officer Andrew Bales.

The Union Rescue Mission, located in the heart of Skid Row, claims on its website that with the thousands homeless people living on the streets on any given night, 18 percent are veterans, 14 percent are children, 20 percent are physically disabled, 16 percent of the adults are employed, 48 percent graduated from high school and 32 percent admit to having a bachelor degree or higher.

“I commend the efforts [being made] but the focus on the few is leaving the many out in the cold and will haunt us later,” said Bales.

Los Angeles accounts for three percent of the United States’ population and seven percent of the national homeless population, as one in every three persons in LA City are experiencing homelessness, according to United Rescue Mission.

“It is recalcitrant with so many evil forces keeping residents in Skid Row’s grip and Skid Row’s needs to be deconstructed by decentralizing services and housing in a network throughout the county,” said Bales. “Every neighborhood, city and region needs to respond to the needs of their own precious neighbors experiencing homelessness.”

National efforts announce new homeless budget

Last month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $1.8 billion in grants to help the homeless housing services and programs across the U.S., Porto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

California received over $307 million according to the 2014 Fiscal Year Continuum of Care Competition Homeless Assistance Award Report which was released Monday, Jan. 26. California’s funds were divided among the different state counties, and $91, 956,831 went to the LA County. The money awarded will be invested into the city and county’s 232 projects and which provide various resources to the homeless community.

Neon Tommy

Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons / Neon Tommy. The money awarded to the LA county will go towards programs, non-profit organizations and missions, which all provide different services to the homeless community.

New to the count this year, those who are living on the streets will be asked questions regarding their gender identity, domestic violence, prison history and years of military service. The count has expanded to tallying residents’ demographics as a part of the national effort led by the Obama Administration to remove all veterans from the streets.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced on Jan., $13 million of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s funds will be going directly to Los Angeles City and the efforts being made to provide veterans housing. Garcetti and other city leaders have vowed that by the end of 2015, there will no longer be veterans living on the streets of LA, which currently is over 3,000 people.

“The county has become more responsive to the needs of the inner city,” said Nichols. “Their resources have become ours and we are actually working together, trying to reach a resolution or to bring some kind of solution to the needs of the folks down here that maybe haven’t been addressed as fully as they are being addressed now.”

Street safety

Nichols and his partner, Officer Veronica Padilla, are assigned to the foot-beat in Skid Row. Their route covers the heart of Skid Row, spanning the area of Wall Street to Central Street and Fifth Street to Seventh Street. Skid Row streets, covering only 4 square miles of the larger LA County, houses nearly 2,000 people in sleeping bags, tents and cardboard boxes just blocks away from the city government.

“It is a small area on a map, but intense in terms of the activity that happens here,” Nichols said.

The population and criminal activity of homeless individuals fluctuate based on weather and what each individual is going through that day, said Padilla.

“It is a dangerous and violent place in that regard,” said Nichols. “Combine the elements of narcotics use, mental illness, homelessness, it is a cauldron that simmers over. It borders between calm and out of control.”

LA is debatably the largest recovery area and Nichols doubts whether the streets will ever become clean to the standards as some residents would like. He explains how in some ways the streets are better, and in other ways it is still “business as usual.”

Health care improvements

Gentrification happening in Skid Row, as it is distinctly different from the rest of downtown LA, said Los Angeles Christian Health Center Physician Assistant Joelle Schlepp.

Schlepp has seen the same patients for months and years at the health clinic located in the heart of Skid Row and explains how her homeless patients focus on where they are going to sleep at night and what they are going to eat, rather than giving the proper attention to their health.

In March 2010, President Barack Obama passed the Affordable Care Act within his health care plan, giving U.S. citizens access to free health care. Schlepp believes that since the Affordable Care Act was passed, there has been a general increase in the health of the homeless population in Skid Row, even though patients still miss appointments and don’t take proper care of themselves.

Gina Jones, social services manager at LACHC, highlights the idea of collaboration and the continuation to leverage the partnerships that have been established within the federal, county, city and community programs.

In 2013, the LACHC helped a total 9,342 patients, 67 percent are considered to be homeless, according to Jones. Numbers for the clinics patients have not yet been completed for 2014.

“It’s not right, it’s unjust for people to suffer the way that some of the homeless people suffer,” said Jones.

Effects on the community

Jeff Westrup, service-learning teacher at a Christian high school located in the LA County, explains how his eyes have been opened to how society has marginalized people throughout his 15-year stint volunteering with the homeless communities in Skid Row, Long Beach and Bellflower.

Franco Folini

Courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons / Frank Folini. Men, women, children and pets line the streets of LA, calling it home.

“We all got issues,” said Westrup, lifelong resident of the LA County. “We lock ours away behind our houses, and theirs are out in the open on the streets.”

Westrup explains that there generally is no major difference between the homeless communities in the different cities that he partners with but describes Skid Row as “just a harder group.”

There is no right answer to solving the issue of homelessness, but Westrup suggests that each answer is individual, and the County needs to share ideas, become more creative and work with housing programs.

To fully appreciate and realize what is happening out here, LA residents need to experience it firsthand, said Nichols, encouraging citizens to join LAPD walk-alongs down the Skid Row streets.

“It is something that needs to be experienced rather than just read about or theorized,” said Nichols.

As the county continues to make efforts to transform the streets of LA, Westrup raises the challenge for Skid Row to be renamed and called “Hope Row.”

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