Living on the edge in the homeless encampments of Los Angeles

by Reuters
Monday, 4 November 2019 12:00 GMT

A man walks on Skid Row in Los Angeles, California, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Only a fraction of around 36,000 homeless in LA have been housed three years after a ballot measure raised $1.2 bln to build housing for street denizens and poor people

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES, Nov 4 (Reuters) - After years on the street, Kimberly Decoursey spends her nights at a Los Angeles temporary housing site called the Hollywood Studio Club. But by day, she can still be found at a highway off-ramp with her homeless fiance and a less rule-bound street community.

Decoursey, 37, who grew up in foster homes, considers the friends who have shared her struggles on the streets of Los Angeles to be her family. She wants them to enjoy what she has now: a bed, regular meals and a shower.

"A lot of them would give their right arm to be inside," Decoursey said of her comrades inhabiting grimy tents pitched on dirt patches in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Yet only a fraction of the estimated 36,000 homeless in Los Angeles have been housed three years after voters in November 2016 approved a ballot measure that raised $1.2 billion to build housing for street denizens and poor people.

The sheer cost of building permanent homes with social services in one of the priciest real estate markets in the United States is one of the biggest obstacles. There is also opposition from homeowner groups to building such homes in their neighborhoods.

Some homeless people have their own apprehensions about living among strangers and having to follow rules in shelters.

The first project funded by the ballot measure to provide permanent homes with on-site social services is scheduled to open only by the end of the year, officials said.

The problem is growing. Homelessness spiked by 16 percent in January 2019 compared with the previous year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said.

The homeless have set up tents on sidewalks and in neglected corners of nearly every section of the nation's second-largest city, from wealthy Bel-Air to working-class San Pedro. 

Republican President Donald Trump on a visit to California in September said people living on the streets have ruined the "prestige" of Los Angeles and San Francisco and suggested the possibility of federal intervention. That same month, the Democratic-run Los Angeles government petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to ask for legal power to forcibly sweep homeless encampments off the streets.

SOFT COSTS

It costs $531,000 per unit to build permanent homes for the homeless under Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion bond measure approved by voters three years ago, the Los Angeles Controller's Office said in a report released in October.

High real estate prices - the median value of a home in greater Los Angeles is currently around $650,000 - were only partly to blame, Controller Ron Galperin said in a telephone interview. The biggest financial drains were "soft costs" such as architectural design fees, permitting and inspections.

"These days, to get almost anything built in Los Angeles you need a small army of lawyers and lobbyists," Galperin said.

The city's plan to put homeless centers across the metropolitan area sparked a backlash from some residents concerned it could depress real estate values. In the wealthy, beachside neighborhood of Venice, where the median home price approaches $2 million, some residents have gone to court to oppose a homeless center.

On-site facilities to assist the homeless - medical clinics and office space for case managers and social workers - are another cost-driver, city officials say. Those services average $7,000 per unit per year, to be borne by Los Angeles County government.

People coming off the streets have a lot of needs, homeless advocates say.

Like Decoursey, 15 percent of homeless adults were once in foster care, according to the Homeless Services Authority.

A report released this month by the California Policy Lab in Los Angeles, which crunched survey data from 64,000 single adult homeless people across the country, found half of them reported suffering from some combination of physical, mental and substance abuse conditions.

In Los Angeles County, the mortality rate among homeless people has increased for the last five years, with more than 1,000 dying in 2018 from such causes as heart disease and overdosing on drugs, according to the county Department of Public Health.

While shelters have traditionally forbidden drug and alcohol use, officials have begun dropping sobriety requirements for supportive housing, under a model called "housing first" that has been used in Canada and other parts of the United States.

Los Angeles had already built some permanent housing units with support services even before the infusion of $1.2 billion from Proposition HHH. They fill up quickly and generate long waiting lists, city officials said.

NO PETS ALLOWED

Kenny Miles Bard, 61, who was living in his sedan parked on a hilly street in Hollywood, said he did not like the rules or his companions at a shelter he once tried.

"Out here you're more in control of your own destiny, so to speak, and if there are people you don't want to be around, you don't have to be around them," he said. "You go somewhere else."

Such reluctance to stay at a shelter is shared by a portion of the homeless population, said Benjamin Henwood, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California.

"If the choice is to go into a shelter, they might say 'no thank you' because a shelter can be a place where you can get robbed or assaulted or woken up at certain times or have to go to bed at certain times," he said. "If you actually offer them a private space of their own, the majority of people will take you up on that offer."

One in seven homeless people in Los Angeles, however, has a pet and may be reluctant to part with it, Henwood said.

One non-profit in Los Angeles, People Assisting the Homeless, is making the shelters it operates more welcoming by allowing pets for emotional support and stepping up security so residents' possessions are not stolen, said its associate director, Jesus Torres.

At the Hollywood tent encampment, Decoursey, who said she previously battled a cocaine addiction and has been homeless on and off for much of her adult life, mentioned a "street dad" and other transients she considers brothers, sisters, nephews and cousins.

"The circumstances out here are dangerous," Decoursey said as she scanned her longtime encampment. "The sooner we all can be housed, the better."

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)

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