One problem with itinerant people’s eating habits isn’t the lack of nutrition education. It is a lack of access to healthy foods.
If you’ve ever lived on the street or in your car, or have suffered any other kind of itinerant existence, you will know there’s more to feeding yourself than not starving. There is, for instance, the question of whether the food you manage to scare up is fresh, clean and, in some cases, sufficiently cooked to not infect you with any number of foodborne illnesses, from salmonella to hepatitis A. Then you have to worry about whether, even if the food is safe, your hands are not. Hand-washing has been found to reduce gastrointestinal illness by as much as 31 percent.
Complicating matters even more, you might have a diet-related illness: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or the inability to digest certain foods. You might have lost many of your teeth — people who live on the street have scant access to dental care — which rules out that fresh, crunchy carrot. And you might have to limit your food choices to what’s on the shelves in a convenience store. When you’re carting everything you own with you everywhere you go, a trip inside a grocery store means finding a place to stash your gear and pray that no one swipes it.
Food safety, security, storage — these are the problems that necessarily influence the meal choices of people living without the other conveniences of shelter. “People who live without a place to cook or prepare their food, or a place to wash their hands, have considerations that are different than those for people who are housed,” says Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Buying in bulk is not an option for them. Buying food that’s fresher and can spoil easily is not an option for them.”
Nor is spending a lot of time obsessing about bacteria. “At the top of people’s minds when they’re living homeless is not, ‘How do I keep my food safe?’ They’re thinking about how to prevent arrest.”
Seven years ago, in an effort to steer homeless people and their advocates toward better food choices, the Sacramento Hunger Coalition issued a nutrition education toolkit for people living without permanent shelter. “There was a wave of interest to make things more nutritious for people,” says Sabrina Hamm, who, as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow, wrote and compiled the toolkit. But she soon realized, as did others on the project, that the problem with itinerant people’s eating habits wasn’t a lack of nutrition education. It was a lack of access to healthy foods.
California ranks 45th among states participating in the federal government’s SNAP nutrition program, even though a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in the state.
“I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, and I always get the same question,” says Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “Why, if people are food insecure, are they overweight?” The reason, he says, is that the cheapest and most filling foods pack in the maximum salt, sugar and fat. “You might know what’s good for you. But when you go into 7-Eleven, what you can buy is a bag of potato chips and a coke.”
Erlenbusch and Bartholow are at the forefront of a movement to make healthy food accessible to homeless people. Most of their wins have involved expanding options for recipients of SNAP — the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, rebranded in California as CalFresh. Recipients have their benefits loaded onto an Electronic Benefits Card, which they can use to buy food at grocery stores. They can also, in some counties, use their cards at farmers markets.
But for someone without a permanent address, CalFresh can seem complicated. “SNAP doesn’t always fit into homeless people’s lives,” Bartholow says. California ranks 45th among states in SNAP participation, even though a quarter of the nation’s homeless live in California. “People don’t know about it,” Erlenbusch says. They might not even know that someone without a mailbox qualifies.
Worse, conservatives in Congress continue to wage war on SNAP. Since the passage of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 “welfare reform law,” able-bodied, unemployed adults without dependents get only three months of food assistance in any three-year period. Many states were allowed to suspend the time limit during the recession, but no longer. California’s waiver expires in September 2018. In the latest iteration of a farm bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, SNAP benefits for unemployed adults without dependents would have covered only one month before work requirements kicked in. Erlenbusch called it “hideous,” adding that it would have increased “homelessness and food insecurity among millions of people.”
If you’re homeless the worst thing isn’t that you ate a hamburger today. It’s that you went hungry.
The bill fell 15 votes short when the House took it up on May 18, but only because some Republicans who defected to vote with Democrats wanted to tie it to a more punishing deal on immigration. “It’s not a fatal blow,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), head of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, told reporters. “It’s just a reorganizing.”
Even with full CalFresh benefits, however, the unsheltered can find the program’s limitations stifling. Prepared hot meals might be the safest and most convenient option for people without kitchen access, for instance. But SNAP can’t be used for prepared hot meals. One exception is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Restaurant Meals Program, which allows CalFresh recipients who are homeless, elderly or disabled to use their benefits at participating restaurants in certain counties. Disappointingly, only five states currently participate in the program, and in California, only nine counties have opted in. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) is currently carrying a bill that would extend the program to California State University students, even if they live in a county that hasn’t adopted the program.
The restaurant meals exemption is not without controversy. Marion Nestlé, the renowned nutritionist and author, has been sharply critical of people using benefits in fast-food restaurants, musing that Yum! Brands in particular, which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, participates only to earn a cut of SNAP payouts, which were $68.1 billion in 2017. (Yum! Brands has “actively encouraged their franchised restaurants,” to sign up, Bartholow says.)
Nestlé might be correct about Yum! Brands’ motives. But anti-hunger activists consider the moralizing akin to telling people that walking barefoot is better than wearing flimsy shoes. “If you’re hungry and living homeless, the worst outcome isn’t that you ate a hamburger today,” Bartholow says. “The worst outcome is that you went hungry.”
Restaurant eating also allows people to use a bathroom, wash their hands and break bread in the presence of other people — an ever-more vital part of mealtime, now that authorities have criminalized encampments such as Orange County’s Santa Ana riverbed. “Food isn’t just about getting something in your body,” Bartholow says. “Food is also a way that, culturally, we come together.” Sometimes that matters almost as much as the food itself.
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Living Homeless in California: Daily Needs, Lasting Scars
For 10 days Capital & Main will look at homelessness through the eyes of the homeless – specifically, by seeing how they meet basic everyday needs.
Unlike solutions to many other social crises, ending homelessness will require an act of epic restoration – returning America to a time when we did not have to daily step around tents sheltering the destitute, or look past the outstretched hands of the hungry. Yet there are signs of hope in California and elsewhere, for the editorial chorus of concern about this seemingly intractable problem has lately been accompanied by political actions that have seen voters raise taxes to fund housing and court rulings blocking cities from literally sweeping away the problem with bulldozers.
For the next 10 days Capital & Main will look at homelessness through the eyes of the homeless – specifically, by seeing how they meet basic everyday needs, the fulfillment of which most of us take for granted. We will cite some familiar statistics in the policy discussions that accompany each story, but this series’ main goal is to let readers know exactly how difficult it is for their fellow Californians to find a place to sleep at night, to find food or even to go to the bathroom in safety.
- Kelly Candaele explores the plight of the shelterless as seen by homeless veterans.
- Gustavo Arellano hears a Santa Ana riverbed “Lost Boy” explain “freeganism” and the science of dumpster diving.
- Jason McGahan talks to residents on Los Angeles’ Skid Row who use “spotters” to keep criminals from preying on them inside porta-potties. A followup policy story looks at government and nonprofit efforts to alleviate a hygiene crisis.
- Gabriel Thompson visits Humboldt State University, where, according to one survey, nearly one-fifth of the students have experienced homelessness at least once in the past year.
- Matt Tinoco looks at how hard it is to find and hold down a job when you don’t have an address.
- Dean Kuipers describes the redemptive powers of a hot shower and clean clothes on homeless people fortunate enough to connect with Lava Mae’s portable facilities.
- Larry Buhl follows a team of Venice Family Clinic professionals as they seek out homeless men in need of both medical and mental health care.
Other stories include homeless policy overviews by Judith Lewis Mernit, Bobbi Murray and Bill Raden, along with profiles by Pandora Young, who encounters the joy of homeless people with their pets, and Kerry Candaele, who reflects on the death of a homeless man.
Although these writers tell us how bad it is on the streets, they also spell out what experiments have been launched to help America’s most helpless. Their narratives will challenge the assumption that the homeless are “other people” – showing, instead, that they may be colleagues we once worked with, or neighbors who suddenly went away.
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Living Homeless in California: A Death in Venice
On a four-block walk from his Venice home, a filmmaker encounters sky-high rents, a pet store offering “anti-anxiety calming anti-aggression” dog treats and gourmet “hot smoked peppered salmon” at Whole Foods. Last December he found a body by a bus bench.
Local businesspeople were nonplussed.
One merely noted that the dead man was a “homeless dude.”
I take a walk every morning to the Whole Foods that sits on the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Rose Avenue, four blocks from my house in Venice, California. I walk for exercise and observation. I buy a piece of fruit and return home the way I came, a 30-minute canvassing of what remains in place and at stake, and what has changed in this rapidly gentrifying community.
In four blocks I cross paths with the contradictory reality of Venice during a time of frenzied transformation. One can purchase Atlantic Hot Smoked Peppered Salmon at Whole Foods for $28.99 a pound, while across the street the popular Natural Pet store offers “anti-anxiety calming anti-aggression” “Zen Licks” for dogs who belong to people more anxious than they are.
Home prices and rents here are at astronomically high, rivaling Bel Air and the Pacific Palisades for the most expensive real estate in California.
And there are hundreds of homeless men and women living on the streets, many in semi-permanent tent enclaves, others sleeping alone and where they can. On my walk I pass two or three men that are mentally distressed and who occasionally feel threatening.
Last December I walked by a familiar bus-stop bench at the corner of Lincoln and Sunset Avenue, and saw a dead man. Police had cordoned off the area with yellow tape, with a white tarp covering the body.
Local businesspeople were nonplussed. One merely noted that the guy was a “homeless dude,” as if that kind of death is no surprise – and it isn’t — and certainly not worth mourning. The other homeless people in the neighborhood didn’t know him, and had little to say about his death, perhaps understanding that the scene is all too common in Los Angeles, with 831 other homeless men and women having preceded this man in 2017, a sizable spike from the 713 homeless who died on the streets in 2016. In 2013, the number was 458. Did those looking on also feel a slight foreboding?
Unclaimed bodies are cremated in
Boyle Heights. Unclaimed ashes end up in a common grave after two years.
Ed Winter, assistant chief of investigations at the county coroner’s department, tells us that the man was Caucasian, over 60, with no living parents and from South Carolina. He died of a heart attack. “Case 2050” has a half-sister who was afraid of him when he was a younger man and lived closer to home. He had been incarcerated a few times, and according to siblings, had been estranged from his family for at least 35 years. They want nothing to do with what’s left of him. Unclaimed bodies are cremated at the L.A. County Crematory and Cemetery in Boyle Heights. If the ashes are not claimed in two years, they end up in a common grave where all unattended bodies for the year are buried.
How the dead man ended staking out a home on a bus bench in Venice is a mystery.
How the man ended staking out a home on a bus bench in Venice is a mystery. As far as I could tell the bench was his, if longevity on a spot can be considered an ownership of some sort. During his final weeks, when I got to know his place but not him, this was a man with next to nothing in his life. He now has only a number.
During the day, he would sit up with his head bowed, trying to sleep or hide or go unnoticed and unharmed: These anti-homeless benches are designed to keep people from lying down. He pissed himself often enough, rarely showered, and the evidence of both details were clear to the senses.
In the evening he managed to tweak his body and thin blankets around the steel arms that divide the bench into quarters. His “sleep” most certainly was a twisted affair, with traffic and sirens and unwanted thoughts weaving in an out of a drink-soaked fever dream of hellish dimensions. A nearby pepper tree, strangely, is filled with what sounds like hundreds of parakeets jabbering nonstop, adding another element of torture from a source that is designed to bring delight. My man, why pick this godforsaken corner, this punishing bench?
Under the sign of a new “gilded age,” distracted and busy as we all are, giving our attention to another human being who is at his wits end, or just his end, is difficult in the extreme.
These days, under the sign of a new “gilded age,” distracted and busy as we all are, giving our attention to another human being who is at his wits end, or just his end, is difficult in the extreme. Complaints will be made over dinner, questions asked, advice given: What can I really do? There are so many who need help. I’ll only give money to those who are providing a service — “cleaning” my windshield or busking a few songs on a corner. Finally, fatally, as if an echo from 19th-century London: Are there no workhouses, is there not some slight provision for the poor and destitute? Someone must be doing something. Catastrophic, large-scale disasters bring out the best in us; ugly, slow-moving ones, not so much.
Of course, some people and institutions and a few elected officials are trying to help, doing honorable work, with funds raised for low-cost housing, shelters, mental health and addiction care. But in general, the commons seems overdrawn on its ethical accounts, if the neglect of these people over many decades counts as evidence for such a claim. And some will ask, in the language of behavioral economics: Was this man, who likely had chosen his fate, a “free rider” after all? Sure, build low-cost housing for the homeless, but please not near my increasingly valuable house. Across Venice, this conversation is taking place as I write, with many wanting to leave the city of Los Angeles (a “Vexit”), so as not to be subject to the decisions of the city council when it comes to the homeless question.
A homeless man who falls dead off a bus bench onto Lincoln Blvd. at 7 in the morning might not be worthy of any local poet’s attention, but we most certainly need a few poets in these precincts to document such harrowing events. Unclaimed and now a statistic, he is an anecdote to be passed around among friends and neighbors, a silent and now archived body and testimony to our time in paradise. As for this unlovely and unloved man, even a kind burial will have to wait until that common grave opens up, two years hence.
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Living Homeless in California: Can Washing Up Transform Lives?
At the center of the homeless crisis are filthy encampments where people eat, sleep and relieve themselves, all within the same few square yards. City and county governments are confronting the problem in creative ways.
“The beauty of having people inside [shelters] is that they can detox
from the survival mode of the streets.”
It took 20 deaths from a Hepatitis A outbreak among San Diego’s homeless population for city officials to realize their efforts to address a mushrooming crisis were failing. Besides being an eyesore for housed residents, the squalor on the streets had become an infectious disease crisis with hundreds of hospitalizations, mostly on the public’s dime.
As the crisis unfolded late in 2017, San Diego’s city council took an unprecedented action among West Coast cities to allocate $6.5 million for three large, semi-permanent rigid tent shelters. Though the shelters serve now as nodes for addiction rehabilitation and employment connection services, the most fundamental service the shelters provide for San Diego’s homeless is a chance to wash their bodies, and a safe, clean place to sleep.
“Since then, we’ve had 14 cities come down here begging us to do in their communities what we do in San Diego,” boasts Bob McElroy, CEO of the Alpha Project, which operates the largest of the shelters that are home to 325 men and women. “You have to have a starting point. Allowing people to lie on their ass in the street is not a starting point. The simple reality is that it’s better to have people inside as opposed to outside.”
But McElroy’s no-nonsense tone betrays how he views homeless policy “dictated,” as he says, “by paperhangers who don’t understand or have a relationship to the homeless population.” Without bringing people inside—where they can keep their bodies clean and need not worry about getting robbed or assaulted—McElroy expects little about the present homeless crisis to change.
Although cities and counties across California and up the West Coast are spending more money on homelessness than ever before, the problem continues to worsen. Pending the results of this year’s annual homeless census, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned Angelenos in early May to expect an increase in 2018 over the previous year.
At the center of the homeless crisis are the filthy encampments where people eat, sleep and relieve themselves, all within the same few square yards. In most jurisdictions, the dominant strategy has been simply to “clean-up” the encampments by shoveling their contents into garbage trucks and dispersing the residents—as San Francisco and Orange County have demonstrated on a massive scale over the past few months. Invariably, however, the camps return after a few weeks.
Public backlash forced Orange County supervisors to backpedal a plan to erect a serviced shelter on county property in Irvine.
Although San Diego has recently emerged as a leader in fostering “sanctioned” homeless camps, where residents are both allowed to stay put and provided with basic services, the idea behind them is not new. Oakland piloted a program that supplied one of the city’s largest encampments with portable toilets and regular trash pick-up. More than a year later, Oakland has moved on to providing some of its homeless with rigid “tuff-shed” shelters on publicly owned sites, with access to city services.
“The beauty of having people inside is that they can detox from the survival mode of the streets,” says McElroy. “It gives us time to develop the relationships and the trust necessary to get people to seek mental health services, get them back on their prescribed medications.”
But sanctioned camps are extremely controversial among housed residents who live near their proposed locations. Public backlash forced Orange County supervisors to backpedal a plan that would have erected a serviced shelter on county property in Irvine.
After Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti announced that the first of 15 proposed large-scale shelters for the city would be built in Koreatown, local residents held a rally to protest it, citing concerns over public safety. (The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for details about the shelters.)
The challenge of scaling shower pilot programs across a four-county region with more than 60,000 homeless looms large.
In the meantime, city and county leaders are working to expand a series of programs intended to provide homeless residents with, at the very least, a chance to clean up. Prompted by San Diego’s hepatitis outbreak, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis pushed to establish a mobile shower pilot program at a pair of locations around Los Angeles County. Aside from offering L.A.’s unhoused a chance to get clean, the shower stations also serve as a connecting point to services to help those experiencing homelessness.
“For those of us who are housed, it might be hard to imagine, but it is fundamentally transformative for someone who has been living on the streets to be able to take a shower, or to have a place other than an alleyway or behind a bush to go to the bathroom,” said Metro transportation director and L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin, when other Metro directors recently voted to study adding bathrooms and showers to the county rail system.
The two existing sites that are a part of the L.A. County pilot program can serve up to about 90 people each week per site, according to Supervisor Solis’ office. Still, the challenge of scaling the shower pilot programs across a four-county region with more than 60,000 homeless looms large.
McElroy doesn’t want to criticize mobile shower programs that Los Angeles has rolled out so far, but questions whether giving people a place to shower will have any meaningful effect if they return to an unhealthy outdoor camp.
“I hate using cliches, but it’s a Band-Aid,” he says. “I would not want to say that’s not a cool thing to do, because it is. But, when you’re dealing with human beings and you take things in pieces, it doesn’t work. Come on, put up a structure and get a couple hundred people in there, and start transitioning them through. Give people time to detox from the street. That’s the only way change is going to happen.”
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Living Homeless in California: Dignity Is a Hot Shower
Facilities that provide showers and clean clothes encourage the homeless to seek health services and permanent supportive housing.
For Los Angeles County’s homeless, a shower and clean clothes are more than a hygiene issue. They’re a matter of humanity.
Eric Finister feels fresh. As fresh as a chronically homeless man can feel. The 53-year-old has just emerged from the showers at a Lava Mae portable trailer parked alongside Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, and he looks sharp: his soft face glowing, salt-and-pepper beard trimmed and wearing new clothes.
For a moment, he can forget about the crowded, trash-strewn reality of Western Avenue and the hustle that exist only a few yards away.
“This is what helps,” Finister says. “I count this as a blessing to be able to come get a shower, have some fresh clothes and a meal to eat. This helps me along the way until I get back to where I know to be, and when I do, I will never forget this place.”
For the roughly 53,000 men and women in Los Angeles County who don’t have permanent housing (and for some who do), a shower and clean clothes are more than a matter of hygiene. They’re a matter of humanity. Cleaning up can dissolve the separateness between a homeless person and the rest of society. It’s a door through which some will come to mental health services, substance abuse counseling, church and other community contacts and, finally, housing.
Lava Mae calls it “radical hospitality,” and it’s in very short supply in Los Angeles. The privately funded group runs two trailers with three showers each on a daily schedule around town. The city operates one similar trailer at the Skid Row Community ReFresh Spot on Crocker Street downtown; the other option is shelters, which are avoided by a significant number of the homeless.
If L.A. County were a refugee camp, by United Nations standards its number of public showers would be considered woefully insufficient.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ standard for displaced-persons camps is one shower for every 50 people; if we think of Los Angeles County as one giant refugee camp, that would mean about 1,140 showers. A 2017 study looking at the lack of toilets on L.A.’s Skid Row (nine public toilets for roughly 2,000 people at night) also found a “scarcity of showers.”
“[The shower] transmits that we care about you and that you have dignity as a human being,” says Paul Asplund, Lava Mae’s director of partnerships and development. He’s a big, voluble guy with a graying beard who was once homeless himself 30 years ago, and has since had several successful careers.
“We notice a change when people emerge from the shower,” Asplund adds. “They’ve pressed the pause button on a chaotic life. They’ve had 15 to 20 minutes of privacy, peace and hot water, clean towels and some products. We know that has got to improve their health, if only from a psychological aspect. We haven’t quantified this in a larger way, but we’re not a health mission. We’re on a dignity mission.”
Asplund finds Lava Mae’s “guests” are more likely to seek out the other resources available at Mount Tabor. His job is to bring together partners like those at this church, where folks seeking showers also find food, clothes, and representatives from the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, the Department of Mental Health, Mount Tabor’s ministry and others who can put them on a path to housing.
Finister’s story is not unusual: He grew up in Compton, the youngest of 10 children. He has worked in warehouses, but his last job was doing homecare for his elderly parents after they moved to a rented trailer in a mobile home park in neighboring Paramount. Several years ago a funeral for one of his sisters put his parents behind on rent, and when they got evicted and went to assisted living, Finister ended up on the street. He crashed with various friends and lived for a while in Long Beach’s Bixby Park. He has adult children but, he says, “I can’t go to them like this.” He’s currently on the county’s general relief program and is staying at a shelter on Western Avenue called the Testimonial Community Love Center. He wants to work and to have a permanent home, and to get them he needs a positive outlook. The shower helps.
Lava Mae staff greeted a man who looked like an apparition, his clothes blackened and stained. “Hook me up!” he said, motioning to a shower.
“When I came last Wednesday, they got jazz! Man, I’m like, ‘Oooh! I can get with this!’” he enthused. The custom-built Lava Mae trailers have three complete bathrooms, each with a toilet, sink and shower, cleaned after every use and stocked with donated products. “I can take my time, lather up, and do what I gotta do and come out: Ta-da!”
Bernice Noflin, Mount Tabor’s outreach coordinator, notes that committing to help the homeless has created new energy in the church.
“What I didn’t expect was the benefit to our ministry, to the people working in this church,” she says. “Purpose is huge. Sometimes it’s what keeps you alive. It’s healing for all.”
As Finister and I talk on the sun-baked sidewalk, a slow parade of men turn up. One of them comes like an apparition, his very identity lost in clothes blackened and stained, a man to whom polite society would give a wide berth. The Lava Mae folks step forward and greet him. “Hook me up!” he says, motioning to the trailer.
On another day, Ismael Godinez, a caseworker with Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System, or HOPICS, is operating out of its South L.A. office. As he drives out in a van to do some intake paperwork with a single mother with five kids, and who is living out of her old SUV at Ted Watkins Memorial Park, Godinez tells me that he already has an appointment later in the week to drive another client to the Lava Mae showers.
“He wasn’t using all our services, but when I mentioned that I could get him a shower, his eyes lit up,” says Godinez. “He was, like, ‘Oh, I’d like that.’”
People find showers anywhere they can or take “birdbaths” — washing up at a sink in a restaurant or gas station.
Having a shower to offer, like a meal or a fresh set of clothes, is a chance to connect. On the drive over, Godinez says he hoped to win a little more of the man’s trust. He related another case where one of their clients had an opportunity to go for a job interview, and one of the mental health workers let him borrow a suit, and he got the job.
John Helyar, manager of the outreach teams at HOPICS, says that his group doesn’t get that much demand for showers or laundry. People find showers elsewhere or take “birdbaths” — washing up at a sink in a restaurant or gas station — and when they need clothes they get them from clothing giveaways. His teams get people to showers when they want them, but that need is dwarfed by the most obvious one: housing. That remains the big roadblock, two years after voters approved a massive housing ballot initiative. “HHH was passed in November 2016, so barely anything has come online yet, and it’s going to be a while before it [does],” Helyar explains.
Still, in places where homeless encampments are dense or services simply scarce, the showers are a draw.
L.A. Metro plans to put bathrooms and showers in some of its 93 rail stations.
“Bringing these mobile showers or the ReFresh Spot on Skid Row really gives us a tool for engagement teams,” says Celeste Rodriguez, homelessness policy coordinator in the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. “At the end of [the shower], there’s another moment of engagement to connect them to outreach teams, which get them to services and ultimately to long-term housing, which is everyone’s goal.”
The city’s ReFresh Spot project, launched in December 2017, is already very popular with the homeless. It is currently transitioning to its second phase, which will see three trailers offering more than a dozen showers, toilets and a set of clothes washers and dryers.
“It’s not just a porta-potty,” says Zita Davis, executive officer at the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. “It includes what we call ambassadors; they serve as kind of outreach folks. They welcome anyone who wants to use the facilities. They also direct them to professionals who are on site, if they need additional services. There’s always a clinical person who’s on site and can help with referrals. And they can make connections, to try to develop a plan for them so that they can ultimately end up in housing.”
Other public agencies are also seeing the need. The L.A. Metro board of directors voted recently to create a plan for putting bathrooms and showers in some of the 93 existing Metro stations, the first two appearing at the North Hollywood and the Westlake/MacArthur Park Red Line stations.
“It’s not a business that the city has been in, providing temporary showers and toilets,” says Davis. “These are some of the innovative ideas and projects that the city has put forward to try and bring dignity to folks who don’t yet have housing. Building infrastructure takes longer, so this is an approach to addressing needs today.”
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Living Homeless in California: Finding Shelter — Veterans Are Broke But Not Broken
Homeless veterans live solitary and nomadic existences. At night, some sleep in cars parked near VA facilities, under freeway overpasses or in public parks.
“I don’t think any veteran wakes up and says, ‘I want to be on the street,'” says one ex-Marine.
Jack Rumpf sits on a circular bench at the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards in West Los Angeles, and talks about ghosts. Wearing a long white beard, dirty sweatpants, white socks and slippers, he turns and sweeps an arm towards the empty spaces next to him. “There used to be 15 or 20 people sitting with me here,” he says, lowering his voice to a melancholic whisper. “They are all dead now.”
Rumpf says he is a Navy veteran, a brother of five sisters, an observer of our current political scene and a lover of dogs. He is also homeless and has been so almost three decades.
Every morning he drives his beat-up Mustang from where he parked it at night to sleep, and finds a space near the Veterans Affairs hospital. Rumpf “flies a sign” – a placard asking for money – at a Wilshire Blvd. intersection. He says that Dan Aykroyd, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams have given him money, and that he has the process down to a science. “There are 30 cars at every light, which lasts 2.5 minutes,” he points out. “If half the cars give me a quarter that’s over $40 an hour.”
His beloved dog, Layla, perched in the driver’s seat, watches over the car a few yards away.
The 59-year-old Rumpf says he’s “done every damn drug that’s been known” and regards homelessness as “pretty much my fault.” He became homeless 28 years ago when he lost a job. He takes antibiotics, has high blood pressure and uses an inhaler for asthma. He caught pneumonia three times in one year. “I’m not young anymore so I have a hard time enduring the elements.”
“Mental health is not like breaking your leg, where everyone can see it.
Unaddressed, it gets worse.”
Rumpf is one of nearly 5,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County. Those on the Westside sleep under overpasses beneath the San Diego Freeway, on the sidewalk near the VA or tucked in vacant doorways along Wilshire or Santa Monica boulevards. When hearing their stories, there is often the suspicion that they might be tampering with the evidence of their own lives, as if they were struggling to sort out the “facts” of their personal stories.
Harry Shaw beds down each night near an ally at Park and Speedway in Venice, just yards from the beach. He embraces a strict moral code about what he will and will not do to feed himself and his dog Lulu, who he calls “part of my soul.”
“I’ll starve before I’ll eat anything gross,” he says as he eats the last of a bag of jellybeans he was given. “I won’t eat out of the garbage and I won’t sell my body, and Lulu eats before I do. I may be broke but I’m not broken.”
Shaw alleges that he was medically discharged from the Army with less than full benefits after 23 years of service because he couldn’t reach what he says was a 160-pound weight requirement for a person of his height, although published Army height-to-weight ratios contradict his claim. He is 5 feet 8 inches tall. “I could eat like a horse or eat 20 meals a day but I would only reach 155 pounds,” he says.
A veteran of the Iraq War, he is suing Veterans Affairs for full benefits but meanwhile collects nothing, refusing to take the 35 percent he says the VA offered. “The VA destroys the vets,” he says.
Shaw drove a car from Tennessee to San Francisco, sold it and took a bus to Los Angeles. Now he flies the sign every morning near the Santa Monica Pier. According to his moral logic, panhandling is when you ask someone, “Can you spare some change?” while flying the sign is work.
He recently made $2 during a six-hour period, a daily ritual that he calls his “mission.” He wanted a slice of pizza but the cost at the local pizza joint was two dollars plus tax, so he bought a can of food for his dog instead. “The hardest part is finding a place to clean yourself,” he notes.
If offered housing assistance by the VA Shaw might consider it, but he prefers to sleep on the streets and fight for his full benefits. “I’d rather have a recreational vehicle where I can go wherever the heart and mind desires,” he says.
Shaw’s antipathy towards the VA is not atypical for homeless veterans. For whatever reason – bureaucratic hurdles, negative staff or physician interactions, or the vet’s own contributions to an already difficult situation – complaints abound.
The VA is now planning 1,200 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans.
The original purpose of the West Los Angeles land that was donated to the federal government in 1887 was to house homeless veterans. Over the years, however, VA budgeting priorities directed towards the hospital and questionable land leases left the campus dilapidated and underutilized.
As a result of a 2011 lawsuit filed on behalf of homeless vets initiated by local attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union, the VA is now committed to repurposing the 388-acre campus, located near the 405 Freeway, to house veterans.
Jesse Creed, executive director of Vets Advocacy LA (a party to the lawsuit), believes the land could house every homeless veteran in Los Angeles County. “It’s as much land as UCLA, which has 45,000 students,” he says.
The VA is now planning 1,200 units of permanent housing for homeless veterans. A private sector developer is being chosen to finance construction and operate the housing facility.
Monte Williams is one of 54 veterans who currently live in permanent housing on the VA campus. An ex-Marine, he describes becoming homeless as a “process.”
“I don’t think any veteran wakes up and says, ‘I want to be on the street,’” he says. Williams lost his job when mental health issues got the best of him: “Mental health is not like breaking your leg, where everyone can see it. Unaddressed, it gets worse.”
One L.A. vet pushes a shopping cart filled with his tent and other belongings half a mile up a small hill to make his hospital appointments.
Williams, who became homeless in 2010, had an epiphany while looking to buy alcohol near the VA hospital. “Another older homeless veteran I was with pointed to the hospital and told me to go to the emergency room and my sanity just came back,” he says with tears in his eyes.
He is appreciative of the programs and housing that the VA has provided and now helps his new family — other homeless vets. “My daily life is sharing my story with other veterans…helping them gain their life back.”
Donald Leslie Peterson sleeps under the 405 Freeway. The story that he tells about himself is difficult to follow. He says he was shot during a rescue mission in Panama in 1989, that he has two Purple Heart medals for wounds suffered in Afghanistan and Syria, and that he was on protection duty 30 feet behind John F. Kennedy’s car in Dallas.
Peterson takes the medication Abilify (prescribed for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) and says he stays close to the hospital so he can see his social worker and apply for housing. “Unless I sit down and think about things, my thinking gets a little bit crowded,” he says. He pushes a shopping cart filled with his tent and other belongings half a mile up a small hill to make his hospital appointments.
“Parents tell us we scare their children but I think the parents are scared more than the children.”
He becomes animated when he talks about his family — two girls who, he says, attend UCLA and visit him every other night. “The biggest challenge is keeping the bond of my family together,” he says. “It’s hard not being able to sit down with my family and have a meal. I mean, we sit on buckets and crates and joke and play, but when you come right down to it, it’s not funny.”
Heidi Marston, Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration Services at the Greater Los Angeles VA, believes that the VA has a program and approach that can reach homeless veterans where they are. “We use a housing-first approach, which means that housing is the first step for you. There are no barriers to getting into housing … so you don’t have to be sober and you don’t have to be in treatment,” she explains.
Asking a homeless veteran what they think the future holds for them is a way of asking about the kind of life they want — or fear.
Marc Cote, a five-year Army veteran who lives in a tent in Westwood Park, a few blocks from the VA hospital, wants to be left alone. Cote pushes himself around backwards in a wheelchair, using public bathroom sinks to clean up — what the homeless refer to as “birdbaths.” Parents walk by holding their children’s hands heading to soccer games and tennis matches. “The parents tell us we scare their children but I think the parents are scared more than the children,” he says.
Park rangers patrol the ground and sometimes demand that Cote take his tent down before 6 a.m. “I would be happy to stay here if they would leave me be,” he says one recent Saturday afternoon. “I don’t make a mess or argue or fight or throw things.”
It will take years until the 1,200 planned residential units are complete. Meanwhile thousands of veterans will remain on the street, finding food, shelter and companionship where they can.
Jack Rumpf remembers an incident from when he was flying his sign at a stoplight in Brentwood. “The guy pulled a gun on me and didn’t shoot. I said, ‘You schmuck, why didn’t you shoot me? If I was dead this would be all over.’” Rumpf believes that his near future is “leaving this world.” For now he settles for a safe parking space at night for himself and his dog.
Monte Williams, who has housing, feels an urgency towards his fellow veterans. “I refuse to believe that any veteran, or any human, wants to be on the streets,” he says. “Something has to happen, so I just want society to know – to try to understand.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Living Homeless in California: For Many Kids, Home Is Where the School Is
The Los Angeles Unified School District has more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. In response, the district has created some innovative policies.
For the teachers, counselors and school liaisons comprising the thin front line of educators grappling with the Golden State’s homeless student population explosion, the dire reality of what it means for the 268,699 young Californians public school districts identified last year as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” comes into grim focus during the home visit.
“I would find places where there was a garage [and] they would have an extension cord going to the front house,” Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Homeless Education Program coordinator Angela Chandler told Capital & Main, recalling her time as a district counselor in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. “The [floor] would be concrete with no carpet or anything, and there would be no real running water. The family would have to go to the front [house] to use the restroom.”
In a city like Los Angeles, whose high poverty and low housing affordability edged out San Francisco for the stop spot on Forbes’ 2018 list of the worst American cities for renters, veterans like Chandler have long become accustomed to seeing two, three and even four families “doubled up” in apartments meant for one.
In 2016-2017, 80 percent of Los Angeles County’s 71,727 homeless-identified students checked “doubled-up” on the Student Residency Questionnaire for incoming public and charter school students mandated by the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The 1987 federal law, which first spelled out the education rights for the nation’s homeless students, requires all schools and districts to provide homeless students “equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.” The first step is to recognize them when they walk through the door.
But in California, where parents are already uncomfortable with a perceived social stigma around homelessness, the same climate of fear ushered in by Donald Trump that has already spooked immigrant families from using the country’s safety net, has introduced a new skittishness to being identified as homeless.
“We get phone calls from some schools, from our liaisons there, that parents are apprehensive,” Chandler explained. “[Parents] thought that it was tied to residency status instead of nighttime residency, like where you live.”
That apprehension could explain how when the official homeless head count for the city conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) soared 23 percent from the previous year, LAUSD’s homeless count dropped from 17,258 students in 2016-17 — to what Chandler said was a little over 15,000 in 2017-18.
Nevertheless, even that drop gives LAUSD more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. Chandler serves them with an astonishingly skeletal staff: eight classified aides work the phones, coordinating the daily flood of district-wide calls for technical assistance and student supports; a sole “senior parent community facilitator” performs district-wide outreach; and the program’s heavy lifting falls to its 18 full-time counselors, who are charged with keeping the district’s homeless kids in the classroom and on track to escape the cycle of homelessness.
With homelessness, the clock is always ticking; the longer it lasts, the more dramatic its impact. Compared to non-homeless students, homeless kids become even more likely to be held back from grade to grade, to be chronically absent, to fail courses, have more disciplinary issues, and to drop out of high school. As with all extreme poverty, the traumas and deprivations of homelessness are just as toxic to early development and learning, to performance in middle and high school and to diverting kids into the juvenile justice system.
“Every time they change schools, they have setbacks,” Chandler said. “It’s harder for them to adjust. And we already know that their life is very chaotic, and some of it’s traumatic. So our focus is to minimize the amount of changes that these youth and children have to go through so that they at least have one stable, safe place to go on a daily basis, which is their school sites.”
Providing that safe place is why, Chandler said, so much of the program is focused on training school personnel and community partners. LAUSD requires each principal to designate a staff member as homeless liaison, who is responsible for meeting and assessing the needs of each homeless student in home visits. But that person must first be able to interpret federal guidelines for who is homeless. McKinney-Vento’s “fixed, regular and adequate” definition is much broader than the narrower, unsheltered street sense used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and by homeless service providers.
To pay for that service, LAUSD, like all California school districts, has been more or less left to cobble together money from wherever it can. Much of it comes from federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students, with some state money funneled through California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Anything beyond that is up to Chandler’s grant-writing prowess.
Last month, for example, the latter landed the district a competitive, $250,000, three-year federal Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grant. Chandler’s ingenuity wrangled money for three additional program positions when she managed to piggyback onto a Los Angeles County Office of Education proposal for tapping dollars from Measure H, the quarter-percent sales tax passed by county voters in 2017 for homeless services and prevention.
But Chandler was also instrumental in developing the strategy that has proved to be a game-changer for the district — the coup of bureaucratic diplomacy that wed LAUSD’s Homeless Education Program with L.A. County’s new Coordinated Entry System (CES), the database created in 2010 putting the most vulnerable of the homeless population in the front of the available housing queue. Practically, it meant co-locating LAUSD staffers inside the homeless-services providers to help train and aid them in referrals by meeting with families as they came for their intake sessions.
“Prior to them being there, trying to negotiate where these kids went to school or keeping them in the same school was incredibly difficult, because we don’t speak the same language that the districts do necessarily,” said Kris Freed. She is the chief programs officer for L.A. Family Housing, which owns and operates affordable housing and permanent supportive housing in the San Fernando Valley. “[Now] they’re huddled with us, if you will, so they hear everything that’s happening and can engage at any point and say, ‘I can help. I can step in. I can do this.’ ”
Chandler’s dream for the program is to build it into something that looks a lot more like L.A.’s robustly funded foster care system. Administered through the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, foster care provides kids with full-time, dedicated advocates and greater access to resources like scholarships and tuition programs to get into universities and colleges. It even offers independent living programs, so once kids age out or time out of the system, they land in some type of stable housing.
“The way out of poverty is through education,” she said. “We want our youth to become self-sustaining, so they can go on to school or get a decent job and are not homeless adults.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Living Homeless in California: For the Hungry, “Food Happens.” Until It Doesn’t.
The story of how California’s homeless find their daily bread is one of luck, charity and resourcefulness—but also of how eradicating long-established communities can lead to worse food insecurity.
For years Orange County nonprofits and churches served food at two homeless encampments. But when the sites were cleared of the homeless, their benefactors didn’t know where to find them.
Back when Brian Champanich had steady work as an audio-visual production specialist at hotels and convention centers around Southern California, his favorite meal to cook at home was steak.
“Top sirloin, medium-rare,” he recalled one recent afternoon, sitting under the shade of a picnic shelter at Anaheim’s Twila Reid Park. “It’s a freakin’ good piece of meat. Sometimes, I’d throw in some French fries or a baked potato in the oven, but I was never really into veggies. I’d have friends try it, and they’d tell me, ‘Damn, you can really cook!’”
But the 42-year-old Thai-American hasn’t enjoyed a top sirloin ever since he became homeless three years ago.
Champanich is wiry and wry, with a short haircut and a beard that’s graying at the chin. He’s one of whom housing advocates in Orange County call the Lost Boys — men who lived along the Santa Ana riverbed for the past couple of years but now don’t have a place to stay after the County of Orange cleared out its encampments in February. United States District Court Judge David O. Carter insisted that government officials offer temporary, 30-day motel vouchers to an estimated 600 long-term riverbed dwellers until the county figured out a permanent solution. But that push happened to coincide with a two-week stint at the Orange County Jail for Champanich, who says that made him ineligible for the program.
Many Lost Boys have relocated to Twila Reid because it’s within walking distance of long-rundown motels on Beach Boulevard in Anaheim and Stanton that are now alive with former riverbed residents. The 27-acre park is in a neighborhood of newer townhomes and hosts a playground, tennis courts, horseshoe pits and a Frisbee golf course. As Champanich speaks, retirees power-walk through its trails nearby; a group of women laugh as they roll up their yoga mats, while elsewhere some young people lay on the grass and vape. But homeless people linger at the edges and RVs are parked in a lot toward the back, away from the traffic of Orange Avenue and the gaze of patrol cars.
Andre Harris arrives on a purple bicycle. The former nursing student grabs a bag of Brandless Sour Cream & Onion Potato Crisps from Champanich, ignoring a berry-flavored Propel water in front of his friend. Harris begins to snack on the chips; they’re not half bad.
“You know freeganism?” Champanich says. “I’ve taken on some of those traits.”
The Lost Boys are men who lived along the Santa Ana riverbed for the past couple of years but now have no place to stay after they were scattered from their encampments in February.
For the next hour, he and Harris explain how the homeless eat: how they cook, where they find food, the virtue of sharing with others. What emerges is a story of luck, charity and resourcefulness—but also of how eradicating long-established communities can lead to worse food insecurity for the homeless.
“[Homeless] people now, they’re getting desperate for food,” Harris says.
“Out here now,” says Champanich, “it’s cutthroat.”
Champanich worked in audio-visual (“I don’t like the term ‘A/V guy’”) for 20 years. The working-class salary afforded him an apartment in Anaheim but little else. He adopted a frugal lifestyle out of personal philosophy and necessity.“I never liked to waste food,” he said. “Mostly cooked at home. ‘Going out’ was something if you were dating someone — or going to the movies.”
Top Ramen is “not really nutritious—empty calories and a bunch of sodium. But you can buy four for a dollar.”
Three years ago, Champanich lost his apartment and took to sleeping in parks or abandoned homes in West Anaheim with other people. In those initial months of homelessness, he depended on friends who invited him to their house for dinner, or took him a meal wherever he was staying. But Champanich stopped doing that, because “you don’t want to impose on people.”
He got EBT for a while, which let him buy food with relative ease, before losing his eligibility. That further limited his food choices, mostly to instant oatmeal and Top Ramen.
“It’s not really nutritious—empty calories and a bunch of sodium,” Champanich admitted about the latter. “But you can buy four for a dollar, and you take what you got and ya put it in it. Even meat.”
He pulls a weathered stovetop grate from his backpack. “You put that on a butane stove. Maybe you found a pot somewhere. Find some water, and boil it. There’s your meal.”Even during the hardest times, said Champanich, he never lacked for food. “I don’t beg for food. I don’t feel the need to,” he said. “Food happens. I don’t even think about it.”
“Pizza places throw away a lot of pizza. If it’s dry and clean and not soaking
under a bag of toilet paper, I’ll eat it.”
“You’re one of the lucky ones!” Harris says with a laugh. Champanich doesn’t carry much food on a day-to-day basis because it “just weighs you down. You need to have just the absolute necessities.” But camping with others allowed for some food security. People could stock up and take turns guarding their makeshift pantry. He sometimes dumpster-dived at restaurants, grocery stores and homes, and found each setting had its own quirks.
“Pizza places throw away a lot of pizza,” Champanich volunteered. “If it’s dry and clean and not soaking under a bag of toilet paper, I’ll eat it.”
The pickings were always slim at supermarkets, because they only threw out rotten food. Trash bins near homes and apartment complexes, on the other hand, rewarded Champanich with virtual feasts. Perfectly good meat and vegetables, loaves upon loaves of bread and buns. One time, he found “a bunch” of frozen tilapia and turkey burgers that he gave out to others.
“People throw away a lot,” he says. “It perplexes you.”
The menu options became better when Champanich moved to the Santa Ana riverbed about a year ago. Almost daily, nonprofits, church groups and random individuals brought food to the largest encampments—one was near the Orange Crush freeway interchange, another next to Angel Stadium. During the baseball season, Halos fans who tailgated in the parking lot before games frequently left their extra barbecue and tacos to the homeless, handing it to them over a fence that separated the two groups.
“You eat food as it’s available.
When you get it, you eat it.”
Sometimes, Champanich and Harris ate fully catered meals; other times, just hot dogs and hamburgers. One group brought boxes of Little Caesar’s pizzas every Sunday for months until a “snatchy grabby” homeless person spooked them. Another time, a man unloaded cases of what Champanich described as “weird, canned drinking water. It tasted like carbonated tap water.”
“It was fine,” he added. “None of [what people gave him] was deplorable. It wasn’t unbearable to eat.”
People would even leave gift certificates to restaurants, but Champanich dismissed such presents as “not economical. Like, you’d have to find a ride to a restaurant. And then people would just look at you weird while you’re just trying to get food.”
Riverbed residents supplemented the donated food with their own canned and dried goods. Some people kept coolers and ice and stuffed them with perishables that usually went bad fast. Rice and beans, and pastas were popular meals, because they kept well.
People tried to pool together what they had so that everyone could cook and eat together. No one was ever left hungry. “You didn’t have the people sitting and watching” others eat, Harris said. “Everyone ate. It didn’t matter whether you put in or not.”
County officials promised to provide meal vouchers to the displaced, but one homeless advocate claims few have received them.
The biggest food problem people faced at the riverbed? Ants. “Southern California is a giant anthill,” Champanich joked. “Brown, fire, army.”
“They would quickly go after everything,” Harris said.
Eating has become harder for the homeless since the county cleared out the riverbed, along with another big encampment, the Plaza of the Flags at the Santa Ana Civic Center. The nonprofits and churches that served food at the two spots for years don’t know where to find their former clients. County officials promised to provide meal vouchers to the displaced, but homeless advocate Mohammed Aly claims few have received them.
Champanich remains nonchalant about his abilities to source his next supper.
“You eat food as it’s available, when it’s available,” he says. “When you get it, you eat it.”
Recently, a group of Muslim women held a lunchtime rally at Twila Reid and approached Champanich and a group of other homeless afterwards with their leftovers. “Chicken, rice, quinoa, flatbread with cheese, vegetables and sauces,” he says. “It was a different taste to my palate. I can’t even describe the flavors, but it was good.”
He visits nearby motels during the day, where some nonprofits leave food.
“One day a guy showed up with frozen breakfast sandwiches and waters at the Covered Wagon,” an Anaheim motel to where many riverbed homeless relocated. “And then he just left.”
Harris isn’t as optimistic. He’s already hearing stories about homeless assaulting each other for food.
“Sharks smell blood in the water,” Champanich observes.
“It’s not good. It’s not good for anyone,” Harris adds. “As the Bible said, ‘Break bread.’”
Copyright Capital & Main
Living Homeless in California: Pet Owners on the Streets
Pets can provide an invaluable source of companionship, comfort and security. That’s especially true for those without stable housing.
An estimated five to 10 percent of homeless people in the United States have pets, according to the Nevada nonprofit organization, Pets of the Homeless. Take a trip through the tent cities that line the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles and you’ll see dogs, cats, even birds. As any pet owner can tell you, animals provide affection, comfort and stability, something that can be particularly meaningful when your life’s possessions could be swept away at any time by a police raid.
The animals benefit too. Most pets would prefer constant companionship outdoors to solitary shelter.
But many homeless shelters and housing programs don’t allow pets. The expenses, logistics and liabilities involved in housing animals can be prohibitive for programs that are already underfunded. The number of shelters that allow animals are on the rise, however.
I recently visited with a handful of homeless and formerly homeless pet owners in Los Angeles to learn about their lives.
Maria sells off-brand cigarettes in front of a row of tents on a busy street in downtown Los Angeles. She keeps her tobacco merchandise arranged neatly on a small plastic tray, and beside her a tiny Chihuahua puppy, Cici, runs and plays amid the sidewalk foot traffic, or naps in the small carrier at Maria’s feet.
Maria has been living here since getting out of jail in November, she says, “for something I didn’t do. It took them 35 days to realize I didn’t do it.” She emerged to find her husband of 37 years was gone. “He disappeared with all my money and all my stuff,” she adds. “The day I came out I slept on the sidewalk. My pillow was the cement and my blanket was the jacket I was wearing.”
“I was angry the first few months,” she continues. But in February she bought Cici from a street vendor for $40. “She has taken me out of my depression over what my husband did. She’s become everything to me. She’s my life.”
Maria knows everyone in her tent community. People stop by every few minutes to say hi. A couple even buy cigarettes, including a young man named Toby. “I call him my adopted son from the street, I take care of him. He’s been on the street since he was 16.” Toby recently turned 20, Maria says. “I got him a big-ass cake and some money, some clothes. I’m the first person who celebrated his birthday on the street.”
In a little over a month, Maria is scheduled to move to federally subsidized Section 8 housing in Long Beach. It’s far from her friends here, but she’s happy to go. “All I want is a roof over my head. As long as me and my dog got that, I’ll be alright.”
Craig, aka Taco, 58
“He’s my best friend,” Taco says of his 10-month-old puppy, Hambone. “I didn’t realize that a person could have such an attachment to an animal. But I do.”
Taco tells me he’s lived in California all his life, “except for I lived in Chicago for nine years. I loved Chicago, the weather, everything about Chicago. My ex-wife, she didn’t like the weather. We relocated back to L.A.”
Taco is single now. “My guards are still up, but I want to have those old feelings back again. Because I’m somewhat of a romantic type guy.” But Taco doesn’t get lonely, because he has Hambone. “He cheers me up when I’m sad. He’ll nudge me. He’ll come with concern, and then he’ll start playing, trying to make me laugh.”
Taco and Hambone live in a small single-room occupancy apartment, or SRO, in a building run by a nonprofit social services agency. “I came down here to Skid Row for the resources. A friend was telling me about the housing.”
He says his apartment is nice, and much better than shelters he’s stayed in, “but you’re on Skid Row. Skid Row’s like the courtyard, if you’ve ever been to the penitentiary. You have be ready, you have to have your shoes strapped up.”
Taco says he’s on the list for Section 8 housing, and looking forward to moving. He thinks he might like to live near Staples Center. A woman walks by with a small dog, and Hambone strains on his leash, whimpering and sniffing the other dog. “Stop it, stop it,” Taco scolds. “That’s a girl dog. She snapped at you, right? You’ll learn, you’ll learn women too.”
“I’ve had Flower since she was a puppy,” Thomasina says of her yellow Chihuahua mix. “This lady had a box of them in front of a store. The people I was staying with at the time bought her for their daughter, but they didn’t take care of her. She was so small, covered in fleas, so scared. So I started taking care of her. And ever since she’s been by my side. My little partner in crime.”
That was five years ago, when Thomasina’s life was in chaos. She had no stable place to live, and few opportunities. “I wanted to be in the working world, but had to live my life in the street. I got into prostitution by default.” She came to Skid Row in search of housing and social services, a move that was inspired in part by Oprah Winfrey. “I saw this clip of Oprah, and her words spoke to my heart,” she says, laughing. “She was saying, you have to help yourself, you have to do what you have to do.”
Thomasina was placed in dog-friendly SRO housing. “That room was my peace of mind,” she said. But living on Skid Row was often frightening. “Females down there usually have brothers or a boyfriend, people that can help them. It was just me and my dog. I didn’t have anyone watching my back. I was an easy target.” She was frequently harassed, sometimes by other residents in the building, and spent a lot of time hiding in her room. It was claustrophobic, she says, but having her dog kept her sane.
When Flower had a litter of puppies a couple of years ago, Thomasina gave them all away, but one was returned because he was too timid. Now both dogs are registered emotional support animals. Last year Thomasina moved from Skid Row to a small apartment she describes as “perfect.” But she was facing homelessness again when the landlord recently decided pets were no longer allowed. The nonprofit HEART helped her contest the eviction and stay in her home with her little Chihuahua family.
Crushow describes himself as a community activist and “art Jedi.” He’s on the way to his studio and can only talk for a few minutes. “I have show this weekend at Hotel Rendon. It’s called Art at the Rendon. Each artist gets their own room to install their art.”
Crushow introduces me to his three pit bulls and a tortoiseshell cat named Justice. The cat perches calmly of the edge of Crushow’s makeshift shelter, surveying the neighborhood. Crushow says when he’s away, neighbors take care of his pets, and he does the same for them. “We all try to look out for each other.”
Crushow is philosophical about life on the street. “Your box is bigger than mine, so what? I got another box I go to. And an office I go to. And an art studio I go to. It doesn’t matter what box it is. People are constricted and taught how to think. And I’m not.”
He shrugs. “Get caught up in that rat race all you want to, but when you die, what do you have? What did you do while you were here? Just thought about yourself and your big-ass box?”
Carol, age unknown
“I like walking around here,” Carol says, walking through Little Tokyo with a giant grey pit bull named Boss. She gestures toward Skid Row where she lives. “It’s like a war zone down there.” When I ask how long she’s been there, she replies, “Too long. Too long!”
Carol says she’s been depressed since Mother’s Day. Her own mother died a couple years ago, and it’s especially painful at certain times of the year. “Anniversaries are hard. Her birthday is hard.” Walking Boss helps cheer her up a little.
Carol tells me that she looks after Boss and a few other dogs for friends. He was one of a litter of nine puppies. “I took care of his mama, Lady, when she was in labor. It took 14 hours for all those puppies to be born!” That was a year ago. “We didn’t let their paws touch the sidewalk till they’d all had their shots. They can get Parvo that way.”
Carol is happy to talk but decides against being photographed.
Two weeks later, I meet a man on Skid Row who introduces me to four pit bulls he keeps in a pen next to his tent. One slips out the side of the pen and comes running over. It’s Boss! Then a couple of the other dogs follow his lead, and I realize the pen is nothing more that propped-up fencing. The dogs could easily knock it down – but they know better. After I play with the dogs for a while, their owner orders them back into the pen and they all trot home obediently. He tells them to sit for my camera, and they do, wagging their tails. I want to learn more about how he got so good at training dogs, but he shakes his head. “I don’t do interviews.”
Living Homeless in California: Public Bathrooms and Other Mirages
A 2017 audit found that in Los Angeles, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., there were only nine public toilets available for Skid Row’s estimated 1,777 unsheltered homeless people.
“There’s feces in the streets every day. When you’re not paying attention you step in it, or roll through it with your wheelchair.”
At nighttime on the eastern end of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a trek to the nearest public toilet is nearly unthinkable.
East of Crocker Street, the human scale of the homeless missions and single-room occupancy hotels recedes and the landscape becomes bleaker and more industrial.
Aaron Milsaps, known as Ace, says he knows better than to make the trip at night. In the outlying area near Fifth St. and Central Ave., where Milsaps has sheltered for nearly three years beneath a plastic tarpaulin, there are no guarantees of personal safety.
Toilets and showers are a 10-minute walk away, down streets lined with iron-fenced lots and shuttered wholesale businesses. The sidewalks are overcrowded in every direction with tents and tarps that, taken together, comprise the largest concentration of homeless people in the country.
The trouble Milsaps hears on the street at night keeps him inside his rudimentary dwelling until the rumbling of the first diesel trucks at dawn.
Milsaps, who worked as a systems administrator for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena two decades ago, keeps a bucket lined with a plastic trash bag in his tent. Like hundreds of others who sleep on the streets of Skid Row where toilets are scarce, he ties off the bag when he is finished and, when no one is looking, deposits it in a city trash can.
A 2017 audit of public toilets on Skid Row found that from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., there were only nine available for Skid Row’s estimated 1,777 unsheltered homeless people. County health officials recommended in 2013 that “Toilet facilities should be installed on all streets within the Skid Row Target Area with a maximum distance of 300 feet between units.”
Los Angeles city officials are unveiling new programs intended to mitigate a public health crisis, but homeless advocates and Skid Row residents say the city needs to do more. (See “Stopping a Hygiene Crisis on Skid Row.”)
Homeless Activist to L.A. Mayor:
“The toilets that you bringing, it’s 10 years late and it’s 300 too short!”
Milsaps, 56, is in decent health, but he sympathized with neighbors who rely on wheelchairs to get around or have physical ailments that can make them incontinent. For them, the 10-minute walk to the nearest bathroom is “time enough to crap in your pants.”
“There’s feces in the streets every day,” he added. “It reaches everywhere. When you’re not paying attention you step in it, or roll through it with your wheelchair, and you’re back in your tent wondering where the smell’s coming from.”
Six blocks westward, on a commercial block at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, an Armenian woman arrives at 7:15 a.m. to raise a metal security door and open her small convenience store for business. She has owned the V.M.C. Cigarette & Snack Shop for 30 years.
Early mornings are the worst, she said. “They use this side of the street as a restroom,” she said, referring to homeless people in the area.
The presence of urine and feces on public streets has jumped significantly, increasing the risk of people contracting infectious diseases, including meningitis and respiratory infections.
The businesswoman, who declined to give her name, was not initially in favor of the city’s installing more public toilets nearby, but the severity of the problem has brought her around on the issue. “It’s totally crazy. And it’s getting more and more crazy,” she said.
Astrid Escalante is the owner of Maple Restaurant, located across the block from V.M.C. Escalante has run Maple at this location for the last eight years and says public restrooms in the past have been havens for crack and heroin use. “Many are going in there to shoot up or smoke drugs,” she said.
She noted that with the crisis of overcrowded homeless people on Skid Row, adding more toilets is just common sense: “It’s a good idea. It’s depressing to see so many going to the bathroom in the street.”
Safety fears appear to have a heavy influence on many homeless people’s preference for public streets over bathrooms. County auditors reported in 2013 that 40 percent of the urine and feces on public streets in Skid Row were found within 600 feet of a public restroom.
“You’ve got to have a spotter watching your back [if you use a public restroom],” said Michael Buggs, a 63-year-old man who was sitting in front of a tent where he lives at Sixth and San Pedro streets. “Take a friend with you to stand outside.”
The Union Rescue Mission’s CEO, Rev. Andy Bales, has contracted three types of bacteria — E. coli, strep and staph — while doing homeless outreach on Skid Row. He lost a leg in 2016.
At a Dec. 4 press conference inaugurating a new hygiene center on Crocker Street, a member of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), an anti-poverty activist group based in Skid Row, tore up a commendation from the mayor. A video of the moment shows the man, named General Dogon, charging, “The toilets that you bringing, it’s 10 years late and it’s 300 too short!”
“I was pissed off and tore up the certificate and told the mayor I’m not impressed,” Dogon told Capital & Main. “People up there glamorized and clapping — I think it’s a disgrace. People don’t have the resources to keep themselves clean. No place to wash their hands. This is how disease is spread.”
On one recent afternoon, a homeless woman named Venus was weaving on rollerblades through a chaotic scene on a sidewalk near Gladys Park. The stench of urine, present in varying degrees on every block of Skid Row, was as sour as vinegar.
She stopped at a large hole in the asphalt where a trickle of cloudy green liquid formed a malodorous pool.
“It’s a cesspool,” Venus, 48, said matter-of-factly, looking out from glasses frames that held no lenses. A trailer that offers free access to showers and bathrooms had opened a hydrant nearby, and the water drip diluted the green-dimmed flow somewhat.
Long before last year’s Hepatitis A scare in Los Angeles, county health officials had warned that the continued presence of urine and feces in public streets was an incubator for infectious disease.
Union Rescue Mission will install 16 toilets for women and the Midnight Mission has already made toilets available to the public 24 hours a day — and showers until 9:30 p.m.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health studied environmental conditions in Skid Row in 2012, finding “small piles of feces and/or urine on the sidewalks and grass areas” on eight of the 10 blocks surveyed. A follow-up survey in 2013 found that the presence of urine and feces on public streets had jumped by 82 percent, increasing the risk of people contracting infectious diseases, including meningitis, respiratory infections, enteric pathogens like Hepatitis A and Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus, or Staph skin infections.
Afterward, the city launched Operation Healthy Streets, a power-wash and disinfecting of Skid Row’s major sidewalks, alleys, parks and other public access areas. Sanitation workers used backhoes to scoop trash from gutters, and other equipment to vacuum storm drains.
Nonetheless, public health concerns continue.
“Skid Row has never been in worse condition,” says the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission for more than 20 years.
Bales has contracted three types of bacteria — E. coli, strep and staph — while doing homeless outreach on Skid Row in 2014, and lost a leg in 2016.
County Coroner data show that 805 people died while homeless in 2017, a 12 percent increase over the prior year. Bales attributed the rise in deaths in part to infections that arise from urine and feces on the street. “There’s been lots of talk but not nearly enough action around toilets,” he said.
Union Rescue Mission will install 16 toilets for women in a prefabricated or sprung structure in the mission’s back parking lot, Bales said. He added that the stalls will be accessible 24 hours a day with round-the-clock security, and that he expects them to be open to the public by July.
The Midnight Mission has already made toilets available to the public 24 hours a day (and showers until 9:30 p.m.) and recently assigned private security to ensure safety and prevent drug use.
Bales said the days when portable toilets and showers might have triggered insurmountable opposition from certain quarters are past. The potential for a future public health crisis has helped engineer a consensus that action is needed.
“I think we’re all beyond that. I think we’ve reached a compromise. But a shortage of restrooms on Skid Row still remains a potentially deadly issue.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Living Homeless in California: Stopping a Hygiene Crisis on Skid Row
Skid Row porta-potties have a reputation as magnets for drug-dealing and prostitution. Homeless residents say they are afraid of being robbed in them, or worse.
“Denying access to services
doesn’t make poop go away.”
Business and property owners have traditionally opposed calls to install more public toilets on Skid Row, says Greg Spiegel, former homelessness policy director for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and who is now the Inner City Law Center’s director of strategic initiatives.
“[The opposition] is often people who have interests that conflict with people living on the street,” Spiegel said. “But denying access to services doesn’t make poop go away.”
Spiegel helped lead the 2017 audit of public toilets on Skid Row and write “No Place to Go,” an influential report that explored a host of factors contributing to the dire state of sanitation in the area — from the appearance, maintenance, safety and privacy of public restrooms, to wait times, wheelchair accessibility, availability of menstrual products and public signage advertising the locations and hours of toilets. The automated toilets and porta-potties on Skid Row have long had a reputation as magnets for such crimes as drug-dealing and prostitution. They are frequently vandalized, defaced and neglected. The doors on many toilet stalls don’t lock. Homeless residents say they are afraid of being robbed in them, or worse.
Report: Skid Row toilet accessibility only met between 10 and 23 percent of the need.
Spiegel says the lack of public health infrastructure like toilets for L.A.’s homeless is a problem that goes back some 40 years — compounded by the city’s homelessness surge in recent years.
His report applied a sanitation standard devised by the United Nations to evaluate the conditions in long-term refugee camps. It found that toilet accessibility in Skid Row met between 10 percent and 23 percent of the need — the area was 80 toilets short of the UN standard by day and by as many as 164 toilets short by night.
“Los Angeles never really had a plan or any intentions of providing full-scale access to restrooms for houseless people in Skid Row,” said Pete White, founder and executive director of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), an anti-poverty activist group based in Skid Row.
The city of Los Angeles has taken recent steps to ameliorate the lack of bathroom access, maintaining five public toilets in Skid Row, and eight porta-potties in Gladys and San Julian parks. All of these toilets are shuttered around dusk every day.
In December, the mayor’s Office of Economic Development inaugurated a new hygiene center on a lot on Crocker Street. The Skid Row Community ReFresh Spot brought eight public toilets and six showers to the area, the first public restrooms the city had added to Skid Row in a decade.
The ReFresh Spot closed temporarily after four months for what Anna Bahr, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti, said was a need to expand offerings at the site and add a free laundromat with eight washers and eight dryers. Though the hygiene center was initially scheduled to reopen in the spring, the mayor’s office says the reopening has been postponed until summer.
The Pit Stop program will install portable toilets near homeless encampments in Venice, Exposition Park, Historic Filipinotown, the Downtown Fashion District and Wilmington.
Bahr said that a San Francisco-based nonprofit called Lava Mae is stepping into the breach to provide showers and bathrooms to Skid Row, South L.A., Venice and Manchester Square. (A spokesperson for the group said Lava Mae has been providing mobile hygiene services in Los Angeles since November 2016.) The Los Angeles Times reported the group rejected public funding, but that the city is providing municipal water hookups.
Zita Davis, executive officer for the mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said that when the ReFresh Spot reopens it will operate four days a week from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., with the goal of extending the schedule to seven days a week. Bathroom attendants employed to clean the restrooms after each use include former homeless people of Skid Row.
The city has also launched a six-month pilot with a porta-potty program from San Francisco called the Pit Stop. The program will install portable toilets at locations near homeless encampments in Venice, Exposition Park, Historic Filipinotown, the Downtown Fashion District and Wilmington. The portable toilets are delivered and removed daily for cleaning and maintenance, and open to the public 12 hours daily.
Full-time attendants wearing fluorescent green vests wipe them down, keep a watchful eye out for potential safety issues, and give each user a seven-minute courtesy knock. They use a clipboard to keep track of the number of users, which averages nearly 150 a day.
One of the attendants seated beside a cart loaded with cleaning supplies told me: “People love us out here. They compliment us because it’s clean and say if we weren’t out here they wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom.”
In April, the L.A. City Council approved $600,000 to build permanent restrooms at San Julian and Gladys parks.
Rick Coca, a spokesperson for Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Skid Row, said the number of bathroom stalls will be determined by the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks. “Bathroom access is about basic human dignity,” Coca said.
County health officials, Skid Row residents and long-time homelessness activists, including those who have worked with the city and mayor’s office to open the ReFresh Spot, say the city’s latest efforts only scratch the problem’s surface.
“We understand that this is not even a drop in the bucket,” said Eddie H., a veteran homeless activist with United Coalition East Prevention Project, a community-based alcohol and drug prevention program that advocated for the ReFresh Spot. “We also understand that to get to the point where we want to go we had to start somewhere.”
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