Walking on the tiered layers of rebar at the Wilshire Grand Center construction site is a challenge, especially when wearing the heavy shoes required for safety. You have to watch every step, looking down to make sure that each foot is firm and the body balanced before moving forward. The rough edges of the rods are a brown, grey and rust color mix that blends through the 20-foot long steel. You see and feel the ordered coherence of an enduring structure.
There is a sense in which the ability to notice, rather than to merely look, is part of an artist’s skill. In his drawing classes, the 19th century British art critic and writer John Ruskin taught that noticing the environment around you in a more rigorous way was something that could be learned, a way of thoughtfully moving through the world that he believed need not be limited to the “cultured” and “educated.”
Ruskin (he is a featured character in the recent movie Mr. Turner, about the painter J.M.W. Turner) taught drawing classes for laborers at the Working Men’s College in London, one of Britain’s earliest adult education institutions.
I thought of Ruskin after I met Sefi Edery at the Wilshire Grand site. Edery is an Iron Worker and an artist. In the construction world he is a “Rodbuster” who works with the long steel rods that provide the internal strength for concrete walls and floors. It is literally backbreaking work. But at home in Echo Park, Edery talks about how painting keeps him at peace and provides an avenue for exploring his inner world.
“There are a lot of portals in my paintings,” he says, “images of entrances and exits that for me symbolize the different directions that a life can take or a way of traveling to an entirely different emotional place.”
Talking with him and his fellow Ironworkers explodes the easy and destructive clichés about “blue collar workers,” “hard hats” or “unskilled labor” that dominate our media landscape. If a character in a film or on TV wears a hard hat, more often than not they are also depicted as having a hard head.
Edery sees the crossing rods of rebar at work as beautiful, evoking the weave of a shirt or the tensile strength of human muscle. Ruskin, who often described nature in psychological terms (clouds were “timid” and mountains “bold”) encouraged his students to cultivate that emotionally descriptive approach as a way of being more precise about what they were looking at.
A number of Edery’s workmates have purchased his paintings. They have also analyzed the colors and intensity of his work over sandwiches and energy drinks at lunch, 30 stories up on the building’s core. For Edery, being able to utilize the materials he works with in an imaginative way and to explore those ideas with other workers provides some respite from the daily punishment his body endures.
There has been a long tradition of philosophers, labor activists and public intellectuals who have advocated for less of a gap between “art” and “work” — the diminution of craft traditions and the structure of work are issues that are fought over, not given by nature. They have pointed out that the human desire for creativity could only emerge with leisure time and the economic ability to think about more than the immediate struggles of daily life.
Edery paints to release himself from what he describes as the “inner prison” that at times bedevils him. His union, Iron Workers Local 416, is also there to remind him that there is an external world of work that can become like a prison if you don’t fight for a measure of freedom on the job.
John Ruskin, who abhorred the emerging industrial world of Victorian England, wrote that art can be used to praise the things that we love, even if they are only a shell or a stone. Sefi Edery is constructing a building and creating art, and sometimes mixing the two. He says he loves both worlds, perhaps as an expression of his values and aspirations.
Kelly Candaele is producing and directing a film on the three-year process of building the Wilshire Grand Center. It’s currently titled, Head, Hand & Heart – Craftsmanship at Work.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Another Sexual Harassment Case at USC Fuels Student Outcry
USC grad students are dismayed by the university’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against a professor.
The University of Southern California is under federal investigation for its handling of sexual misconduct complaints against long-time campus gynecologist George Tyndall. The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating some 52 complaints about Tyndall and multiple lawsuits have been filed against Tyndall and USC.
In the shadow of Tyndall’s case and other high-profile scandals at the university, a coalition of graduate students at the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work worry that another ongoing harassment case against associate professor Erick Guerrero is drawing too little attention.
“With the Tyndall case coming forward, it’s disappointing that there hasn’t been any connection between our issue and this larger thing,” said Robin Petering, who completed her Ph.D at USC last year and is the leader of the coalition Social Workers for Accountability and Transparency (SW4AT). “So few people know about the case.”
At issue is a finding by the campus Office of Equity and Diversity that Guerrero had sexually harassed two students. Guerrero was disciplined but remains on staff.
The OED findings were kept confidential. In October, more than 70 social work school faculty signed a statement complaining that they became aware of the case through media reports of a lawsuit filed against Guerrero and USC by one of the students allegedly harassed.
In a lawsuit filed in L.A. County Superior Court, graduate student Karissa Fenwick says Guerrero – then her dissertation advisor – made unwanted advances while they attended a conference in New Orleans. Fenwick’s complaint details sexual comments and inappropriate touching at a bar where they met for a meeting. Guerrero then suggested the student wait for an Uber in his hotel room, where he tried to kiss her. Fenwick says she fled the room, and was warned the next day to not speak of the interaction.
An unnamed student, not a plaintiff but noted extensively in the lawsuit as “Student X,” was also allegedly the target of unwanted and “inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature,” including remarks about her hair and physique.
The SW4AT coalition has launched a campaign called “I Am Student X” to raise awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in academia. The group is highly critical of the university’s handling of the Guerrero case and contends that “the University does not prioritize student safety or health over other agendas.”
“Every department has a story and experiences,” Petering said. “Our experience in our school is not unique.”
Guerrero denies the charges in the Fenwick lawsuit and filed a grievance last September challenging the OED findings, which were upheld. On June 5, Guerrero’s attorney Mark Hathaway filed a writ in L.A. Superior Court challenging what it calls “a quasi-judicial proceeding” by the OED.
Hathaway declined to discuss next steps in the court case against Guerrero, as did Fenwick’s attorney. The School of Social Work did not respond to calls for comment.
The SW4AT coalition is strategizing on how to use the momentum of yet another USC scandal to raise the profile of the cases at the school of social work. “If you don’t connect them you run the risk of not being able to prevent these things in the future,” Petering said.
“What is the university going to do to prevent another Tyndall?”
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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: To Health and Back
One health-outreach group’s mandate is to get homeless people into sustainable living situations. Even after a client is placed in permanent housing, the team will follow up and, ideally, get the person to regularly visit a clinic.
Doctor: “Some medical conditions won’t get better until a person is housed. How do you store diabetes meds without a fridge?”
The 2018 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimates that about 53,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, a slight drop that reverses a significant six-year surge. Their backgrounds are as varied as Los Angeles itself. Some are in shelters. Many more live in cars or in tents, or in any variety of unpermitted spaces. You wouldn’t necessarily know who’s homeless just by looking at them, as I discovered on a ride-along with a multidisciplinary outreach team in March.
The team is part of the Judy and Bernard Briskin Malibu/Pacific Palisades Homeless Project, which was launched in January 2017 to fund health care, temporary housing and case management in Malibu and Pacific Palisades, as part of a continuum of care for the most vulnerable homeless, usually those with medical concerns.
I rode in a van with two professionals from the Venice Family Clinic, Dr. Coley King, DO, the clinic’s director of homeless services, and a psychiatrist, Dr. Wes Ryan. A social worker from partner homeless service agency the People Concern, Alex Gittinger, rounded out the team.
“Some medical conditions won’t get better until a person is housed,” King said. “How do you store diabetes meds without a fridge?”
The group’s mandate is to get people into a sustainable living situation, whether it’s nearby – super expensive – or in the San Fernando Valley or Inland Empire. Even after a client is placed in permanent housing, the team will follow up and, ideally, get the person to regularly visit the clinic.
Some of their clients obtain temporary housing through vouchers that pay for residential motels. The funding is limited and, as King puts it, “super complicated,” but is often a combination of money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). The team has to be judicious with who gets a voucher for temporary or permanent housing, especially on Los Angeles’ Westside.
A tan and wiry 56-year-old, Michael was hit by a car while riding his bike on PCH. He insisted on using painkillers indefinitely.
“We don’t just drop people off at an apartment,” Gittinger said. “People who have been out on the streets for decades need continuous care to transition into living indoors [and] a new community, to build a network of friends, to become responsible with paying rent and utilities.”
The afternoon’s first stop was a small but clean Santa Monica motel where Michael was living while he recovered from injuries. A tan and wiry 56-year-old, Michael was hit by a car while riding his bike on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. It wasn’t his first time. He had a titanium rod in one leg from another hit-and-run on PCH. As Dr. King took his blood pressure, he reminded Michael that he has to be weaned off pain meds to avoid getting addicted.
Michael walked with a bamboo cane topped by a plastic golf ball and insisted on using painkillers at night — indefinitely. Dr. King warned against getting hooked, telling Michael that the voucher money for the medication in question would run out soon. Michael acquiesced and took a blister pack of new, less addictive meds.
After taking his vitals, King brought Michael to the Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica, where a nurse gave him a B12 injection. There, King and one of the center’s coordinators tried to convince him to consider one of the 70 beds in the OPCC shelter, noting that funding for his motel room will also soon run out.
Social Worker: “The first time I say, ‘I’m Alex and I do outreach,’ they shout at us to go away. And beer cans fly. But we keep showing up.”
“I’m too old to be around people who annoy me,” Michael replied. When King dropped Michael back at his motel, the injured man signed a form for $200 cash and a $200 EBT card, which will have to last him a month.
“You can buy a raw chicken with an EBT card but not prepared food,” King said, on his way to the next client. “How does that make sense? None of these places has a kitchen.”
At another small residential motel in Santa Monica, I met Dennis, a Vietnam vet in his 60s who’s bedridden with a serious leg wound in his shabby but livable room. He let me photograph him, but didn’t want to talk. While Dr. King took his vitals and asked him about his recent flu, Gittinger told me the Malibu team has been visiting Dennis for months, since they found him in an encampment in the bushes of Zuma Beach.
“Dennis didn’t want anything to do with us in the beginning, but we kept coming and bringing food,” Gittinger said.
Dennis is linked to the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Los Angeles, but didn’t like the organization’s red tape. He needed some consistency, someone to come to him, Gittinger said.
“We get to know the residents and the homeless population in an area, and it’s a small area so we’re not spread too thin,” Gittinger said. “We work with the sheriff, the city and over time we have found the hot spots. It’s all about building relationships. It may take 50 engagements with someone. The first time I say, ‘I’m Alex and I do outreach,’ they shout at us to go away. And beer cans fly. But we keep showing up.”
A secluded Zuma Beach encampment is called “Margaritaville” because it seems like a good spot for a college party. But nobody is partying.
Dennis is on a short list for senior housing in the Inland Empire. If it works out, he will be living with a friend he met in an encampment in Malibu, and will be permanently housed for the first time in more than two decades.
Our next stop was a Zuma Beach encampment of a half-dozen men in the high scrubby bushes near the parking lot. The location was secluded and if you’re homeless and living outside, you would probably want to crash there. The team called it “Margaritaville,” because it seemed like a good location for a college party. But nobody was partying.
At Margaritaville I met another Dennis — a beefy and well-groomed man in his 30s who told me he’s been at the encampment since last July 5 and that he wants to go back to school for photography. He was engaging and willing to talk, but vague about what led him to the beach. He had worked as a driver for Safeway and as a photographer, was an apprentice in the carpenters union for a while and had lived in San Francisco’s Tenderloin until he “couldn’t take the noise.” The beach may be a salubrious setting, and it even has outdoor showers – meant for swimmers, but the homeless population stealthily uses them too – but Dennis said it’s hard to fully relax. He worries that if he lets down his guard someone could take his things, and rats would come for his food.
“More and more are getting priced out. Either the rent has risen too much or they lost their job, and someone falls ill . . . The next step is a tent.”
Further down the coast highway, in Malibu, the team split up to check on several clients outside an upscale mini-mall. One was a man in his mid-60s. Tom – not his real name – was well-groomed and wearing khakis and a black polo shirt. He might have been a friend of the members of the team, hanging out with them in front of Starbucks — except that King was taking his blood pressure. Tom didn’t feel comfortable with my presence but I learned from the team that he was married and had owned a house, but has been living in his SUV for months and is suffering from chest pains, high blood pressure and general stress.
“He’s in denial about being homeless,” King said. The team has working on getting Tom a voucher for senior housing. They’re concerned that Tom’s age, health concerns and newness to being homeless make him more vulnerable to a life without shelter. A lot of the people living outdoors have been doing this for years and are very resourceful, knowing which establishments won’t hassle them for using the restroom. And sometimes, like the younger men at Zuma, they consider their experience as simply living off the land. That is, until their health fails or the weather goes bad.
There are about 30 people in the Venice outreach orbit, and about three dozen or so similar teams around Los Angeles County, all with different funding, each serving up to several hundred clients. “Nowhere near meeting the need of the entire homeless population,” Dr. King said.
Not everyone who experiences homelessness needs a team. But even those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps have relied on the kindness of strangers.
Gittinger said he looks at homelessness in the U.S. as a systemic problem, not an individual problem.
“More and more are getting priced out,” he said. “For whatever reason they can’t afford the rent anymore. Either the rent has risen too much or they lost their job, and someone falls ill. And with their last savings they may buy an RV or a van, and they try to keep it up. Then the van gets ticketed or towed and impounded, and they can’t pay to get it back. The next step is a tent.”
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Living Homeless in California: Why Health Care Requires a Team Approach
Dr. Coley King, director of homeless services at Los Angeles’ Venice Family Clinic, explains how multidisciplinary teams work in preparing homeless people for a better life.
While social service organizations wait – often many months – for housing to open up for their homeless clients, they have an opportunity to prepare to successfully move them into housing. That means providing physical and mental health care, addiction services and social service case management. In this interview, Dr. Coley King, director of homeless services at Los Angeles’ Venice Family Clinic, explains how multidisciplinary teams work in preparing homeless people for a better life. We began by asking him about the kinds of health issues he sees on the streets.
DR. COLEY KING: We see, on one level, similar things as the general population but at a much accelerated rate, with people dying 20, 30 years sooner. We see a hepatitis C epidemic. Combine that with ongoing alcohol dependence, very early cirrhosis, decompensated liver failure, emergency room visits, extended ICU [intensive care unit] hospitalizations.
We see all forms of addiction. We see the meth epidemic, with poor dentition and serious cardiomyopathy and cardio toxicity from the meth. We see the obvious opiate epidemic. Another common uptick in illness and injury is physical injury and assault, which is at a much higher rate. And murder.
CAPITAL & MAIN: How about those who are at the end of life?
When someone is in end-stage liver disease, we may refer them to hospice care. That might be a very creative, modern use of traditional hospice care. They need to know how to handle homeless patients that might still be in the street or a shelter or supported housing apartment, which would not be a traditional setting for a hospice patient.
Can you give us an example of someone you served at the end of life?
We had a situation, a fellow in his 50s, and he didn’t want to quit drinking. We got him into a shelter and linked him to hospice care. He got meaningful pain management treatment, he became happier. He had a chaplain who gave end-of-life counseling. We got him into an apartment with the supportive housing team. He seemed to be happy and he lived there for two or three months until he passed away.
Tell about your outreach.
We have extensive outreach services through the Venice Family Clinic that started small 10 years ago and has continued to grow. Either a physician or PA [physician’s assistant] or NP [nurse practitioner] is part of the team, and a social service agency provides the framework for that team with case managers, social workers and addiction counselors. That’s a team unit, a medical provider and medical home involved with social services. There is a multidisciplinary team. That is part of Proposition H [a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax for homeless services], to man these teams countywide through the L.A. County DHS [Department of Health Services].
Within that, I see two types of housing teams. There would be more outreach-based teams that might fit with Prop. H, to discover who’s homeless, what kind of problems they’re having, addiction and health problems, [and to] link them to health care, to mental health care and link them to addiction services, and link to a housing team or a plan.
The other side of that would be high-end supportive housing teams that are registry based, that may have 50 patients or clients assigned to that team, to house them and support them in housing for three or four years before they are stable [enough] to hand off to lower level teams. These are the highly vulnerable tri-morbid patients, with mental illness, physical illness, addiction, a lot of years on the street. We are involved with several of these teams that are outreach- and registry based.
How are these teams funded?
These are all under the umbrella of the Venice Family Clinic. We serve a private grant, several DMH [Department of Mental Health] and DHS grants, in collaboration with St. Joseph Center and the People Concern. Those are our partner social service agencies.
Prop. H is what we’re working under for the outreach teams. We’re working with outreach teams across the county to collaborate with social service agencies and medical. That’s the big show right now.
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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: 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: 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: The University of Hunger
A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.
Homeless students told of sleeping in the woods and of completing research assignments at McDonald’s, to take advantage of free Wi-Fi.
In August of 2016, Chanté Marie Catt left her home in Redding, in the Sacramento Valley, to begin her first semester at Humboldt State University. Catt was 36, with a boyfriend and 1-year-old daughter, and possessed a booming laugh and no small amount of confidence. After nearly two decades running her own pet-care business in Los Angeles, she had begun to feel limited by her lack of a college degree, and several years earlier followed her parents north and enrolled at Redding’s Shasta College. The transfer to Humboldt had her dreaming of towering redwoods and cool ocean breezes. “We were excited to start a new life, maybe buy a house,” she says.
The couple tried to find a place from Redding, scouring Craigslist for openings without luck. In person, Catt figured, her prospects would improve. Once they had checked into a campground north of the university and enrolled their daughter in daycare, she dedicated her time to visiting property management companies. A week went by, then another. She paid application fees to management companies—$20 here, $43 there—and called through every listing she found, but even with a solid credit and rental history, never heard back. The family bounced from one campsite to another, with occasional stops at a motel to clean up. It was an expensive way to live, and she rapidly blew through $16,000 in financial aid and student loans. One day, out of a combination of anger and desperation, Catt took to Craigslist from her motel room. “I’m a sociology student,” she wrote, “starting research on our homeless students and on the property management companies here. Anyone want to share their stories!?”
Within hours, she received more than 150 responses. Homeless students told her of moving from couch to couch, of sleeping in the woods and of completing their research assignments at McDonald’s, where they took advantage of free Wi-Fi. “My children are cold, we are broke from all the rental application fees and I’m tired of it,” wrote a mother of two. A graduate student who worked full-time revealed that he was living in his car for the second consecutive semester: “I never knew it would be this hard to find a place to rent.”
Several weeks later, while still homeless, Catt had organized a campus group, the Homeless Student Advocate Alliance, and was spending her free time passing out fliers to attract more members. They weren’t hard to find. “Every couple of students I talked to was experiencing some sort of displacement,” she says. For many students at Humboldt, going to college meant becoming homeless.
One homeless-student conference included workshops on outdoor living, covering topics like how to light fires to keep homework dry.
The true scale of this crisis was revealed last January in a groundbreaking report commissioned by the California State University system. The study found that 11 percent of students on the university’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. The problem was most acute at Humboldt State, where nearly a fifth of the student body had been homeless at one point the previous year.
“In large part, students are homeless because they don’t get enough financial aid,” says Jennifer Maguire, a Humboldt social work professor, who co-authored the study with Rashida Crutchfield of Long Beach State. “It’s even worse here, because we’re in a rural area with a very limited housing stock.” According to the North Coast Journal, a local newspaper, there aren’t even enough rental units in the city of Arcata, where the university is located, for the students who need housing—much less anywhere else. And while the university plans to build more student housing, it can currently only guarantee slots for first-year students.
This shortage allows landlords to crank up rents and reject applicants at whim. For students without a financial cushion, the situation can quickly turn into a full-blown emergency—and in the CSU system, that’s a lot of students. More than half the students at Humboldt are the first in their family to attend college, and a third are Latino. Many work full-time; some have kids. “The ‘non-traditional’ student is now the traditional student,” says Maguire.
On a cool April morning, more than 200 people packed into a theater at the College of the Redwoods in nearby Eureka, for a forum on homelessness co-hosted by Humboldt State. “I mentioned to a community member last week that I would be attending this summit today and she asked me, ‘What does homelessness have to do with HSU?’” said Humboldt State president Lisa Rossbacher. The crowd laughed, which represented at least some progress. It’s no longer a secret that Humboldt State students struggle with homelessness.
“My children are cold, we are broke from all the rental application fees and I’m tired of it,” wrote a Humboldt State University student.
Much of the progress is due to the efforts of activists like Catt. After several months of homelessness, her family eventually landed an apartment, thanks in part to an emergency welfare grant. By that time, she had organized the homeless student alliance, which was pressing the university to finally address the problem. Last fall, the group held a three-day conference at Humboldt State that included workshops on outdoor living, which covered topics like how to light a fire and keep your homework dry. On the third day, a group of students put up tents on the quad and stayed for two nights. They then moved to the library, which they occupied, and demanded that it remain open 24 hours a day to give homeless students a safe and warm place to be.
The next day, an administrator contacted Catt and offered her the position of off-campus housing liaison, which had been one of the alliance’s demands. Since January, Catt has worked with more than 100 students, many of whom are in need of housing or have dealt with retaliation from landlords. It’s a start, though there are limits to what she can accomplish. One student who was living out of her car recently came to Catt’s office, and Catt gave her a code to the campus lockers, which are normally reserved for students taking physical education classes. The student broke down in tears at the prospect of a hot shower. A few days later, Catt texted her that a landlord had recently called with a room to rent, but the student had moved back in with her parents. “She told me it had just been too cold out there,” says Catt.
A couple of days after the homeless summit, I met Jasmine Bigham, a 23-year-old transfer student, on the steps of the campus library. Like Catt, she had arrived at Humboldt in 2016, and anticipated finding housing within a week or two. “Weeks turned to months,” she says. She spent a semester living out of her Subaru Outback, searching for places to park at night that looked safe, then curling up on the back seat. She didn’t tell her parents. “No parents want their kids living like that,” she says—and anyways, they didn’t have much extra money. Bigham is from a small town in neighboring Siskiyou County, and before college had lived inside a metal shop designed to store tractors and supplies; her parents created walls by hanging tarps. “I sort of grew up having to figure shit out,” she says.
Homelessness has caused Jasmine to give up on some dreams. She wants a college education, so that means giving up a home.
After a semester in the Subaru, she bought a used trailer for $1,000 and parked it at a KOA campground for $600 a month. That felt safer, but then the trailer’s ceiling collapsed and an intoxicated neighbor harassed her, so she left for a room in a house that was infested with mold and rats. She could only handle the grime for so long, so last year she sold her Subaru and plowed the rest of her savings—which she earned by waitressing in Lake Tahoe—into a GMC van. Since January, she’s been living at a parking lot next to student housing.
As we walk from the library to the parking lot, Bigham outlines her semester budget. Scholarships nearly cover her tuition, and she’s in charge of the rest. Right now she’s not working, because she’s taking 19 units, the maximum allowed. The parking pass is $180 a year, and she rents two lockers, at $5 a piece, for the semester. Each day she stops by the campus food pantry, where she fills plastic containers with soup and picks up rice and beans. She describes the area around campus as a food desert but in reverse—filled with only “really expensive healthy food” that’s out of her reach. She takes a bus to Eureka, then walks a mile to reach a more affordable grocery store, where she can load up on quinoa, bell peppers and mangos. She has a camping stove, or else prepares meals for the week at friends’ homes.
At the parking lot, she points out several other vehicles where students are living. She’ll graduate in December, and tells me that when she returns this fall she hopes to get the other homeless students to park together, to create a greater sense of safety. She opens the back of her van, which is meticulously organized: a plastic container for her clothes, a folded mattress she bought on sale at Ross Dress for Less, an ice chest and cans of beans. “I had to learn what food stays good and what doesn’t,” she says.
Bigham tells me that she’s always felt different. She is an African American from an all-white rural community. She grew up on a “broken-down ranch” with cows and pigs, while many students at Humboldt talk about eating meat as if it were a crime. “The hardest thing is people not understanding,” she says, leaning against her van. “If you talk about how people don’t have enough to eat, they say, ‘Well, why don’t they just feed themselves?’”
Homelessness has caused her to give up on some dreams. She loved track, and was recruited by a couple of larger colleges to throw the javelin, but didn’t want to live in a big city. She hoped to continue with athletics, but juggling a full academic load while being homeless didn’t leave much room for anything else. She shrugs and smiles. “You can either be sad or you can figure it out. If you don’t have money, but you still want to do things, you have to give up something,” she says. She wants a college education, so that means giving up a home.
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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.”
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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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