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Homeless on the streets of LA

A growing throng of addicts and impoverished people living on the streets of Los Angeles illustrates the nation’s massive, unsolved homelessness problem, but some ministries and caring individuals are endeavoring to be part of the solution

Homeless on the streets of LA

Skid Row in Los Angeles (Monica Almeida/The New York Times/Redux)

LOS ANGELES—For the first time in years, Los Angeles skies wept hard. After a long drought, the tears came in a steady rain that mounted from a drizzle to a shower to a deluge. Rivers of rainwater gushed down the streets, and pools of grimy water splashed in parking lots. Ever unprepared for weather that falls below a balmy 70 degrees, Angelenos got angry and disoriented. Traffic clogged, cars honked, and middle fingers waved as commuters hastened home for warm food and dry socks.

But for the 47,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, “home” was rain-battered sidewalks, wind-slapped boardwalks, and, for the more fortunate, semi-dry underpasses. “Home” was susceptible to showers of dirty water as vehicles zoomed past. During that February weekend storm—a “once-in-a-decade” lashing of wind and rain, according to weather services—thousands were out on the streets with no place to go.

In Skid Row, the notorious 54-block section in downtown LA, a middle-aged woman in multiple jackets, two pairs of pants, and wool socks stooped on top of her belongings under a polka-dotted umbrella, letting the raindrops stream down the sides of her umbrella like curtains. A few blocks away, an old woman in a beanie and bright purple velvet scarf hobbled out of her tent over to her wheelchair parked on the sidewalk. One young man had nothing—no tent, no tarp, no blanket—so he simply sat staring into the streets with his hoodie on, letting the cold rain sink into his bones.

In LA, homelessness is like the weather: not worth talking about unless there’s a crisis. But it seems that crisis has come, and local officials and residents are paying attention: According to a recent report, LA County spends almost $1 billion and the city more than $100 million per year simply managing homelessness—and that’s excluding additional expenses not factored into the budget. Despite the big spending, more and more people are living on the streets. From 2015 to 2016, homelessness increased 6 percent countywide and 11 percent citywide. “Visible” homelessness—people sleeping in tents, shanties, vehicles—jumped 21 percent over the 85 percent increase in 2015.

The city’s response: In 2015 the City Council declared a state of emergency, and a task force drew up an “ambitious and achievable” comprehensive plan to address homelessness. Voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.2 billion bond measure increasing property taxes to finance the construction of 10,000 housing units over the next decade. Voters also agreed to increase sales taxes. But can politicians solve a complex problem such as homelessness with comprehensive plans and more money?

To find answers, we’ll examine the homelessness problem from the perspective of people whose lives are already immersed in it. In a series of stories we’ll walk the streets with law enforcers, volunteers, and ministry workers and hear the stories of individuals who never dreamed they would one day live without permanent shelter.

During that perfect storm on the weekend of Feb. 17, 2017, the downpour flushed away the perpetual urban smog and cooled the air into piney scents. Lawns and parks twinkled with dew-dotted greenery. Not so in Skid Row: Here in this dense, lawless jungle of about 10,000 homeless people, the pavement smells permanently soiled by urine, spit, and vomit. Drenched furniture, trash, and clothing ferment into mold and mildew.

Greg Schneider/Genesis

Joseph (left) talks with a woman in Skid Row. (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

But Los Angeles Police Department Officer Deon Joseph says there is one upside: Storms temporarily lower crime rates. “I guess criminals don’t like to get wet,” he jokes. To Joseph, a 250-pound, straight-talking, born-again Christian with biceps thick as ham hocks, the Skid Row community is family. He has worked here for 19 years and by now knows most people by name. A half-block walk down San Julian Street gets him stuck in a throng of individuals approaching him with hugs and fist bumps, good news and complaints. Joseph greets them: “Hey, how you doin’, brah? Tell your pops I said hello.” “Hello, young lady, you get that thing taken care of?” “Hey, sweetie, have you seen your brother?”

These are the people Joseph serves to protect—the poor, the mentally ill, the criminals, the addicts, the victims—people society considers “the least of these” and has shuffled out of sight into an unwalled prison. The LAPD Central Division headquarters sits smack along Skid Row, yet drug dealers, murderers, rapists, and gangbangers swing around as though it’s their playground, drawn to Skid Row like rats to damp darkness. And for good reason: Where else can they find a ready-made concentration of addicts desperate enough to steal, harm, and sell for their fix?

Joseph has been warning Angelenos for years that if LA doesn’t decentralize and clean up Skid Row, the problem will spill into their neighborhoods. And that’s what’s been happening. Joseph gets frustrated at the perceived lack of urgency in City Hall, the self-preservation of homeowners, and the anti-cop narrative that ties his hands as a law enforcer. Meanwhile, how many more people must die in the streets before the community remembers that even the homeless are neighbors—just as much as the Lululemon-wearing soccer mom next door?

Greg Schneider/Genesis

David Herrmann (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

Some have remembered. Like many Angelenos, 31-year-old digital advertiser David Herrmann read the news about the incoming storm. His first thought was his couch, a movie, and rain patters on his balcony window. Then it hit him: “So many people out there on the streets have no clue this is coming.” So he posted a donation request on his Facebook page. Within three hours, Herrmann had raised $550, and by evening, $800, which he spent on waterproof tarps. Most of the benefactors were friends who’d been following Herrmann’s social media posts about his homeless outreach. That indicated to Herrmann that “people do care”—they just don’t know how to help: “I’m now their middleman.”

For more than two years, Herrmann has been a regular volunteer with Share A Meal, a program by the nonprofit Khalsa Peace Corps that serves hot meals out of a food truck. That Thursday evening, he and about 25 other volunteers passed out 168 hot burritos, bottled water, and 80 tarps to people without shelter in Venice. On Friday when the promised storm rolled in, Herrmann was serving again at downtown’s Chinatown in his red waterproof jacket, feeling miserable and cold. He saw battered tents, people huddled under awnings, and some sitting numb in the rain, shooting needles in their arm.

‘If it’s that easy for me to raise $800 in a day to help people stay dry, why is it so hard for us as a community to get those same people off the streets?’ —David Herrmann

“Hey, everything OK?” he called out, but they were too drugged-up to respond. Herrmann had two tarps left, so he gave one to a man lying soaked in a useless tent that stank like a wet dog. The man said, “Man, where were you last week?” Herrmann replied apologetically, “Not here, man.” The man smiled back: “Yeah, but you’re here now.”

Seeing these bedraggled people in Chinatown prompted Herrmann to go back to Venice. Every tent there stayed dry under the blue tarp he had passed out the night before. Herrmann teared up: “In a city of 15 million people, how was I the only person who thought of this idea? And if it’s that easy for me to raise $800 in a day to help people stay dry, why is it so hard for us as a community to get those same people off the streets?”

Georgiades and Everett

That same Friday, Demetrios Georgiades, 46, and Jane Everett, 32, cuddled on a mattress in a 350-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Long Beach. It felt delicious to stretch out their legs without hitting the edge of a tent, to pad over to the kitchen for a snack, and to sleep without disturbances from pedestrians or drug dealers.

Just weeks ago, Georgiades and Everett were among the 1,000 street dwellers in Venice, a hip beachfront community. For six months they slept bundled up in seven blankets under a tent at 3rd and Rose Avenue, a long-standing homeless encampment local residents consider an eyesore and crime magnet. Then one day, a dark-haired woman marched over to them and said: “You guys don’t belong here. Want housing?”

The next day at 7 a.m., the woman, Regina Weller, and an LAPD team showed up next to the couple’s tent in a van and chauffeured them to their new home. During the 30-mile drive, Georgiades gawked and exclaimed: “I can’t believe the cops picked us up! Can you believe this?” Noticing that Everett looked anxious, Weller updated them every five minutes: “We’re turning this street to the freeway right now. ... We’re going to stop right here for a fat, juicy burger now. …”

Weller and her husband, Steve, are LAPD chaplains and pastors at Foursquare Church in Venice. For more than 20 years, the couple has been helping people get off the streets in Venice through what they call the “Good Samaritan” model: See a person in need, take immediate action, love the whole person—mind, body, heart, and soul. For years they’ve funded their outreach through retirement checks, but Venice residents have taken notice of their fruits—201 housing placements in 2015, 118 in 2016, 95 percent retention rate—and begun sending donations.

Weller doesn’t help everybody. She says she knows within five minutes of interacting with a person whether that individual is willing to take the steps necessary to climb out of homelessness. And she saw that survivor’s spark in Georgiades and Everett.

Georgiades and Everett became homeless after Everett gave birth to their stillborn son. They sold their car and subleased their apartment in Miami to pay $2,800 for the dead baby’s cremation and burial. Then they searched online for “Where’s the best place for homeless people?” and Google pointed them to 3rd and Rose, which turned out to be the backyard of Google’s Venice headquarters. In October 2016, the couple arrived at Google’s gate with two backpacks and a duffel bag, and there they stayed until they met Weller.

Today, Georgiades and Everett worry about staying housed: Weller helped pay the first two months’ rent, but with Georgiades’ mile-long rap sheet that includes armed robbery and Everett’s lingering PTSD, how will they pay the next $1,000 rent bill?

Meanwhile, Weller has already used up all available funds to place 32 people in housing this year. The last was a family of six. She’s also exhausted: She is 66 and her husband is 73, and while they do tiring but productive work, politicians’ darling organizations get all the funding. The Wellers can’t last forever, but who else has the time, energy, and Biblical compassion to continue their ministry?

The Wellers

A few blocks from the Wellers’ church, 60-year-old John Simpson sits on a bench at the popular Venice Beach Boardwalk and points to the multimillion-dollar buildings overlooking the beach: “If I lived in one of those lovely apartments, I would be concerned about homeless bums like me,” he said. He reckoned he would throw all the homeless into the ocean—and he could use a dunk, he deadpanned, since he hasn’t showered in two years.

A quiet, hazel-eyed man with a scruffy beard and self-deprecating humor, Simpson has been sleeping on Venice streets for more than four years. Each day he collects empty cans and bottles that he carts 3 miles to the recycling center. In three days he made $21, which he blew on $6.56-per-bottle vodka from CVS. The way he talks about himself would break any parent’s heart: “I’m a total drunk. That’s all I do: I recycle and drink. I should be dead, I think.”

Simpson says he has a college degree, went to law school, lost his job five years ago, and spent his days drinking in Seattle until his three sisters sent him $700 and a one-way bus ticket to Hollywood. He lost that money to robbers, he says, but has never lacked for drink since. He offers a solution to homelessness: Get rid of California’s recycling redemption program. “What’s the point?” he said. “It just allows me to sit and drink all day.” I asked, “But what would happen to you without that income?” Simpson sighed: “Then I would have no choice but to get services, I suppose.”

Greg Schneider/Genesis

Rummaging in Venice. (Greg Schneider/Genesis)

As we sat on that bench, a 23-year-old homeless man staggered by and plopped next to us. His eyeballs whirled, his legs wobbled, and his stomach roiled. He was high on both heroin and meth, had accidentally downed a bottle of laxative (he thought it was soda), and owes a huge debt to drug dealers, he said.

As he listened to the man’s groans, Simpson looked up at the sky and shook his head: “Where is God? Where is He in all this chaos?”

“Why don’t you ask Him?” I suggested.

He thought for a while and nodded slowly: “Yeah ... yeah, I think I’ll do that.” Then he reached for a clear plastic bottle in his right pocket. “But maybe tomorrow. Gotta get through this vodka first.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • Lucy B
    Posted: Fri, 03/17/2017 10:03 am

    Once again, Sophia Lee knocks it out of the park with a poignent picture of how so many live. It is ironic that this is such a problem in the city of the rich and famous-the place where I would think the resources and power are available to help. 

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Fri, 03/17/2017 10:43 am

    After that article, with tears in my eyes, I think the answer is us.  Just regular Christians who need to come alongside the warriors on the front lines.  There are lives we can save, one person or couple or family at a time.  I don't have the discernment, but those front-line warriors do.  Six months ago my company moved to a gentrified block in the 'skid row' of Seattle, and my heart breaks every day for the poor souls sleeping in entryways and walking around stoned or out of their minds.  Ms. Lee highlights a few warriors in Cali ... I'm going to find one in downtown Seattle and help lift their arms.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sat, 03/18/2017 12:40 pm

    Right on.  Movements start with us.  We need to contribute to people like the Wellers, and we also need to be willing to be on the front lines ourselves like Officer Joseph and Mr. Herrman.

  • VT
    Posted: Fri, 03/17/2017 03:22 pm

    This is a sad article. Good job Mrs. Lee, this article has revealed to me the conditions a ton of people live in. Thank you.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sat, 03/18/2017 12:41 pm

    Just wanted to say, beautiful imagery in this piece, and wonderful pictures.  Great stuff.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Sun, 03/19/2017 06:41 am

    Well written and focused article. Yet, we shouldn't neglect to see the relationship, especially in places like LA, of homelessness and immigration: e.g. http://www.hoover.org/research/senator-tom-cotton-immigration-reform-and...