If poverty is a deep hole, chronic homelessness is its dank bottom. In Los Angeles County the number of homeless spiked 23 percent last year, to 58,000. About one-third of those cases are chronic—individuals stuck in long-term or repeated homelessness, often dealing with mental illness, substance addiction, or physical disabilities. Chronic homelessness poses both a moral and economic crisis: Studies show that leaving a person chronically homeless costs taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 per person, per year.
That realization has pushed federal and local governments to embrace a homeless assistance policy called “Housing First,” where they place people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing ASAP, and then provide voluntary supportive services as needed. This approach removes “barriers” to housing such as the need to follow sobriety rules or graduate certain programs. The idea is that stable housing improves a person’s quality of life and thus his capability to accept “less critical” services such as rehab and job training. But on-the-ground homeless advocates say the Housing First philosophy doesn’t address a key problem with many of the chronically homeless: How do you help people who don’t seem to want help?
For several months I followed people who engage with the chronically homeless in LA and witnessed evidence of a much deeper level of poverty: I saw despair and hopelessness that rob individuals of dreams and motivation. I saw how substance addictions and traumatic experiences enslave people with the belief they’ll never be more than bums. I saw an ingrained victim mentality that seeks to absolve personal responsibility. And for whatever reason, some people don’t seem to mind languishing in a state of bare-bones survival. Lisa is one such case, and her son a tragic casualty.
About one-third of homeless cases are chronic—individuals stuck in long-term or repeated homelessness, often dealing with mental illness, substance addiction, or physical disabilities.
SOON AFTER CHRIS AND LISA VANISHED, Lavonne appeared. (We’re using only their first names out of privacy concerns.) The moment Herrmann saw Lavonne hobbling around Third and Rose avenues, site of the largest homeless encampment in Venice, he knew she needed help—fast. She was 56 years old, alone, and carried in her limp multiple health issues, including a history of back injuries, head traumas, and a stroke.
LA was experiencing one of its coldest and wettest winters, but Lavonne had lost her tent (suspected stolen). Each frigid night, the gray-haired woman slept balled up on grimy, hard concrete. Herrmann bought blankets for Lavonne; but as he bid her good night, he heard her hacking coughs and knew she couldn’t last long on the streets.