A recent count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County rose 12 percent in the past two years. That brings the total homeless population to about 44,000. More striking, the number of people living without shelter — out in the open — doubled.
Traditionally, Los Angeles has concentrated the homeless in a downtown Skid Row area, by grouping homeless services there. But increasingly, tents and even tent cities are popping up in different parts of the city, along freeways, below underpasses, in parks, where they are visible to everyone.
A new encampment along the side of the 101 freeway in Hollywood is an example. Recently, outreach workers tried to engage with people living in tents on the hillside overlooking the traffic, offering them sandwiches.
Forty-two-year-old Danny Andrino says he’s homeless because he can’t afford housing in Los Angeles. With rent for an apartment running around $1,000, he says, “minimum wage is not covering that.”
“We are seeing them in places they didn’t used to have encampments,” says Courtney Kanagi, director of street outreach at People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH. “We’re seeing them under underpasses, sides of freeways. We’re also seeing them come down into neighborhoods and be more on the streets.”
Some of the increased visibility is the result of lawsuits. Until the city can supply more affordable housing, the homeless can legally camp on sidewalks from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m.
The police are also restricted in the way they deal with people’s possessions.
“If they take somebody into custody, then law enforcement needs to take all of their property,” Kanagi says. “They need to input it. They need to store it.”
Itemizing all that stuff can take hours. It’s not just tents, but piles of belongings. Some of it’s essentially trash, and the cops don’t have a place to store it. For police, those are big incentives to look the other way.
And many of the new encampments around Los Angeles are on state property adjacent to, or beneath, freeways. That puts them outside the jurisdiction of the city police. It becomes the responsibility of the Highway Patrol or the California Department of Transportation.
Why are so many more people living in encampments? The causes of homelessness are as varied as human beings. Some struggle with mental health issues. Steven Taylor, 50, sleeps in a tent beneath the 10 freeway in an encampment just south of downtown. He’s assembled a crude drum set and plays for donations from motorists stopped at the traffic light.
He’s quick to smile and laugh, but he admits that he will sometimes “pop off. I get angry. I have a problem with reaction. They say I have bipolar. I have the medication. I’ve had it for about three months. I’m scared to take it, though.”
Homeless encampments are spreading throughout Los Angeles County, in part because newly homeless people try to avoid Skid Row, the downtown district where services are concentrated. Steven Taylor, one man who has left downtown, plays drums under Interstate 10.
Others are homeless as a result of a transition — like veterans leaving military service, or young adults aging-out of the foster care system.
On the west side of downtown, overlooking the 110 freeway, Thomas New says he’s trying to put his past as a bank robber behind him.
“I’m 58 years old and I just got done doing 23 years in prison,” New says. “Right now, I’m just kind of stuck. But just until the first of the month. Then things are going to start happening for me.”
At the beginning of the month, New will move into low-income housing.
With so many new encampments right out in the open, it may seem like the situation has never been worse. But, in fact, the amount of services and the coordination between service-providers has never been better.
“The county is working together with the cities,” says PATH CEO Joel John Roberts, . “The state and the federal government is funding more programs, and the agencies are working together much better than even 10 years ago.”
Over the last couple years, Roberts says the community has housed 17,000 people. There’s been an increased emphasis on providing permanent housing.
But that shift has cut into funding for beds in temporary shelters.
“I think homelessness is not just a social problem,” Roberts said. “It’s a poverty problem. And until this country addresses poverty, we’re always going to have homelessness.”
Increasingly, the face of poverty includes the recently middle-class. Alfred Sierra, 53, camps on the bank of the Arroyo Seco riverbed between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. He’s sort of an unofficial welcome wagon at the encampment. He advises new arrivals on how to get water and how to protect against thieves. Sierra is seeing more and more economic casualties.
“(The) economy went bad, and they lost their job,” Sierra says. “Now, if the economy comes up, nobody is going to hire them. They’re going to get young guys who work for less; leaves the people between 45 and 60 out in the street.”
Outreach professionals, too, report seeing an increase in homeless people between the ages of 40 and early 60s. Some have been sidelined by losing a job or by a health problem. They are part of a gap population – stuck living in tents until they’re old enough to qualify for Social Security.