The number of homeless people in Los Angeles County has grown 12 percent in the last two years. New encampments have sprouted on sidewalks across the city, including a dozen or so tents just across the 110 Freeway from Los Angeles' downtown — in plain-sight of commuters passing on their way to work.
"People go by us and think we're invisible," Dennis Epping, 44, says. "It's frustrating and degrading."
Epping shares a tent with Christine Boyer, 52. The couple has been together for more than a decade. In the past, when they fell on hard times, they could rely on family.
"See, we could always go home," Boyer says. "But my mom died. So I don't have any parents left, or grandparents, or anything. So we just took to the road."
They have issues that keep them from holding down regular jobs. He has a felony record for burglary, and she has a spinal disability that makes it hard to stand or sit in the same position for long.
"I go panhandle everyday to make money because I'm not going to just sit here and rot," Boyer said. "I have to get up every day and go hustle at least $20 to $50. Otherwise, I don't feel like I've done anything."
They spend some of that money on laundry, which for Boyer, is a way to maintain some dignity. "There's a lot of clothes in the trash and all over the streets, because they give them away for free," she said. "You don't have to do your laundry."
Epping and Boyer say they could sleep inside at a shelter, but that would require them to separate and give away their 4-year-old dog. "It doesn't matter what we go through so long as we don't get pulled apart," Boyer said. "We're all we have. We don't have anything else."
The lack of a social safety net is a constant theme. At a neighboring tent, Anthony Colebar, 48, said he and his wife were pushed out of their low-income apartment so the new owner could raise the rent. They don't have friends or family to put them up, so they've been on the streets for about three weeks.
"I'm from Illinois," Colebar says. "I'm a journeyman. My dad was a journeyman. His dad was a journeyman. Can't find any work out here."
All his job prospects require a car, so he's saving up to buy wheels and looking for another cheap apartment.
"It's hard to save money when you're out here," he says. "There's no refrigerator to go to Food 4 Less and stock up on food. There's no way to heat water to eat noodles – ramen noodles – and stuff. So we eat a lot of lunch meat, a lot of sandwiches."
Colebar says he and his wife receive about $1,200 a month from government aid.
Even though he doesn't get paid for it, Colebar does some work every day, cleaning the sidewalk and gutters with a broom. He says his neighbors don't see any reason to help.
"They don't realize how good we have it right here," he says. "We don't have to take our tents down. There's businesses. People walk by here every day. You gotta keep it clean – they'll leave us alone. Because, until we find another place, this is where we're at."
The encampments aren't just downtown. Eight miles northeast, one tent after another lines the freeway along the Arroyo Seco riverbank.
Under a bridge, several dogs are guarding three tents. One belongs to Eddie Hanson, 23, who shares it with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Hope Hunter.
They been living under the bridge for three months. Eddie says he picked the spot for "the coverage. It's out of the rain. I'm able to get electricity and a few things I need as far as survival."
They get electricity by splicing into the line connected to a street light. Hanson collects about $700 a month in government assistance, and he makes a little extra from scavenging.
"I usually collect cans or scrap," he says. "Scrap metal. Copper. Whatever I can find laying on the side of the road out here. People throw out amazing trash."
He found a beat-up sofa that now sits in front of the fire-pit used for cooking.
"They expect homeless people to provide for themselves, as far as work," Hanson says. "But records or drug inabilities disallow them to get a job."
Hanson says he's been living on the street since he was 12. He has a record for assault and stealing cars. Hope Hunter says she's been homeless since she was 14. She was addicted to speed, but says she's sober now .
"I go to N.A. meetings regularly now just so I can stay clean," she says. "Just because I'm homeless doesn't mean I have to look homeless or act homeless. It's good not to live up to a stereotype that everyone already thinks. It's good to prove people wrong."
Hunter says she got her GED certificate at a homeless shelter when she was 17. "I've been looking for a job," she says. "But if you're homeless, a lot of them will be, like, 'Oh, you're homeless? We don't want you working here. How are you going to take a shower? How are you going to do all that?' "
They have plans to move off the street. Hunter has been in contact with her grandparents, who she expects will help her with $500 to buy a camper.
"I just found out I'm pregnant," she says, letting out a long sigh. "It's really stressful for me, because I can't take my baby home without having an address."
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