With Few Places Left to Go, Southland's Homeless Often End Up on L.A.'s Skid Row
A woman walks past one of Skid Row's many murals. Many of Skid Row’s denizens come from communities far outside L.A.’s borders. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
Joe Parra is like a lot of guys you meet on Skid Row. He’s not from Los Angeles.
“I was (on the streets) in the South Bay, like in the Torrance and Carson area,” says Parra. “And then it got harder and I had to stay in Bellflower.”
All of those cities are a good 20 miles from Skid Row. They’re also woefully thin on homeless services.
People like Parra might be able to get a hotel voucher for a couple nights or directions to a local food bank. But often they’ll get steered to Skid Row. And if they’re lucky, like Parra, they will eventually qualify for a space in one of its tightly packed supportive housing apartments.
“The services and that supportive network behind it just wasn’t happening in other areas outside Skid Row,” says Ryan Navales, an outreach coordinator at the Midnight Mission.
The mission dishes out around 3,000 meals a day on Skid Row, and runs a temporary shelter and a host of drug and alcohol rehab programs.
“Homelessness doesn’t have any city barriers,” says Navales. “And there’s 88 different mayors, I think, in L.A. County, and so there’s a real need for the services to be regionalized.”
But the critical mass of homeless services remains concentrated in Skid Row.
That’s left a lot of communities ill-prepared to deal with sudden spikes of homelessness. And when there are services, there can be resistance to expanding them for fear of becoming a magnet for more people.
“We’re throwing bait out right now for people to come here, and we’re attracting people,” says Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel at a recent City Council meeting.
The city just formed a homelessness task force after this year’s L.A. County homeless count recorded a surge in Redondo Beach’s homeless population. Redondo Beach police say 911 calls involving homeless individuals are up some 400 percent since 2011.
The city is mulling a number of actions, from expanding existing services to cracking down on nuisance laws.
Aspel echoes a sentiment you hear a lot and not just in Redondo Beach: Homelessness is a problem exported from outside the city limits.
“We’re not like trying to boot the homeless out of town,” says Aspel. “But it’s not the city of Redondo Beach’s responsibility to take care of the entire South Bay.”
When a person does end up on the street, it’s usually in the streets of where they live, in an area where they have ties to friends and family.
“Most homeless have three or four reasons to connect them to a community. They used to live there, they got family there, they work there, something that draws them to that community," says Todd Palmquist of the San Gabriel Valley Consortium on Homelessness.
“Nobody likes to see the guy with the shopping cart sitting in front of McDonald's, but there's a reason why he or she is there. And there's a reason that maybe we can help get them to the next step rather than saying we just want to get rid of them,” says Palmquist.
Worlds away from the fetid streets of Skid Row are the leafy, well-manicured avenues of Claremont, an affluent suburb about 45 minutes east of Los Angeles.
It’s also home to a new public-private partnership that aims to house the chronically homeless in rental homes. Four men just moved into the pilot house about four months ago.
“I looked into other homeless programs for indigent men all around Southern California,” says Marty, who asked that we not publish his last name.
Marty shares the cozy three-bedroom house with three other men who, like him, were all living on the streets of the Claremont area. He says women and kids usually have priority when it comes to shelter and supportive housing like this. If you’re a single male, you can fall through the cracks.
“Basically, you can get food here and there,” says Marty. “The resources are gone by the time you try to get something, and that's what makes CHAP different. CHAP is geared toward helping the indigent person alone.”
“The idea of transitional housing, wraparound services is really a regional issue,” says Claremont Director of Human Services Ann Turner, who works closely with CHAP. “Financially it's a bigger obligation than any one single municipality can commit on their own. So how do we collectively work together?”
Cities like Claremont rely on county funding to sustain whatever services they have available.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles County supervisors pledged an additional $100 million for long-term housing and other aid across the region. The city of L.A., meanwhile, declared a homelessness “state of emergency,” an action that enables it to tap into alternative resources.
“Up until that, there really has not been a unified statement saying here's what we want to do,” says Palmquist. “And I think as a result, other communities in the area would say, 'Well, it’s not a priority for them, why should we take it as a priority?' "
Redondo Beach police lieutenant and homeless task force member Wayne Windman says it’s an attitude that is changing -- at least in his city.
“Please don’t for a second think this committee was thinking (that) we have to get rid of these people,” Windman says. “We have to deal with the issue. You have to get people into housing to get long-term services to get them out of these environments.”
The challenge facing Redondo Beach and a host of other cities across the L.A. region is to provide enough of those services so that homeless individuals can get back on track and stay in their own hometowns.