It’s 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning and the streets of downtown Los Angeles are empty, its residents just beginning to stir from a fitful night’s sleep. Along Sixth Street, trash from the night before is blowing in the gutters; a few dogs roam for scraps. Although it is late summer and the sky is brown from wildfires 100 miles away, the weather is expected to be a mild 80 degrees, a welcome rarity for L.A. this time of year.
Before long, breakfast will be in full swing in the parking lot between San Pedro and Crocker Streets, one of several spots in Skid Row where hungry residents can find a hot meal on a Sunday morning. As it wakes up, Sixth Street begins to hum with a sort of post-apocalyptic vibe. Weary-looking residents wander down the street, some of them huddled together, some laughing, all of them oblivious to the cars trying to get through. And why not? After all, this is their home.
Thomas Redmond has been living on the streets of Skid Row for three years, about as far from his hometown of Wichita, Kan., as he can imagine. He’s been in and out of state prison a number of times for drug violations and hustling, and once for operating a telemarketing scam. While in prison, he continued to hustle, at one time amassing a small fortune selling weed to other inmates, he says.
Now 69, Redmond says he’s ready to find a roof over his head. He has connected with a caseworker in hopes of moving to a residential hotel, where the rent is about $600 a month. Meanwhile, he’ll rely on the services of Skid Row and the generosity of the multitude of volunteers who show up every day to help out. “This is the only place in America where you don’t have to spend money,” he said. “You sleep on the street, and there are many places to eat. They got it going on.”
For the past 13 years one of those volunteers, Niranjan, who would not give his last name, has driven into Los Angeles to park at the corner of Sixth and Gladys. He and friends pass out bags of food, including 150 burritos and peanut butter sandwiches that they have spent the morning assembling. The so-called “Carl’s Jr. Man” comes between noon and 1:30 p.m. and hands out burgers. Another man sets up a table and serves pasta and meatballs to the homeless.
Considered Ground Zero of California’s homeless crisis, the streets of Skid Row are host to approximately 2,000 people on any given night, one of the highest concentrations of homeless in America. Bordered by Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south, and Alameda and Main to the east and west, the 54-block area has been a magnet for transients since the 1800s, in part because of its proximity to L.A.’s central train station.
Over the years, Skid Row — like other homeless enclaves around the state — has seen its share of Thomas Redmonds. California’s steep rise in “modern homelessness” started in the 1980s, its foundation formed by cuts in funding for mental health services in the decades before, coupled with economic pressures that led to rising unemployment, high housing costs, dismantling of single-occupancy hotels and generally inconsistent delivery of services for the poor.
But recently, things have gotten worse. As California’s economy rebounded from the Great Recession, the steep rise in housing costs made it a struggle for ordinary Californians to keep up.
Today, one-quarter of the nation’s homeless population lives in California, about 134,000 people at last count. That’s a particularly huge number when you consider that the state is home to 12 percent of the total U.S. population. And given that California’s homeless population far outnumbers the services available to them, a higher percentage suffer from chronic mental illness and substance abuse than in other states.
The number of people living on the streets and shelters of Los Angeles County surged 75 percent between 2011 and 2017. But a January 2018 count revealed that the number of homeless actually dropped 3 percent, to 53,195, driven by a decline in the number of homeless veterans, according to the Los Angeles Services Authority. L.A. officials are hoping this trend continues with a recent influx of country tax money.
While the survey showed an increase in the number of people placed in housing, it also revealed that more than 9,000 people had fallen into homelessness for the first time, an increase of nearly 1,300 people over the previous year. (Other regional agencies put the total number of people who were homeless at some point during the year at closer to 90,000.) Of the roughly 40,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., more than 11,000 of them live in California, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
San Francisco’s homeless situation is similar to L.A’s, though the numbers are smaller. Clumps of tents line the city’s streets in the shadow of the shiny new Salesforce Tower, a testament to the enormous wealth the tech industry has brought to the Bay Area. In Oakland, San Diego, Sacramento and the myriad smaller cities that dot the landscape of the nation’s richest state, homelessness has become an ever-present reminder of California’s widening wealth gap.
Recent years have seen a growing number of homeless people in the suburbs, throughout Orange County and along the streets of Silicon Valley communities. In East Palo Alto, the tech capital’s primarily low-income city, officials have decided to allow at least 20 RVs to park in a city-owned parking lot, where residents will have access to portable bathrooms and showers. Homeless camps are commonplace along the fashionable beach communities of Venice, Santa Monica and Malibu, sparking an outcry from frustrated residents. Tourists, appalled at first, soon seem to ignore the stream of panhandlers that approach them.
HOUSING ON A GRAND SCALE
But the extraordinary numbers tell only part of the story. Although Los Angeles’ homeless population is second to New York in terms of total numbers, the problem is far more visible in California than anywhere else. That’s because fewer homeless people are “sheltered” in Los Angeles and San Francisco than in any other big city in the country.
In New York City, for example, only 5 percent of homeless people go to bed without a roof over their heads, according to California officials; in Boston, it’s just 3 percent. New York City spends upward of $1.3 billion to shelter its homeless, something required under its 1981 Right to Shelter decree. But in California, two-thirds of the homeless go to sleep unsheltered, slumbering in cars, tents and cardboard boxes — or in nothing at all.
So why does it seem that the richer the state gets, the greater the number of people driven into homelessness?
The answer is that California’s economic boom is exacerbating an already acute problem: an extreme shortage of housing for low-income workers and poor families. The more that high-wage workers drive up real estate values, the worse the housing problem becomes. The average home price in California is now more than $440,000, but in most of Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s nearly twice that.
Worker pay isn’t keeping up. A report earlier this year by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that the average California renter would need to make $32.68 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment; even more in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Nearly half of California renters spend at least 35 percent of their household income on housing. The average salary in California is about $52,000, which translates to $25 an hour, but among hourly workers, millions earn the minimum wage of $11 an hour.
Finding housing is becoming increasingly difficult in the state, especially for those with low incomes. California cities continue to lose lower-cost housing to gentrification. Neighborhoods that once were affordable for hourly workers are being transformed into housing for well-paid professionals, pushing longtime residents into outlying areas — or onto the streets. A report released earlier this year by the California Housing Partnership and the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing estimated that Los Angeles County alone needs nearly 600,00 new affordable housing units to satisfy the demand of lower-income renters. Yet since 2005, California has added only 300 new residential units for every 1,000 people who need them.
For families with little financial cushion, one misstep can land them on the street. Maybe the breadwinner suddenly gets laid off. Or injured. Soon they can’t afford to pay their rent or their credit card bill. At first, they may stay with family or friends, but that can only last so long. Eventually, they end up in a shelter. Or in a car. Or on the sidewalk.
“The economy hasn’t recovered for very poor people,” says Gary Blasi, professor emeritus of law at UCLA Law School and an expert on homelessness in L.A. What California needs, he says, is permanent supportive housing — units with counselors and social workers — on a grand scale. But the money required to do that will require a different level of commitment and a new mindset. “We need to re-educate Californians about what it’s going to take to have a state you want to raise your kids in,” Blasi says.
‘THE STATE HAS BEEN NEGLIGENT’
On L.A.’s Skid Row, Howard, an affable man in his 60s, stands idly outside of the Courtland Hotel on Wall Street, where he rents a small room. He says he’d much rather be working, but he gave up looking. He lost his job as a forklift driver in an American Apparel warehouse after nine years on the job when the company closed its stores in early 2017. “I thought I’d retire there with a union pension,” he says.
It didn’t take long before Howard, who didn’t want his last name used, found himself unable to pay the rent on his apartment in La Mirada, a small city in the southeastern corner of L.A. County. Before long, his unemployment benefits ran out and he found himself on the street. Today he ekes by on his Social Security checks, which barely cover his rent at the 97-room residential hotel. He says he feels lucky to have a roof over his head.
There’s a perception that California cities offer a plethora of services for the homeless, providing a sort of beacon for the poor from other parts of the state and overwhelming available services. But the homeless are usually local natives, and the services aren’t great. The vast majority of the homeless in the Bay Area, for example, became homeless while they were living there. The same goes for Los Angeles.
California’s homeless problem is at a crisis level, experts say, in part because the state has failed to take a coordinated, fully funded approach to tackle it. Instead, there are as many approaches as there are city and county governments, and funding — and commitment — varies just as widely. And there’s been little guidance from Sacramento. Granted, Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed into law a package of legislation aimed at increasing affordable housing, but the impact has been slow to trickle down to the people who need it.
“The state has been negligent,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. “We lost a lot of housing under Jerry Brown.”
While Brown has been popular with Californians in general, advocates for the homeless see him as ineffective when it comes to investments in mental health and affordable housing, leaving it to cities and counties to forge their own way, as they traditionally have. Brown was widely criticized in January 2018 when he failed to even mention homelessness is his final State of the State address. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has overseen the city during its greatest increase in homelessness, was one of the first to take note, passing the blame to Sacramento. “We need the state to step up,” Garcetti told a public affairs forum in February.
It may be up to the new state administration to do just that. The likely incoming governor, Gavin Newsom, has vowed to make the homeless problem his priority, and he has promised to name a cabinet-level secretary to oversee an interagency council on homelessness in order to establish a statewide response that is tailored to regional needs. His goal is to tie state funding to an increase in supportive housing at the local level and to spend money to improve outreach and get more people enrolled for federal disability programs, which would provide them with a monthly check they can use for housing.
At a candidates’ debate in February, Newsom had criticized his own party, the Democrats, for letting the homeless problem get out of control. “With all due respect, this happened on our watch,” Newsom said. “We own this.”
But Newsom’s critics are quick to point out that his plan will require funding that doesn’t currently exist. And homelessness in San Francisco was a significant problem during Newsom’s two terms as mayor, from 2004 to 2010, despite his controversial efforts to find housing. His plan worked to reduce chronic homelessness, but the overall number of homeless on the streets of San Francisco remained steady.
LIFE GOES ON
Over the past two years, voters in Los Angeles have voted to raise taxes to help alleviate the homeless problem, approving $4.6 billion taxes to build 10,000 supportive housing units and to fund additional services, including more outreach workers and shelter beds. Measure H, passed by voters in March 2017, increased the L.A. sales tax by a quarter-cent in order to generate an estimated $355 million annually for 10 years; it’s helped to place 7,500 homeless people in permanent housing. The city also opened its waitlist for housing vouchers, which allow households to pay only 30 percent of their rent and have the government pay the rest. But while it’s a start, Blasi says, it’s just a drop in the bucket.
San Francisco spends more than $250 million each year on homelessness and housing services, and Jeff Kositsky, head of the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, has set a goal of reducing San Francisco’s homeless count of 7,500 by 30 percent in the next five years. That’s a tall order. But in November, voters approved a measure to add a 0.5 percent tax on annual gross receipts of the largest companies doing business in San Francisco, which could bring in an additional $250 million to $300 million a year. And the city already has had some success with its approach of moving away from traditional shelters to more user-friendly Navigation Centers, which help connect homeless individuals to services, along with a new system for tracking the number of homeless individuals that is helping to target interventions.
Meanwhile, on Skid Row, life goes on.
Jeff Chavez has been living in a makeshift shelter near the corner of Sixth and Towne Streets for five years, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon — or ever, to hear him tell it. Every two weeks, he and his girlfriend take their camp apart and move it just before the city’s street cleaners come through. As soon as the area is swept, they put their camp back just like it was, tying tarps to fencing and the door of a warehouse. Somebody tapped into a fire hydrant on the corner in front of their camp, and neighbors stop by to enjoy the water; some wash their hair there.
Chavez, 53, says he hasn’t worked in years, and doesn’t have plans to. He first became homeless in his 20s when his grandparents, who raised him, both died. Since then, he’s been arrested for drug violations and spent years on probation. For now, he says he’s getting by just fine on Skid Row. “I’ve got everything I need,” he says.
Laurie J. Flynn is writer and book editor who has written extensively for The New York Times and was an editor at The San Jose Mercury News.