The Hunted, the Hungry and the Homeless of L.A.

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Author: Alison Kjeldgaard and Thomas Schryver

As the second largest city in the country, Los Angeles has one of the highest populations of homeless people. In the 2007 Homeless Count Report done by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), an estimated 73,702 homeless people are living in Los Angeles County and greater Los Angeles area on any given day. LAHSA estimates that 141,737 people experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year, or about 1.5% of the city’s total population.

LAHSA also conducted a shelter and institution count to get an estimate of the number of homeless people being temporarily housed on a given night. The study identified about 600 shelters, jails, drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, hospitals and motels or hotels that accept homeless vouchers. According to LAHSA, these shelters and institutions represent the majority of places in Los Angeles that homeless people can stay. The study counted a total of 17,565 people staying in these shelters and institutions. That means that only about 23% of the homeless population finds shelter on an average night. This is one of the biggest problems facing Los Angeles’ constant battle against homelessness: finding shelter and care for everyone who needs it. From shelters to hospitals, nowhere has enough room to accommodate every homeless or impoverished person.

The L.A. Times recently reported on the outcome of a lawsuit filed against College Hospital in Costa Mesa. One of the hospital’s vans was discovered dumping Steven Davis, a patient suffering from multiple mental disorders, outside of Union Rescue Mission downtown. The mission was unable to take Davis in since they are not equipped to help psychiatric patients, so Davis was dropped off at another shelter a few miles away.Eventually, officials uncovered the full extent of the hospital’s dumping practices. The hospital frequently drove homeless patients 40 miles north to drop them in Los Angeles’ downtown Skid Row, home to one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the U.S. The L.A. City attorney’s office announced in a settlement last Wednesday that the College Hospital must pay $1.6 million in civil penalties and charitable contributions for dumping over 150 people since 2007.

“In the City of Los Angeles, we will not stand idly by while society’s most vulnerable are dumped in the gutters of Skid Row,” City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo said in an April 8th press release. “Those who engage in this unconscionable practice will be held to account.”

This is not a new issue. Over the past four years, Los Angeles officials have been cracking down on hospitals for dumping homeless patients at Skid Row. Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Bellflower had to change their policies to prevent further patient dumping.

In 2006, Kaiser was charged with misdemeanor criminal charges for discharging a 63-year-old homeless woman in Skid Row.

“We want to send a message to hospitals that we will not stand for this,” Delgadillo said as quoted by the Los Angeles Daily News.

The return of legal action on behalf of the city against hospitals’ repeated attempts to easily discharge their patients through improper means shows that officials hope that hospitals will be dissuaded from any potential improper dismissals of patients in the future.

L.A. Times reporters Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton believe that restricting hospitals from dumping patients without following up where they end up is all well and good, but will not solve the larger issue at hand: if patients who are homeless can’t be dropped at Skid Row, where should they go?

Furthermore, why do hospitals continue to drop patients at Skid Row, especially if they have to drive 40 miles out of their way?

The answer lies in the fact that there are never enough beds to accommodate every homeless person. Neither the hospital nor the city have sufficient funds to accommodate every homeless individual requiring hospitalization.

“It costs $1,276 a day to keep someone in a hospital bed. That’s a lot more than it costs to provide a bed in a shelter,” executive Vice President of the Hospital Association of Southern California Jim Lott said.

Skid Row houses the greatest concentration of homeless people in the county. The LAHSA estimates about 5,131 people live in Skid Row. At the same time, Skid Row houses the largest number of non-profit organizations in the city. Though the non-profits are far from providing every homeless person with a bed, they help to build Skid Row into a community rather than just an area with a high concentration of homeless people.The city of L.A. along with other large cities across the nation have been trying to ameliorate the strain on non-profit aid by providing more affordable housing. Last Thursday Abbey Apartments, a 115-unit building, opened on Skid Row specifically for people who were disabled or have been homeless for a long period of time.

Despite the efforts of city officials, the enormous task of addressing city homelessness issues requires more than just municipal and state budgeting. Grassroots organizations and individual volunteers provide the additional support necessary to address the needs of Los Angeles’ impoverished.

Many Oxy students volunteer for transitional housing and non-profit organizations that provide people with basic needs such as food and shelter. These organizations strive not only to support people on a day-to-day basis, but also to clear up misconceptions about homelessness and homeless individuals, as well as to provide more long-term solutions for keeping them off the streets.

One group of Oxy students feeds impoverished and homeless people every Wednesday at St. Barnabus Church in Eagle Rock through Project EDEN (Encouraging Distribution to End Need), a student-run program through Oxy’s Center for Community Based Learning.

Oxy students cook and serve a meal every first and third Wednesday of the month, and help serve a meal that other church members cook every second and fourth. Project EDEN separates itself from other soup kitchens by focusing on serving a nutritionally balanced meal and breaking boundaries between volunteers and guests. Every meal includes a main course — like shepherd’s pie or tacos — a salad, side-dish and a dessert.”We pride ourselves on our ability to create a meal that guests say they enjoy,” Allison Riemer (junior) said, one of the project directors of Project EDEN.

Emily Sanderson (junior), the other project director of EDEN, emphasized that the organization is much more than just giving people food.

“An important part of Project EDEN [. . .] is not just the preparing and serving of a meal, but having volunteers sit and share the meals with the guests at the church,” Sanderson said. “For some people, coming to soup kitchens is important not just as a resource for a meal, but also a source of social support.”Volunteers typically begin cooking the meal around 3 in the afternoon and start serving at 5:30. A wide range of people show up to eat: some people are homeless, and many others are just having trouble making ends meet. Some come alone, while others come with a family.

If students are not cooking, Oxy students chat with guests waiting in line while serving the courses of the meal. Once everyone has been served, many Oxy students sit down at a table and mingle with the guests.

“Some guests are more talkative than others, and we try to respect people’s apprehensions towards talking with people they don’t know,” Riemer said. “We develop relationships with guests, and many guests come often or every week.”

Wednesday nights end with a group meeting where students discuss their thoughts of the evening. Often, discussions focus on how EDEN can further meet the needs of the guests, and how the project can be expanded to do so.Sanderson and Riemer believe that EDEN is a valuable place for students to gain perspective on the community members around them, and use that knowledge to be able to improve the lives of the impoverished population.

“Sustain
ability is important to all CCBL projects,” Riemer said. “We want the relationship with St. Barnabas to continue because Oxy students have a lot to offer – we not only prepare great food, but we are also interested in sharing experiences and learning from the homeless/low-income residents of Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glendale, Pasadena.”

“Not everyone that comes to the church is homeless, and everyone has a different story to tell,” Sanderson said. “It can be confusing at times to try to understand where different people are coming from, but sharing a meal offers an important opportunity to learn about the lives of people beyond the Oxy campus.”

Kari Vanderbilt (senior) brought Project EDEN to Oxy in 2005. Previously, Project EDEN was serving meals in Hollywood, but had no base near Oxy’s campus. Vanderbilt became a project director during her first year at Oxy, and re-established the program at St. Barnabus church to address the needs of the impoverished population directly around campus.

Though she is no longer the project director, Vanderbilt still volunteers with EDEN. She helps to teach social justice classes at Franklin High School and brings some of her students with her to volunteer. The classes each focus on a separate issue: community organizing, inequalities in education, food justice, human rights and genocide, gentrification and the housing crisis, and environmental justice.

Vanderbilt has learned a lot about the problems that the homeless population and low-income families face after talking with Project EDEN guests and with her Franklin students.”I think that we need a more comprehensive system because, for example, if you receive food stamps from the government, your income is adjusted according to the government, and you may no longer qualify for Medicaid,” Vanderbilt said. “So people have to choose between whether they want to eat or receive direly needed medicine – this should never have to be the case. Students at Franklin High brought this problem to my attention when they mentioned that this has occurred in their families.”Vanderbilt also believes that distinguishing between the permanently homeless population and the temporarily homeless population is an important distinction that must be recognized before determining ways to help.

“The permanent homeless population is around 90,000 in L.A.,” Vanderbilt said, “but if you included everyone who is homeless tonight, it would include a much larger number of people– people who have gotten laid off from jobs, people in migration, people kicked out of homes.”

Because the permanently homeless have different needs from temporarily homeless people, the system must provide different services to help each group.

“The ‘permanent’ homeless are more likely to have problems in terms of drug and alcohol abuse and mental illnesses, which are inhibitive to obtaining jobs, as well as other factors,” Vanderbilt said.

Like Vanderbilt, Caroline Bunnell ’08 has developed her own personal insight into the issues facing homeless and impoverished communities in L.A. after volunteering for non-profits.

“Unbroken cycles of poverty, substance abuse, and physical abuse often lead to homelessness – the problem is so much deeper than finding someone housing and job – which is hard enough as it is,” Bunnell said.

Bunnell is currently attending graduate school at UCLA to study U.S. History. Though Bunnell is busy with schoolwork, she still finds time to volunteer since it has become such a deeply ingrained part of her life.

“It has been very inspiring to watch others who have committed themselves to serving and advocating for the homeless – it gives me hope, motivation, and ignites my passion to join them,” said Bunnell of her fellow volunteers.

Every Sunday, Bunnell goes to Skid Row with her church to provide people with a hot meal and bag of food.

“In grad school it’s so easy to stay in the university/academia bubble – much like the Oxy bubble,” Bunnell said. “I find that going to Skid Row each week keeps me grounded in reality. Worries like ‘Will I be able to finish my reading?’ melt away when I hear my homeless friends tell me about their fears of being attacked or robbed, their struggles with addiction, their fruitless searches for a job.”

While a student at Oxy, Bunnell was involved in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on campus. InterVarsity is affiliated with the Los Angeles Urban Project, a summer social justice training program which sends teams of students to work at non-profits in inner city areas. The program enacts social action with a Biblical foundation in values such as service, justice and compassion.

The project was created by the Intervarsity Staff in Los Angeles in an effort to bridge the gap between college campuses and the inner city. Like Bunnell recognizes, campuses are isolated from the surrounding population, which tends to make students blind to poverty issues. Though LAUP does not focus specifically on homelessness, many of the non-profits available for students deal with homeless issues.

Oxy students began participating in the program in the early 1980s. Since then, an average of three to four Oxy students participate in the six-week program every summer working for various non-profits in L.A.

Bunnell worked for a transitional facility called Door of Hope in Northwest Pasadena which has been offering shelter to homeless families for the past 24 years. The more than one hundred year old Victorian style house that serves as Door Of Hope’s premises is unique in that it is not an emergency shelter, but rather a transitional house that allows for homeless individuals – mainly married couples with children – to organize their work opportunities, family, and budget in order to get back to a self-sustainable level.

“The goal of Door of Hope is essentially to ‘cure’ homelessness rather than just put a ‘band-aid’ on it,” said Bunnell.

Door of Hope, which was formerly a two-year program, is now a one-year program in which families live with up to four other families in “the big house” and then graduate to their own apartments behind the house after an average transitional period of six to seven months. Although the apartments are still a part of Door of Hope, they don’t carry the same responsibilities of chores and communal living that the first phase of the program requires.

In the main house, families are responsible for chores and cooking dinner for the household once a week.

Weekend manager and Anglican Priest CT Myers attributed Door of Hope’s focus on homeless families rather than individuals a result of noticing that other shelters and missions could not provide an adequate environment in which families could exist together without getting divided due to space issues. “The point was: here we are in a moment of crisis; why split up the family?” Myers said.

The program requires that its families are clean from drug use, married, and have children under the age of ten, Myers said. Door of Hope is also currently accepting single mothers. Door of Hope also has an onsite therapist, a men’s bible study, as well as its own after-school program.

Although the house was unexpectedly tranquil when The Weekly arrived, Myers emphasized that the atmosphere in Door of Hope could grow far more hectic.

“Right now our house is in peace,” Myers said, “[but] last summer we had twenty-something kids running around the house, so I had to play the roles of parent, preacher, and Jerry Springer.

“You’re put in a place where you’re not where you used to be but you’re not where you [want to be],” Myers said. “It’s kind of that middle place…the neutral zone. It’s the ending of hopefully the old life you had; you’re not quite ready to start over: you’re in the middle.”

When asked of the factors that most prevalently contribute to homelessness, Myers cited general structural issues in society that can lead to poverty.

“Couple [homelessness] with powerlessness and [people] continue cycles that [they] know,” Myers said. “People c
ontinue cycles that they know until they realize the cycles are going to break them unless they break the cycle.”

Myers spoke of Door of Hope’s plans to possibly expand their model of communal living in a transitional house to several new locations in Los Angeles, with the possibility of having a house catering specifically to the needs of homeless single mothers. Myers and his fellow staff members expressed their hope that Door of Hope and its success will act as a model for other transitional houses in L.A.

Individuals have historically always struggled in Los Angeles with homelessness, whether they have been permanent or temporary, but city officials, non-profit organizations, and the many volunteers of Los Angeles still imagine the day when homelessness is no longer an issue that needs to be addressed.In response to the recent hospital settlement, Reverend Andrew Bales of L.A.’s Union Rescue Mission says it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

“It’s another step towards the day when we won’t have any precious human being living on the street and it’s a tremendous step toward the day when we’ll live up to being our name: the city of angels,” Bales said.

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