Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Crew on Yucca Street

If I hadn't seen his foot peeking out from the heap, I wouldn't have known there was a man asleep under the jumble of blankets. And, if I hadn't ventured into the roadway to call back a tiny dog that was sniffing Yucca Street and dodging cars, I wouldn't have heard a woman's squawk rise from another mountain of covers near the first spot.
After I had coaxed the dog out of the road, I heard its owner say. "Come back here." It wasn't a shout, because she had likely just been woken by my unfamiliar voice. Her own speech still has curtains of sleep blurring the words.

Once the dog returned to its spot and concocted shelter, I continued my walk, which was taking me from my Los Angeles apartment to Hollywood and Vine. Along with the dog and the pair under blankets, the sights on my route included the Capitol tower, which is shaped like a stack of records on a turntable and commemorates its artists, including Nate King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. The Yucca crew can also easily see the building from their jerry-rigged vantage point.

I am carless in my new city -- a decision based on funds, and a hunger for exercise and exploration - and take this road nearly every day. While I'm pleased how my move to the West Coast is turning out, scenes like the one on Yucca and similar encampments on nearly every corner, on bus stop benches, and under every freeway overpass and onramps, are dimming its gloss.

"What's with all of the homeless in L.A.?" I asked family and friends. Shrugs and raised hands of helplessness met my query. "Maybe it's because you all drive so you don't see them," I added. "But with my walking and bus rides, they seem to be everywhere."

In my former life in Chicago, where I lived in a downtown neighborhood, I had encountered panhandlers with out-stretched coffee cups or hand-written appeals. At one point, I prepped for these strolls with a pocket of dollar bills. When my $5 cache emptied, I'd have to turn a blind eye to pleas. That was about it for my aid.

The Los Angeles tableaus are different. They range from one ragged person propped against a storefront, to clusters of people and shopping carts piled with empty bottles, cans, mattresses, clothing, and stuff likely culled from dumpsters.

The question of how this came to be in such a rich and scenic city wouldn't evaporate from my brain, so I decided to investigate. If I could learn more about the downfalls that left people living on the street, and programs underway to address the issue, maybe I could find a way to be part of the solution.

 Here are some things I've learned so far:

+The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency, oversees $70 million in state, local and national funding for housing and other services.

+The federal homeless funding formula penalizes Los Angeles by factoring in the age of the housing stock. For example, Philadelphia gets $11,000 per homeless person, while Los Angeles get $1,500.

+On any given night in LA County, there are 58,000 homeless, of which 3,000 -- 4,000 are over the age of 62, with 33% of them women. (Could that ever happen to my friends? To me?)

+L.A. has the country's largest homeless veteran population -- 2,600 -- and Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised to house them by the end of 2015.

+Social Security payments and low wage jobs are barely enough to find permanent housing. Many landlords of subsidized units are reluctant to rent to those who are homeless.

+The absence of a permanent address makes it extremely difficult to get a job.

And, here are some steps I'm taking:

+I've volunteered on January 29 to assist in the 2015Greater Los Angeles Point-In-Time Homeless Count. This project helps determine how many people nightly sleep on the street.

+I'll attempt to meet staff of organizations that intrigue me, including Shelter Partnership, Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, and the Skid Row Housing Trust. This variety should broaden my knowledge.

In a few months after my research, maybe I'll introduce myself to the Yucca crew. If I learn their names, and that of their dog, I can call the pup back should he wander again. Perhaps when he hears his name, I can lure him home quicker. Who knows, maybe one day we can get his owners to safety, too.