Los Angeles may be known for the glamor of Hollywood and the glitz of Beverly Hills, but it's also the homeless capital of America.
More than 51,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, from Antelope Valley to the South Bay, with double-digit percentage increases in the number of families, seniors and veterans over last year.
Most alarming is the rise in the ranks of the unsheltered homeless -- more than a fifth of homeless families are without shelter, nearly double the proportion found two years ago, according to the latest count conducted by the city.
This shelter crisis has persisted for decades, yet the county has rarely invoked a 25-year-old California statute that would allow it to open public facilities to shelter the homeless and to alter zoning codes to permit shelters in neighborhoods that are now off-limits to them. The county did authorize year-round shelters in 2004, under pressure from several vocal members of the L.A. City Council, but they currently serve only about 2,000 individuals -- 4 percent of the homeless population.
"It's really bad. We have more new homeless people than we've ever had -- people who lost their jobs and lost their homes via foreclosure," said Brenda Wilson, who runs New Image, the largest emergency shelter in the county, with more than 660 beds.
Of those, 436 are used year-round and the rest during the winter months only. Wilson said her shelter, which also provides counseling, literacy courses and assistance finding more permanent housing, turns away roughly 75 men nightly due to lack of space.
There is a lack of political will and community support for more shelters, said Wilson. "This has been a constant fight in the 23 years that we have done winter shelters and it's gotten more and more difficult to get funding and approval," she said. "It's all about 'not in my backyard.'"
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who recently announced her campaign for mayor, is credited with pushing the county to fund year-round shelters. And though L.A. County spends about $10 million a year on the year-round shelter program, she said it's a battle every year to overcome resistance. "Many communities don't want to have homeless people in their neighborhoods," Perry said.
She has encouraged the county to use public facilities for shelters "but they have declined repeatedly," she said, adding that closed hospital space could be used to provide supervised care to homeless individuals with illnesses.
Perry acknowledged that there also are practical challenges, noting that many city-owned buildings in her district, as well as city armories, could not be effectively used as shelters, either due to earthquake code requirements or size restrictions.
In addition to the shelter crisis law, California's Housing Element Law requires municipalities to submit plans every five years that include a zoning code provision for homeless shelters and affordable housing. But many cities and towns, including some in L.A. County, are not in compliance with the law, said Perry.
University of Southern California School of Social Work professor Ralph Fertig said that's not surprising given that there are no consequences for municipalities who buck the law. "And there isn't the political commitment to press the governor to use his authority to enforce the law," he said, "so there is no penalty for those who don't come up with a plan."
A spokesman for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the chairman of the county board of supervisors, Zev Yaroslavsky, did not return calls for comment.
Yaroslavsky has been outspoken on the homeless crisis, recently helping create a new council on homelessness that bands together county departments serving children, families and veterans with those agencies that specialize in mental health, criminal justice and social services. Similar efforts in the past took a "housing first" approach to assist chronically homeless people in Skid Row, the city's most visible homeless neighborhood, rather than push for new shelters.
Some homeless advocates said that the focus needs to be less on shelters, which they said don't represent a long-term solution, and more on supportive affordable housing.
"Permanent supportive housing is the cost-effective way to end homelessness," said one shelter staffer. "Are you just delaying the crisis or addressing it? Maybe there should be more shelter beds for emergency needs but dollars have to be spent wisely these days and we should be looking at solutions that are effective."
Three-fourths of women questioned in a survey of homeless people in Skid Row said that affordable permanent housing is the biggest need in the community. Many of these women suffer from long-term chronic homelessness, with almost 40 percent of the women in the survey saying they had been homeless for five years or more, an increase over the number in previous surveys.
And with a shortage of government funding, advocates say shelters must rely more on fundraising.
"If you want to be a community where kids and their mothers being homeless is not tolerated, then individuals and businesses have to step up and provide the means to do that," says Cate Steane, executive director of the Family Emergency Shelter Coalition. "These families are suffering out there in the streets."
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