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What I learned while reporting on homelessness on the Westside of Los Angeles

What I learned while reporting on homelessness on the Westside of Los Angeles

Picture of Gary Walker
What I learned while reporting on homelessness on the Westside of Los Angeles
(Photo by ibudiallo via Creative Commons)

Tackling the difficult and unfortunately deeply polarized topic of homelessness is never easy. It is a complicated and multifaceted subject matter, with a myriad of opinions and approaches on  to how it should be solved—some controversial, some innovative, some illegal and some hard-hearted.

After covering homelessness and housing affordability for the last three years and in particular here on the Westside of Los Angeles I knew that the tide had shifted from a decade ago. Once known for their tolerance and to a degree an accepted and somewhat congenial but fragile coexistence with their unhoused brothers and sisters, Mar Vista, Venice and even Santa Monica have become increasingly less patient with homelessness.

But the rhetoric at community meetings and especially online has grown more caustic and hostile, possibly to epic proportions. A week after an especially contentious town hall last year in Venice to discuss bringing 154 temporary housing units to a former Metro bus facility where Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin were shouted down for nearly three hours, at least half a dozen residents told me that they didn’t go to the meeting because that was what they expected to happen. 

Bonin, who represents much of the Westside and is the second openly gay councilman in Los Angeles history, has been physically threatened online and has been the subject of homophobic slurs.  Angry residents have even verbally attacked his innocent 5 and a half year-old son. 

That was the eye-opener for me.

The days of debating homelessness as a social ill in a calm and collective manner has long ceased to exit. In its place now is blame, personal attacks on lawmakers, accusations of those who protest housing solutions in their neighborhoods of being NIMBYs and those who welcome solutions as fuzzy-headed liberals who want to see property values tumble and are part of a mythical multi-million dollar “social services mafia.”  

Proposed measures to build bridge or temporary housing throughout all 15 city council districts such as the Garcetti-sponsored d Bridge to Homes plan have been vociferously challenged from Venice to Koreatown, from Pasadena to Sherman Oaks.  Neighborhood groups furious about having temporary housing in their communities have launched fledging recall attempts against both Bonin and Garcettti. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, in 2018 the city found housing for more unsheltered people that ever but more people reported being homeless for the first time that same year. 

Others have launched unsuccessful lawsuits trying to stop the building of bridge housing to their various communities. One prominent anti-homeless resident in Venice has sued the city and county multiple times, demanding that the city violate laws allowing the homeless to sleep outside between certain hours, even though the city and the Los Angeles Police Dept. are enjoined legally from doing so. He and others parlayed the current fever of “build homeless housing anywhere but not here” into seats on the Venice Neighborhood Council, an advisory body to the city council. 

During my research for my three-part series “Life on the Streets,” which examined homelessness through the prisms of domestic violence, the current federal assault on the Affordable Care Act and the chronic health care needs of the unhoused, I learned that in addition to the entrenched opposition to homeless housing, lawmakers faced great odds in trying to meet even basic needs for their unsheltered constituents, such as providing mobile showers and hand washing stations. 

This was only a year after a hepatitis A outbreak in 2017. Sadly, perhaps in desperation and convinced that city officials refuse to do anything about an encampment on Third Avenue in Venice,  a group of advocates began spreading the unfounded rumor of homeless people in the area of Third Avenue had MRSA and that the mobile showers that Councilmember Mike Bonin brought to Venice was the source of the supposed outbreak. 

City leaders of the past did not do the current members of council any favors when it comes to homelessness. Wendy Greuel, a Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority commissioner who was a Los Angeles City Councilwoman from 2002 until 2009, stated during a panel on homelessness in 2016 that her council almost never discussed homelessness except “in an abstract way.” That was stunning. Until 2016 or 2107, city and county agencies both operated on different paths and many people often fell through the cracks.

Perhaps one of the lessons learned when developing a project — no matter how well you research the subject matter, make good contacts and include experts in your stories — is to always expect to be surprised on some level. Knowing how the tide had swung against homelessness citywide was not a surprise but the depths that people will go to try and prevent a solution to this humanitarian crisis from happening “in my back yard” and what they are willing to say — sometimes publicly, often on social media — was eye-opening.

Among the questions that I sought answers to was how would eliminating the ACA health care law, as the Trump administration is trying to do through the courts, affect low-income and homeless people?

According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 20 million Americans could have their health care jeopardized if that were to happen.

Health care experts say if the Trump administration is successful in allowing states to take away medical coverage from low-income and homeless people if they don’t work a certain number of hours, that could have a devastating effect on these populations. 

Prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, adults experiencing homelessness could not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare unless they could prove that they had a disability, were over 65 or pregnant, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank that analyzes how government policies impact the public.

I also wanted to know what experts thought about the percentage of women in Los Angeles who often wind up on the streets who have been victims of domestic violence. Most experts that I interviewed said the figures were upward of 90% of all women who are homeless or in shelters. 

Santa Monica, where homeless social service provider The People Concern has offices, was extremely helpful in getting me access to their street teams (I went out on two different occasions with them) but other agencies were not. I got the impression that in Santa Monica the urgency around homelessness was far higher than with other organizations, which presented one bureaucratic hoop after the other with very little assistance.

Otherwise, it was left to me to get my street interviews. I made three trips to different locations and l learned what most street reporters know: that our homeless neighbors come in all shapes, sizes and genders. That they still hold on to their dreams, although sometimes far-fetched. A senior man that I met in a Santa Monica park still wanted to be a circus performer. I also learned that many want to get off the streets and that some have given up hope and have succumbed to a life “outdoors.” 

Among public officials, only Los Angeles County Supervisor Shelia Kuehl’s office was very helpful, offering interviews and helpful statistics. Sadly, her third district office was the only who did.   

As for other lessons learned during my fellowship, I would offer the following: 

No matter how much time that you think you have, time can get away from even the most diligent of us. So keep an eye on the calendar and the day that your story or series is due.

Set a plan in motion immediately after your fellowship and use the resources at your disposal: Like a few  of my fellowship colleagues, I work for a very, very busy newspaper and keeping up with the day-to-day task of reporting is hard under any circumstance and even more with an in-depth project pending. To the extent that you can, enlisted colleagues at work to help with research, setting up interviews, photo or video shoots, etc.

Expect to be surprised: The street medicine teams that I followed are made up of caring, public service-oriented people. No matter how much pushback there is from certain neighborhoods, knowing that those teams are providing medical and some mental health care was heartwarming. 

Those who need assistance, especially those with chronic needs, are often in the dark about the street medicine available to them free of charge, and that for major conditions, such as cancer, they could still be eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. 

What wasn’t a surprise was hearing the stories of the unhoused people whom I encountered. Like their indoor neighbors, they are distrustful of government and adopt a firm ethic of self-reliance among themselves and members of their group. Unfortunately, for many health care is often an afterthought, because day to day survival can become overwhelming. 

The discussion or debate about how to solve or reduce homelessness will continue. Hopefully, these stories will give the public, lawmakers and health experts another way of looking at the difficult task that lies in front of all of us. 

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