Sat, May

Mind Blowing Facts about LA’s Homeless People and How to Un-Homeless Them


HOMELESSNESS THEN AND NOW-Been a lovely 2016 so far for Los Angeles. But not so much for Los Angeles’ homeless. For them, it’s a life without shelter, food, health care and a positive environment -- an environment that is freezing and often wet. 


Regardless of where you live, most would agree we have a major societal issue on our hands.

I have traveled to all but two states and to all major cities, but my perspective on homelessness is based upon the City of Los Angeles: This is where I have lived for most of my career. 

As the project manager for the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal project in downtown Los Angeles, I became aware of “Skid Row” and the “homeless” in the late-60’s. 

Back then, I read in detail a report prepared by a national expert, Ronald Vanderkooi, for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency on the homeless population in downtown Los Angeles. I was struck by what it listed as the causes of homelessness in downtown LA, (as well as in San Pedro, the San Fernando Valley and the Westside) and by the concrete recommendations that were made. 

These recommendations are the same now as they were then -- both locally and on a national scale. 

Many factors can contribute to a person becoming homeless, including, but not limited to: 

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Lack of health care
  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Poverty
  • Job loss 

When one drills down even further, we find five mind blowing facts about the profile of homeless people: 

  • One third are children (National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • 50% are women and children fleeing domestic violence (multiple studies)
  • Most people are homeless for two months -- in fact, two-thirds are off the streets in two months. (National Symposium on Homelessness Research)
  • 25% of homeless people are employed (National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Many people become addicts after becoming homeless, not before. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, that found that, among the homeless:

38% are alcoholics, 26% are addicted to other substances, and 25% suffer from mental illness 

Nationally, there are 1.5 million homeless people in America and, of these, 23 percent or 345,000 are veterans. 

In the City of Los Angeles, there are over 25,000 homeless people, with over 10,000 living in Downtown LA. Of that total, over 6,000 are veterans. According to the Veterans Administration, out of all the homeless nationwide:

  • 23% of the are veterans
  • 33% of male homeless persons are veterans
  • 47% of the homeless veterans are from the Vietnam era
  • 17% are Post-Vietnam
  • 15% are Pre-Vietnam
  • 25% have used VA Homeless Services
  • 76% experience alcohol, drug or mental health problems 

To deal with the problems of homeless veterans as well as the balance of the homeless in LA, the Vanderkoi report from the late-60’s outlined the same strategy people talk about today: 

1.  Provide emergency shelter during cold and rainy periods. In the City of LA: 

  • There are 7,000 homeless beds in LA shelters; but 18,000 homeless have no shelter.
  • LA needs to set up a voucher program for the homeless during the winter months (at a cost of $27M – or $50 per night for 18,000 people for 30 nights.)
  • Public and non-profit buildings need to be made available.
  • Battery powered heaters should be given to the homeless ($500,000 provides one heater for every homeless person).
  • Mayor Garcetti and the LA City Council have approved $12.4 million for emergency relief -- $10 million for short term rent subsidies and $1.4 million for beds. However, since there is not currently a supply of housing for the homeless, the City will never spend that $10 million. The $1.4 million will be used in public buildings.
  • The $12.4 million would work out to approximately $500 per homeless person or 10 nights of shelter per person.
  • Former Mayor Richard Riordan is so upset with the City’s lack of effort that he personally ordered 1,000 tarps and 900 ponchos.
  • The homeless should be given tarps and ponchos – spending $500,000 would provide for each person in need.
  • Currently, portable toilets and showers are open only eight hours per day. They need to be available 24/7 and the City must work with the homeless to let them make rules to keep them clean.
  • Longtime homeless activist Alice Callaghan who is helping distribute the cold-weather supplies, assesses the homeless situation this way: “This city is bleeding and there is no concern out there. It’s unconscionable.”
  • Garcetti was recently in Portland, Ore. at a meeting of West Coast mayors to address homelessness and climate change.
  • Garcetti and the mayors of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Ore. called for more federal funding for affordable housing and homeless rental subsidies; they requested changes in federal funding formulas which they say ignore the heavy rent burden in western states.
  • Callaghan criticized Garcetti for going out of town to “talk about homelessness” rather than doing something to address the anticipated cold weather and the widespread displacement caused by soaring rents and development. 

2.  Build affordable housing with micro units (325 square feet) to house the homeless. (It is pretty clear that you cannot deal with any of the other issues facing the homeless unless you provide affordable housing.)

  • Professor Dennis Culhane, of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, has been instrumental in a national shift in how society addresses homelessness. He has worked with the City of New York to better understand its homeless issues and how the lack of affordable housing can lead to homelessness.
  • Culhane provides his unique perspective by stating: “The fundamental irony here is that health insurance will pay for you to be in the hospital – $1,000, $2,000 a day – just to get you better. But then you will be discharged to the street, and they won’t pay for housing, even though those patients get readmitted more quickly and stay in the hospital longer.”
  • The problem of affordable housing begins in the executive office of Sacramento. Even though Governor Jerry Brown lives in a redevelopment residential tower, he cancelled redevelopment in the state, something that provided the necessary funding for affordable housing; and he has vetoed every affordable housing piece of legislation.
  • Due to the inaction by the City between 1990 and 2000, 15,000 residential hotel apartments in downtown Los Angeles, the most affordable housing in Los Angeles, was destroyed, threatening Skid Row’s residential community and forcing thousands of people onto the City’s sidewalks and into shelters.
  • Not only were the existing units taken out of service, but, during the Great Recession, the City missed an excellent opportunity to purchase additional buildings, such as one million square foot May Co. buildingvthat could have been converted to housing for the homeless.
  • The responsibility for developing affordable housing for the homeless rests with the City and with the Veterans Administration.
  • In New York City, Mayor de Blasio has gotten approval for $2.6 billion that will generate 15,000 units for the homeless in 15 years.
  • In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti’s budget asked for enough money to develop SIX UNITS (emphasis added) in 2015-2016.
  • Mayor Garcetti has been hanging his “homeless hat” on the housing that is planned for the VA in West Los Angeles.
  • The VA in the late 1800’s was given 387 acres to HOUSE the disabled. (The VA has never fulfilled this mission. They have entered into leases with a private school, UCLA’s baseball stadium and storage for a car dealership, among other uses.
  • The VA West LA master plan calls for 900 housing units and up to 2,500 units.
  • Until these units are built, which is probably a decade away, the vacant land at the VA should provide modular units and army tents for the homeless. But the administrator of the West LA VA and the national VA do not want to do this. They should be moved out of the way because they have not fulfilled their mission; their mistreatment of the veterans is legendary. Since they have contributed to the homeless problem, it is time to use this valuable resource for part of the solution.
  • The Mayor should not hang his hat on the VA site. The City did not buy up the 15,000 units during the Great Recession. It will now cost more to even match what New York City is doing.
  • To keep up with New York City, the City of Los Angeles will need to build or convert 1,000 units per year over the next fifteen years. (The annual cost will be $200 million per year or 2.6% of the cost of the first leg of the bullet train!) 

3.  Health Care, Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Illness 

  • “Housing First” is key to being able to deal with the health care, alcohol, drug abuse and mental illness needs of the homeless.
  • Jim Mangia, head of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in South Los Angeles, which runs 10 health clinics, said the homelessness crisis is having serious effects on public health. Children are coming in with rat bites, and adults are going without medication or seeing their physician, he said.
  • “We’re very alarmed by the health conditions we’ve been seeing as hundreds of people are thrown into the streets,” said Mangia.
  • Once the homeless are within shelter and “stabilized,” they can go through a triage process, with a prioritization of their needs.
  • There are two agencies that must step up to the issues of health care, alcohol, drug abuse and mental illness: the VA for the veterans and the County Health and Mental Health departments for the remainder of the homeless.
  • The VA and the County need to make “house calls.” They should outfit modular units on wheels and take them to the homeless on a regular basis.  (Between money from the VA, MediCal, the County and the largest health insurers in the State, the funding of this effort for the City of Los Angeles should be a no cost item.) 

4.  Women, Children and Domestic Abuse 

  • First, this is a police and sheriff issue and the statistics speak for themselves. If the police and sheriff see women and children as a part of the homeless population, they need to know that 50 percent are on the streets because of domestic violence.
  • Second, women and children should have priorities at shelters.
  • Third, women and children should become the purview of the County’s foster home care system. By becoming a part of the foster home care system, these women and children would be able to get off the streets, find shelter and begin receiving the other social services they need. 

5.  Jobs and Poverty 

  • Los Angeles is the Poverty Capital of America. The American Community Survey numbers put out by the Census Bureau looked at poverty in 25 major metropolitan areas in 2013. The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area had 17.6 percent of people living under the poverty line.
  • Dealing with poverty, jobs and more housing, the City of Los Angeles must form a real partnership with the private sector.
  • So as not to slip below the poverty line, many must master English, but without losing their native language.
  • There must be an emphasis on education for everyone: family, the schools, community and the City.
  • Jobs, jobs, jobs must become the mantra of the City. Since losing the aerospace industry, the City must develop a vision of what industries can take its place and how new industries can be attracted and flourish in the city.
  • The City of Los Angeles must build more and denser housing. For example, in the last ten years, the City of Los Angeles has issued less than 10,000 housing permits per year. For that same period, New York and Chicago issued, respectively, 35,000 and 30,000 annual permits. 

Recapping all of the above… 

To date, response from politicians and bureaucrats has been less than underwhelming.

Jim Mangia shares the growing sentiment of many in the City of Los Angeles, “There’s not a serious response on the part of the City leadership.” 

Increasingly, most cities are making homelessness a crime. For me, homelessness is a symbol of the failure of our society and our government. If the police and fire departments did their jobs the way the City of Los Angeles deals with the homeless issue, chiefs of police and fire chiefs would be fired and the Mayor and Councilmembers all recalled. 

In Los Angeles, there should be one person in charge of coordinating services for the homeless, just as it is done in New York City. A financial commitment to solving the problem should be allocated in the following manner: 

Cleaning, trash receptacles, showers and toilets               $3 million                                                               

Temporary shelter                                                       $25 million   

Permanent Housing (Annual)                                      $200 million

Annual Cost                                                              $228 Million 

I am not sure the City has the will or the skill to deal with the homeless problem. However, it will need to muster up both or Los Angeles will remain the homeless capital of America. And no amount of political spin will change this.


(Michael P. Russell has served for the past 35 years as a real estate developer, advisor and expert witness. As a private and public developer, Mr. Russell has lead teams in the development of Howard Hughes Center and Bunker Hill, as well as Irvine Ranch, Playa Vista, Reston, Warner Center, Douglas Park and Amerige Heights. He is a specialist in the clean-up, master planning, entitling and redevelopment of decommissioned aerospace facilities—always trying to leave the Earth better than the way we found it. First published in urbezine.com.  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.



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