With the number of homeless individuals swelling to more than 57,000 in Los Angeles County, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles is trying put a dent in that number by hosting on Nov. 18 its 11th annual HomeWalk at downtown’s Grand Park.
Los Angeles has been battling homelessness for many years. The recent uptick in persons living on the street and in shelters resulted in the March passage of Measure H which went into effect Oct. 1 with the lofty goal of generating a minimum $355 million annually via a .25-percent county sales tax. The HomeWalk could add another $1.5 million to his effort.
County officials have said that the city of Los Angeles has thousands of fewer shelter beds than it had in 2009, and that there is only one shelter bed available for every four homeless persons. That’s one of the nation’s lower shelter bed rates.
“Homelessness is an issue that’s bigger than any one of us,” said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “HomeWalk is United Way’s signature event of the year because it mobilizes thousands of Angelinos to not only give a voice to those who are silent, but find and fund solutions that work.”
Among those persons “without a voice” is Juan King who for 27 years has been homeless. The 51-year-old Alta Dena native will participate in the HomeWalk because the amount of people living on the street, he said, is becoming untenable.
“It’s like a never-awakening nightmare,” King said of the typical day for a homeless person. “You wake up each morning and look at the day as a struggle—a struggle you have to face alone—because there are so few resources available to help people.”
King said there is desperation for change among the homeless population. They didn’t start out that way as most had a job, shelter and family. But one bad break after another, he explained, can mean the difference between hope and despair.
“It’s a very negative day for the homeless person,” King said. “I suppose people come to Los Angeles because of the warm weather, but if you think there is a wealth of services available to homeless people, you’re sadly mistaken. This community needs more assistance—and not just financial—from local, state and the federal government to get people off the street and back toward gainful employment which benefits society as a whole.”
King said the familiar antecedents of homelessness such as mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse are factual, but only to a point. Most persons, he said, have simply fallen on hard times and need a “hand up,” rather than a “hand out.” Ordinary human kindness, he commented, is lacking in American society.
“Love among U.S. citizens has cooled off,” King said. “We used to care for poor people, but that’s no longer the case. Instead we lump homelessness and mental illness in the same basket. Yes, there are many homeless persons who suffer from mental illness, but the majority are not dangerous to themselves or society. They’ve lost their way, and while alcohol and drugs are only part of the issue, there are so many different reasons why a person becomes homeless.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) may house each day an average of 3,000 inmates deemed homeless and certified by experts as mentally ill. There’s not enough room at the Twin Towers jail facility downtown, therefore plans are in motion to construct a larger facility to house and provide treatment for mentally ill homeless individuals, most of which wait months to go to trial. LASD officials have launched the Just In Reach (JIR) program designed to help curtail homelessness among people experiencing repeat jail stays. For the next four years, the JIR program hopes to place about 300 homeless inmates who have a mental health and/or substance abuse problem into permanent supportive housing.
King believes a “reward system” for staying off the streets—and off drugs and alcohol—could be a more practical method to address homelessness.
“One way to help the homeless get back on their feet is a program that provides assistance for wages,” King suggested. “Not simply a job—because some people simply don’t want to work—but something to do every day. Some type of worthwhile activity that assists others and keeps that individual occupied and productive. “
King said the little things you can do for a homeless person can pay big dividends. A pair of shoes and socks. A warm blanket or a sweater during the winter months. These gestures, he said, can restore self esteem and show the individual that better days may lie ahead.
“I’m happy to participate in the HomeWalk because it helps to raise awareness to the problem of homelessness,” King noted. “If the money we raise can be best used treat persons with substance abuse problems, then we will have accomplished a great deal. We need doctors to accommodate these persons. We need better understanding from law enforcement when encountering a homeless person with mental illness. Mostly, we need compassion from the public.”
Over the past 10 years, The United Way has raised more than $7.6 million locally for homeless outreach. Chris Ko is the director of Homeless Initiatives and the organization’s Home For Good program and says their work serves as a “community voice” for more than 100 non-profit agencies who work toward solutions for the homeless epidemic.
“We have a good relationship with the county and the various municipalities who deal with homeless persons every day,” Ko said. “Skid Row is not the specific epicenter of homelessness. In South Los Angeles, homelessness has increased by 24 percent in one year. This is particularly true along the 110 Freeway corridor and that’s due partly to the changing face of Downtown LA and the movement into South LA, Watts, Compton and as far south as San Pedro.”
Because there is such a disproportionate percentage of African American homeless persons, the United Way of Los Angeles has established “Street Outreach Teams” to rebuild trust and confidence between the homeless population and ordinary citizens. Each day, residents from throughout the county will encounter homeless persons and offer information about health services, job training and places to go for shelter and food. Mostly, they help to provide a renewed sense of humanity for homeless persons.
“We try to address many needs this way,” Ko said. “The money we raise in events such as the HomeWalk and other events taking place throughout the year are matched by the county. This goes a long way toward providing needed services that can change lives.”