"You hear stories like that a lot," Santana says later. "People come out here with a dream, and when it doesn’t work out, they end up here." It’s such a familiar tale that it’s almost hard to believe it still plays out in reality. But this is by no means the only way that people find themselves living on Skid Row. A man named Jimmy says he lived on the streets of San Francisco for years as an "underground artist—like Allen Ginsberg" before heading south to Los Angeles a decade ago. A young woman named Linda says she fell into debt and her credit got so bad that landlords wouldn’t rent to her. Jennifer, who is 25, grew up in Los Angeles. She and her boyfriend became homeless years ago because they couldn’t find work.
No two stories are the same for the thousands of people living on the streets of Skid Row, the 54-block area of Downtown Los Angeles that is home to the city’s largest concentration of homeless residents, and the path to stable housing necessarily differs from person to person. Santana is part of a new program called C3 that is taking that reality to heart, coordinating public and private resources to meet the individual needs of Skid Row residents—and ultimately getting them into permanent supportive housing.
C3 stands for City, County, and Community; the program was born out of partnerships at all three levels. Initiated by the Housing for Health division of the county-run Department of Health Services, C3 also draws resources from the Department of Public Health, the Department of Mental Health, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority—a service provider established by both the city and county in 1993. Community participants include Americorps, LAMP Community, and the United Way. Initial funding was provided by the offices of City Councilmember Jose Huizar and County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis.
All of these organizations and agencies have been fighting individually against homelessness for years. C3 brings them together and gives staff members access to their combined resources. "As far as I’m aware, an outreach program like this has not existed here before," says program director Sara Shortt. "What’s unique and special about our program is that we can include all of these agencies on a coordinated level."
The need for such an effort has never felt stronger. On May 4, LAHSA released a yearly count of homeless residents in the Los Angeles area. Though significant declines in family and veteran homelessness were encouraging, the count found that the number of homeless people living in LA County had risen almost six percent over the previous year, with a citywide increase of 11 percent. The number of city residents living outside of even temporary shelters went up 21 percent.
These grim statistics come less than a year after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti considered declaring a state of emergency in order to address the growing homelessness crisis. Since then, the city has adopted a nearly $2-billion plan to combat the spread of homelessness, but the Los Angeles City Council is still ironing out details on how this effort will be funded. In the meantime, with less than 30 full-time staffers, C3 is beginning to inch toward its ambitious goal of housing 2,000 homeless residents of Skid Row in the next four years.
There are financial, as well as moral, considerations to this effort. For decades, the clustered service providers and shelters of Skid Row have made it home to a large population of chronically homeless people. Chronically homeless people, as defined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, have a disabling condition (mental or physical) and have undergone prolonged periods of homelessness in recent years. Many studies have suggested that it is far more cost-effective to house the chronically homeless than to leave them on the streets, where they will often rack up high costs associated with healthcare or incarceration. In Los Angeles, a 2015 report from the city administrator found that the city spends more than $100 million a year on costs associated with homelessness.
Housing for Health, whose efforts brought about C3, was formed with the idea that improvements in the health and wellbeing of homeless people can be made through stable housing. This "housing first" approach was pioneered in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, and has gained traction in recent years after successes in New York, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City. Outreach efforts similar to C3 exist in all three cities, and a private nonprofit in Austin has even developed its own little village based on the housing first concept, but it is rare to find a program that combines C3’s wealth of resources with such a specific geographical focus.
C3 operates by sending teams of workers into Skid Row to talk with residents and begin the often complicated process of finding them housing. Each team is composed of two Americorps outreach workers, one LAHSA emergency responder, and a registered nurse, a mental health clinician, and a substance abuse counselor who can help identify clients in need of urgent intervention. They work five days a week, and since the program launched on January 4 of this year, they have made themselves a familiar fixture in the community.
The six-person teams are each assigned to a color-coded quadrant of Skid Row—staff members readily identify themselves as members of the red, yellow, blue, or purple teams. Earlier this month, I spent some time with members of the blue team.
We leave from the C3 office, which is located in the yellow quadrant; to get to the blue quadrant, we have to walk through the yellow and red areas first. In these areas, we are greeted with suspicion, and more than one person confronts us about taking pictures, but Santana and fellow Americorps outreach member Sandy Martinez don’t seem too concerned. "This isn’t our area, so the people around here don’t know us," Martinez says. "No one bothers us in our area. Even the drug dealers are comfortable with us."
As soon as we cross into the blue quadrant, people wave and greet the team enthusiastically. Several people flag down individual staff members they have been working with. We find Linda sitting on a sidewalk next to a large pile of possessions covered over with a tarp. She is sipping from a big soda cup.
"What are you drinking?" Shortt asks conversationally.
"This is just watered down lemonade," Linda says, squinting a little in the sunlight. It’s approaching midday and the sun is directly overhead. A sea of short industrial buildings and concrete pavement, Skid Row can get stiflingly hot during the daytime. There is little shade to speak of, outside of the ubiquitous tents that line the sidewalks—but must technically come down after 6 a.m.
Santana and Martinez are wondering why Linda is out in the heat; through their efforts, she recently found temporary housing at the nearby Russ Hotel—a short-term residential facility operated by SRO Housing Corporation. She tells them she is waiting for a friend. That’s who owns all of the things under the tarp. The C3 staff members know who she means; they are working with her as well, but haven’t gotten her into temporary housing yet. Until that happens, Linda is helping to make sure her valuables aren’t stolen—or confiscated by law enforcement. "The police have been doing a lot of sweeps lately," Linda says. "I saw some [officers] on horseback earlier."
Santana says that she has noticed police breaking up encampments and seizing unattended property in the wake of a series of overdoses a week earlier, when 15 people were hospitalized after consuming a type of synthetic marijuana sold on the street as "spice." Manufactured using a loosely defined medley of psychoactive chemicals, the drug is often laced with harmful substances that can cause a number of serious side effects. Linda says she believes some of the officers she has seen are trying to break up the operations of the drug dealers who supplied the latest bad batch. Still, she is worried that her friend’s belongings may be seized in the midst of this crackdown.
As homelessness rises in Los Angeles, so too do its most visible signs. Tents, shopping carts, and pieces of furniture have begun to crowd sidewalks around the city—much to the chagrin of some residents and business owners. Bending to pressures from these groups, the Los Angeles City Council has repeatedly revisited an ordinance that allows officials to confiscate and destroy unattended personal property.
The law in its original form was struck down in 2012 by a Ninth Circuit Court ruling that found it violated the Fourth Amendment property rights of the homeless. Since then, the council has tweaked the law, allowing law enforcement to resume property seizures as long as certain conditions are met: owners must be given advance notice, and items are temporarily stored before being destroyed. Bulky items, however, will not be stored. And, in a truly bizarre stipulation, homeless individuals are limited to whatever possessions they can fit in a 60-gallon trash container (lid closed).
Linda isn’t the only one worried about an increase in LAPD sweeps. Jimmy says he recently received a citation for wheeling around an oversized shopping cart. Before that, his guitar was confiscated and he’s not sure where it is now. "Let me show you the ticket," he says, reaching into his pocket. He pulls out a crumpled-up and barely legible citation. "That’s the wrong one," he says, searching his other pockets. "That one I got for sleeping outside of a restaurant in Bellflower."
Shortt says that when officials clear out encampments, important papers and identification cards belonging to the owners often go missing. This can be a big setback when trying to get people into housing—virtually all housing programs, both short-term and long-term, require participants to have a government-issued photo ID. If that ID is lost or destroyed, C3 staffers have to make sure that it’s replaced. Precious hours are spent driving clients to and from the DMV, or helping them acquire waivers for the $28 fee. "IDs take up a pretty good chunk of our time," Shortt says. "That’s something that has become a feature of what we do."
Ten times you might talk to someone and they say no, but the next time they might say yes. We want to be there that eleventh time.
Missing IDs are just one of the reasons it can take months, or even years, to get people permanently housed. Martinez has been doing outreach work in the area for three years, and for a time lived on the streets of Skid Row herself. She says the hardest part of her job is when people she’s been working with suddenly disappear without a trace. Shortt also mentions this problem. "We call them our MIA clients," she says. Some may have been hospitalized; some may be in prison; some may have simply traveled to a different part of the city. It’s hard to know for sure. Shortt says it can be especially frustrating when MIA clients were far along the road to housing. Being unable to locate clients can lead to major delays in the process, especially when they miss important events like housing interviews that will have to be rescheduled.
Such difficulties are accentuated by how hard it can be to begin the long process that leads to housing in the first place. Every day C3’s team members must battle against a thick layer of cynicism that hangs over Skid Row like the LA smog. Longtime residents remember well past outreach efforts that failed to bring them housing, along with tangled bureaucratic processes that have left them with a series of referrals and little else.
"Everybody talking about housing, but they just give you a referral to someone else," says a woman named Terry when the team approaches her. "Nobody is helping me with the real deal."
Shortt doesn’t blame Skid Row residents for their skepticism. "It’s hard [for people] to believe there are no strings attached," she says. "People here are used to being used. This is an area where people come and give out food in return for petition signatures."
She isn’t fazed when people decline C3’s assistance. "It’s important that people see that we’re always around. Ten times you might talk to someone and they say no, but the next time they might say yes. We want to be there that eleventh time."
For people living with the harsh realities of homelessness, as well as the personal tragedies that brought them there, it can take a certain amount of courage to summon the sense of hope and commitment required to find stable housing. Linda acknowledges that at first she was skeptical that C3 staffers could really help her. "I just took a leap of faith," she says. "I really did."
It frustrates Shortt when others see this reluctance as justification for heavy-handed, law-enforcement-based approaches to homeless residents. "There’s this idea that there are people out there that want to be homeless and that’s the problem. No. The real problem is that we need to be offering the kind of services these people need." For her, that means focusing on individuals and having the patience to guide them through the process of finding housing, healthcare, and stability at their own pace. "It’s quality over quantity," she says. "We’ll meet people wherever they are and do whatever it takes to find them the resources they need."
Still, the early numbers measuring the quantity of C3’s efforts so far are pretty impressive. In less than five full months, the organization has assisted nearly 500 Skid Row residents. Of those, 247 have been placed in interim housing, with 184 assigned to permanent housing units; 15 have moved into permanent residences already. That puts the program well on pace to reach a goal of permanently housing 250 residents by the end of its first year.
More encouraging, these positive results seem to in turn be making outreach efforts easier. Linda says she has told all of her friends about how C3 staffers helped her. Meanwhile, Terry, who expressed frustration about her past experiences with outreach workers, didn’t have to take the team at their word that they could really help her. A friend, Jennifer, assured her that the program was for real. She encouraged another friend, Kiwi, to speak with the team as well. They all seemed ready to accept help. After speaking with Santana and Martinez, they invited them to join in an impromptu group photo.
It will be a tough road ahead for Terry and Jennifer. Both have children they are hoping to bring back into their custody. As the team finishes up their conversation with the women, a man pulls up in a perfectly preserved vintage muscle car and watches them. He does not seem particularly curious about homeless outreach.
Still, the team has initiated a process with all three women that could at the very least lead to a stable housing situation. For Jennifer, that’s something she has lacked for most of her adult life. "There is a palpable sense of heartbreak in doing this work," Shortt says. "On the other hand, there’s a feeling of great reward when we can actually quantify how many people we’ve found housing for."
More than that, there are the everyday interactions that make this work seem so vital. When I ask Linda how the blue team has helped her, she struggles to find words. "I can’t really explain it," she says, getting a little choked up. "Whenever they show up, it’s like they are God’s people. I really mean that. They are God’s people."
"Well, we do our best," Shortt says. She and the team stay and chat with Linda for a few minutes more. Then it’s off to find a new client.
*Homeless subjects have been identified only by their first names to protect their privacy.