Homeless in Hollywood: LA's rough sleepers on the rise amid pandemic

Number of county residents without permanent housing has soared from 45,000 to 66,000

Los Angeles is home to movie stars and Hollywood glitz and glamour — as well as America's second-highest population of homeless people, with numbers growing rapidly amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Second only to New York City, the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count showed that 66,436 people in the county were experiencing homelessness. This represents a 12.7 per cent rise from 2019, with the city of Los Angeles reporting a 16.1 per cent jump to 41,290.

The number of older people and families in that count has risen at alarming rates.

“Today, the face of homelessness is your next-door neighbour. You've got all races, all ages, all genders, everybody is becoming homeless,” Faisal Gill, a civil rights lawyer working in Los Angeles, told The National.

“And I think, unfortunately, it's going to get a little bit worse because the cost of housing in Los Angeles is going through the roof. The rent moratorium is about to be over. There's a lot of folks who have lost their jobs, who've had their hours cut back and they're just not going to be able to afford to live in LA.”

Currently, the average monthly rental price for a studio apartment in Los Angeles is $2,173, $2,546 for one bedroom and $3,288 for two bedrooms, rental website Apartments.com shows.

Born in Pakistan, Mr Gill served as a lawyer for the second Bush administration. Now, he’s running as a Democrat for the position of city attorney.

“My approach, the number one thing, is to make sure that we don't criminalise the homeless issue. And I think that has been the city council's approach for a long time is to criminalise it and to remove the encampments,” said Mr Gill.

The Los Angeles City Council this year voted 12-2 in favour of banning people from camping, sitting, sleeping and storing property near fire hydrants, building entrances, driveways, libraries, parks, elementary schools and several other locations.

Last week, a bulldozer was used to remove homeless veterans camped outside the hospital for former military members in Brentwood, an upscale neighbourhood adjacent to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Before that, the city tore down a camp in Venice Beach.

In March, more than 300 people in Echo Park were kicked out of their tents. Protesters and homeless people confronted police in a stand-off that resulted in the handing out of hotel vouchers as part of a programme called Project Roomkey.

Recipients of the vouchers are given a hotel room for 90 to 120 days, though they are not allowed to bring their belongings or pets, must obey a curfew and are subject to drug testing.

“There's only one solution to this problem. It's not rocket science. You have to build housing and you have to provide wraparound services,” Mr Gill said.

A shady past

California’s inability to provide low-income housing for its most needy citizens is not a new phenomenon. The tarnish on the Golden State's reputation began in 1967, when the governor at the time, Ronald Reagan, deinstitutionalised state mental health hospitals.

Patients, many of them living with mental illness, addicted to hard drugs or alcohol, were put out on the streets and were expected to rely on community treatment centres — which Reagan never built.

Not only did the number of mentally ill patients in California’s criminal justice system double, but the homeless population exploded.

Los Angeles has long had an issue with homelessness, however. As early as the 1900s, an area of central Los Angeles near the railyards was populated by rough-sleeping rail riders and war vets.

The area, Skid Row, now encompasses a 50-block radius and is home to anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 people.

Though the situation of the needy residents of this area should engender compassion, it often provokes the opposite.

In recent years, several area hospitals have been sued for dumping homeless patients on the streets of Skid Row — some still in hospital gowns, IVs attached.

One cause described how a paraplegic patient was dumped on a pavement with no wheelchair.

Los Angeles city law states that the only place a health facility can leave a patient without written consent is their residence — but the lines are blurred if the patient is homeless.

'It's just got worse and worse'

Not all Angelenos are turning a blind eye to the problem.

Painter Christopher Chinn moved to Los Angeles for school and is now an art teacher at Long Beach City College.

When Mr Chinn came to the Skid Row-adjacent Toy Factory district, he was confronted with homelessness on a daily basis.

“I saw it every day, right outside our door,” Mr Chinn told The National.

“I knew I had to deal with it emotionally.”

For Mr Chinn, that meant volunteering and painting both the encampments as well as homeless people's portraits.

“It really is the issue that defines Los Angeles and it hasn't got any better. It's just got worse and worse,” he said.

“The stories were told by journalists. They’ve been told in photography. For me, it's got to show up in fine art and painting. It can't be missing from that line of our cultural memory.”

Updated: November 10th 2021, 3:39 PM
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