South LA activists gather for town hall on economy

Southern California social service providers are seeing the effects of the country's economic turbulence. KPCC's Frank Stoltze was there when they gathered at a town hall in South Los Angeles to discuss what they're calling the crisis on Main Street.

Frank Stoltze: A medical clinic serves as an island of healing at the corner of 58th and Hoover streets in South L.A. Dr. Rishi Manchanda says that lately, he's seeing a new kind of patient.

Rishi Manchanda: I can't tell you how many times in the past several weeks that I've been in a room with a patient who's come in for a cough and a cold and ended up having to console a patient who started crying.

And when I ask about stress that's going on in their life, the number of women and men who are talking about the impending foreclosure on their property and the fact that they are now suffering from depression that they've never experienced before is astonishing to me.

Stoltze: Manchanda is director of social medicine at St. John's Well Child and Family Center. He's becoming a reluctant expert on the health effects of the foreclosure crisis.

Manchanda: We know that individuals when they are even temporarily homeless or even when they start doubling up in households to avoid ending up on the streets, that they have higher incidences of respiratory infections, whether its asthma or regular coughs and colds. The flu season is upon us now, and so we're starting to see increased rates of flu, particularly people who are living in crowded situations.

Stoltze: More than a hundred people filed out of the clinic following a recent town hall meeting on what Manchanda calls "the perfect storm" engulfing poor neighborhoods: the foreclosure crisis, inadequate health care, and ill-conceived law enforcement practices. The focus of this meeting was the financial crisis. Davin Corona works with a group called SAJE – Strategic Actions for a Just Economy.

Davin Corona: We have a tenant clinic that we have every week. It's about a four-hour tenant clinic where folks come to kinda figure out what their rights are, and kinda solve the issues that they're in at that moment. We used to take about maybe five to six cases a week. We've actually seen that number jump from 10 to 15 cases.

Stoltze: Corona said the cases have changed too, as banks foreclose on apartment buildings and other rental properties.

Carona: What we usually work on is landlord cases where they're trying to circumvent rent control to get a tenant out, to replace them with someone who pays more rent. Now we're actually seeing tenants coming saying "the bank is kicking me out." The bank is telling me "don't pay me money, just leave."
Stoltze: Why would they be evicting people? Wouldn't they want that income?
Carona: That's what I would think. But the bank – I've heard people say when they've spoken to the bank – that the bank doesn't want to take the responsibility of being a landlord and renting out buildings. They'd rather just have the buildings sold and making sure that someone's paying the mortgage.

Stoltze: Fran Hutchins is a policy and planning analyst with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. She said her agency's considering how to handle an expected increase in the number of homeless and potentially homeless families.

Fran Hutchins: Right now, we're looking at some new streams of federal funding. The federal government is actually making available for families a new stream of funding through the McKinney-Vinto funds called "rapid re-housing for families." We won't have the funding available this year, but in our next year's federal application, we're going to definitely pursue that if it's still available.

Stoltze: That may be a big "if." Demand for that kind of money is on the rise around the country as neighborhoods struggle with more and more foreclosures. Pete White said he looks daily into the human face of the problem. White works on L.A.'s Skid Row with the Community Action Network.

Pete White: On Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, you see families that you had not seen before. You see individuals in food lines who had not been there. So I believe we are seeing, sort of, the first newcomers.

Stoltze: White believes the widening economic crisis offers an opportunity for people like him to speak up – and for elected officials to listen.

White: In politics, you continue to hear reference – rhetorical reference – to Wall Street versus Main Street. And so the bank bailout has brought us into that mix. We didn't have to sort of kick the door open and say "hey, talk about us, talk about us." They inadvertently began to talk about us.

Manchanda: Before you leave the room today, please leave your information on the signup sheet as well. We are going to be collecting information to contact you soon to let you know that this conversation is just beginning. That we are going to be...

Stoltze: These social service providers and activists said they hope that as the pain of the financial crisis spreads, they'll be able to compel political leaders to make good on their promises to help Main Street as much as they have Wall Street.