This is a part of KPCC's special report on the rise of homeless families in Southern California, Broke. See the full feature here.
Downtown L.A.'s Skid Row is the last place some homeless families would go to for help.
"We used to, just a few years ago, not see any families with children on the streets of Skid Row," says Andy Bales of Union Rescue Mission, which provides services to the homeless in the area. "In the tents of Skid Row, that's not true anymore."
The burgeoning number of homeless families in Southern California has forced many to look for aid from providers like the Mission.
That's led to a record number of them staying in the Mission's shelter.
"This is the first year in our 125-year history where women with children outnumber men," says Bales.
Space is at such a premium that rooms that were once chapels and playrooms now have to pull double duty.
At night, cots will be arranged wall-to-wall so families can sleep.
"We're at the breaking point," he says. "We either have to add more staff, more space or find another place. We don't know what to do."
Bales joined Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of L.A. Family Housing, and KPCC correspondent Rina Palta to talk about the solutions on the city, county and state levels, and whether they'll be enough.
When we hear that we're at this crisis point of family homelessness, more so than in the Great Recession, what are some of the possibilities fueling this?
Klasky-Gamer: It's always an economic crisis – a loss of hours in full-time work, someone going from a 40-hour a week job earning $10 an hour going down to 38, or it could be a two-headed household working and they still can't afford a typical apartment in Los Angeles. So I think there's always an economic crisis that's tied to family homelessness.
A number of different strategies have been used to try to help reduce the homeless population, especially among the issue of homelessness in families. Which strategies prove more effective than others?
Palta: The Department of Housing and Urban Development did study these things. They assigned families to different solutions between a Section 8 voucher, which is basically, "we will subsidize your rent for life, so long as you need it"; rapid rehousing, which is temporary rental assistance for families up to 18 months; and then there was doing nothing, [which is] letting people sit in the shelter system and see how they resolve on their own.
In terms of the strategies that was most effective in that study, it was Section 8.
When it comes to getting monetary support from government entities, what have been the biggest obstacles?
Klasky-Gamer: In the past, the biggest obstacles revolved around political will. But today, particularly here in Los Angeles, there is the greatest political will that we have seen both at the city and the county level. The city recently passed HHH, which is a housing bond measure, and we are fortunate that the county has voted to bring onto the March 7th ballot Measure H. And Measure H is going to bring new resources for those services that support housing.
Any sense of how much money that could carve out specifically to aid homeless families?
Bales: Not for families. I think it will highly lean towards where it's been going, which has focused on the few and individuals but not addressing children. If it isn't leaning towards families, it needs to. Otherwise, we're going to suffer the consequences.
There all sorts of issues on the agenda for California's legislature heading into 2017. How much of a priority is homelessness for state lawmakers?
Palta: I think it's a priority for some legislators, especially from Los Angeles where the crisis is really out of proportion with the rest of the state. There is some movement to try to get this declared an emergency in Los Angeles, or to get CalWorks raised, or to get more funding for affordable housing. We'll see. The governor's budget comes out next week and we'll see what his priorities are.
Bales: Even if you lifted the CalWorks payments to $840, you're not going to be able to afford much housing. Sky-rocketing rents are the biggest driver of what we're experiencing right now in L.A.
Klasky-Gamer: But our governor has also spent a lot of time focusing on the housing development system – changing the process by which developers can build new housing, whether they are market-rate developers or affordable housing developers. We have, in the city of L.A., less than a 3 percent vacancy rate at all income levels of housing. So we just need to increase production across the board of new housing in our region.
What sort of monitoring is in place to make sure money from social welfare programs is money well-spent?
Palta: Historically, there's been an interest in funding things like food stamps where it's very restricted how you can spend that money, and there's more and more restrictions, it seems, every year on what exactly those food stamps can go to. That's opposed to giving people a check to go spend how they will.
How do you "sell" funding for homelessness when it comes to families?
Bales: If we don't address these kids who are experiencing homelessness, they will be devastated for life. ...If you went out to talk to every chronically homeless person on the streets of L.A., it's quite likely that they experienced homelessness as a child. Today's thousands upon thousands of chronically homeless children are going to be tomorrow's chronically homeless adults.
How does any member of the public know whether the spending that they approve of in elections is worth it?
Bales: The truth will be in the numbers: how many people are still left on the streets? I can tell you that HHH, the city proposition that passed, will be really made null and void if we don't get the services added to the buildings [which could be funded through L.A. County Measure H]. The challenge is if we don't deal with skyrocketing rents and create affordable housing, despite H and HHH and everything that we're all doing together, we will have more people pouring into homelessness than are ever escaping homelessness.