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Without shelter space, LA's homeless turn to tents




A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Pete White is executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. The organization was first formed in 1999 by 25 downtown LA residents.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015. Without shelter space, LA's homeless turn to using tents.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent stands on Gladys Avenue at East Fifth Street in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
General Dogon is a civil rights organizer and former resident of Skid Row. He bought a tent with his general relief money and lived on East Fifth Street and Town Avenue.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent stands on E Fifth Street at Towne Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015 near where General Dogon used to live.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent patched with tape stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent stands on Ceres Avenue at East Seventh Street in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
A tent stands on Ceres Avenue at East Seventh Street in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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This week, government workers flooded L.A.'s riverbeds, hoping to convince people like South L.A.'s Yvette Grant to get out of her tent and into a homeless shelter. 

It’s a tough sell: Grant's saving to move into an apartment, but she's stayed in shelters before. The lines are long. 

"People are just in your business, that you don’t even know," she says. "So no, I’d rather just do as I do — be as I be — right here. I’m comfortable."

What to do with LA's homeless tent encampments was a big topic for local officials in 2015. And this year, as heavy El Nino rains hit, the problem's only becoming more pronounced. 

Tents like Grant's have become a sort of de facto solution to Los Angeles’ homeless problem. In its biannual count, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that while L.A.’s homeless population rose 12 percent between 2013 and 2015, the number of people living in tents or makeshift shelters has literally doubled. 

And even as government workers, backed by harsh weather, try to convince homeless to abandon their tents, some non profits are handing out new ones. 

Rebecca Prine runs Recycled Resources for the Homeless. She’s been handing out tents and other supplies for just over six years. She says even in good weather, you need tents.

"I think that regardless of what’s available in terms of housing, you’re always gonna have a population who is severely mentally ill, or caught in the throes of a heavy addiction, who are going to be hesitant to use any type of institutionalized setting," says Prine. "And most of the shelters are just that."

And even if  all of LA’s homeless were ready to move to shelters, there aren’t enough beds.

Earlier this week, a Civil Grand Jury report found only 13 percent of L.A. County’s unsheltered homeless could be accommodated with current shelter space. The Civil Grand Jury recommended, among other things, handing out tents.

But that solution's not popular among many in Los Angeles. Residents and businesses who live near encampments have complained. 

And others, like Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph, who patrols Skid Row, say the tents breed crime. 

He says the tents make doing patrols more difficult — he needs a warrant to look through them usually. He says they’re hiding places for drugs and bargaining chips for local gangs.

Joseph points to a rise in aggravated assaults and robberies on Skid Row this past year. In a presentation to the L.A. City Council, Joseph blamed the tents for an increase in heroin overdoses and rapes, too.

 "For the most part, what I see are people with the best of intentions giving out tents, he says. "But the streets are telling me something different."

City officials haven’t been able to agree on a way to remove the tents without violating the rights of the people inside them.

Still, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says the city must do something.

"People sleeping in sidewalks, people sleeping in tents, is a reflection of our failure to house people and to have a homelessness infrastructure to get people off those streets," he says. "My opinion is that’s not humane at all."

The city’s focus has been to expand permanent housing option for the homeless, less so emergency shelter space. The idea is to use limited resources to solve homelessness--instead of continuing to fund temporary solutions like shelters, which has largely been the anti-homelessness strategy for decades.

Last year, both the L.A. City Council and L.A. County Board of Supervisors pledged $100 million towards tackling the homeless problem. Some additional funds have gone into expanding emergency space during winter storms. Much has been committed to rental vouchers and other permanent housing options.

On Thursday, L.A.'s chief administrator released a report saying it would cost $1.85 billion--a far larger investment than the city's current commitment--to find homes for all of L.A.'s homeless. 

Prine doesn't disagree with funding long term housing. But she says without enough current housing or shelter space, the tents will continue to be necessary.

"Giving somebody a tent and a warm place to sleep and a safe place to sleep is simply keeping them healthy," Prine says. "I don’t think it’s encouraging them to stay homeless."

When the next rains hit, she'll be out, helping L.A.'s homeless weather the El Nino storms--inside brand new tents.