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L.A.'s twin disasters — rising homelessness and spiraling rents — have the same DNA

Sofiya Turin, a teacher, lives in a bucolic part of the Hollywood flatlands, where nice apartments and small houses grace tree-shaded streets near a city park.

But something is wrong with the picture.

Poinsettia Park has ball fields and tennis courts, children’s play equipment and a gymnasium.

And scores of homeless people. They live in tents, sleep on bleachers and grass, and mill about by day.

“My daughter plays tennis, but there was cussing and fighting on the courts, and my son did not want to set foot in this park,” Turin told me one day. “There was prostitution in the bathroom and all kinds of shady stuff going on.”

Turin is not one to make harsh judgments. She sympathizes with those struggling through a housing shortage that has driven up costs, and she has befriended three homeless people. But she didn’t want to feel like a stranger in her own park, so she made lots of phone calls. She called the police and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, and the park’s homeless population has declined.

But not because the campers found places to live. They most likely went to another neighborhood, and then on to yet another.

It used to be that skid row and a few other places were the go-to destinations for nearly all homeless people in the region. But the county’s homeless population boomed by 23% early in 2017 — to nearly 60,000 — and homeless encampments continued to spring up in regular neighborhoods.

It seems as if we’ve got as many homeless developments as housing developments.

If you took all of the residents of Malibu, Beverly Hills, La Habra Heights and Westlake Village — each and every one of them — you would have a number equal to the number of homeless people in L.A. County.

In 2016, almost 30% of Californians paid more than half their income on housing, and in many regions, rents climbed even more in 2017, to historic highs.

In my travels, I often come upon people who hung on as long as they could, then lost their homes.

There was Edye, who lost her home and ended up living in her car in the parking lot of the senior center in Carlsbad. There was Meg, who lost her home and ended up living in her car in the parking lot of a Glendale hospital where she gets dialysis treatment.

Santa Barbara has a program in which people living in their cars can park overnight in safe and protected parking lots. When I asked a program director what trends she was seeing, she told me the clients are getting older, and more of them are working poor.

Dickens would have plenty of material in modern-day California, where even those still holding onto an apartment or house say they feel like they’re one illness or one paycheck from disaster.

When Sofiya Turin first contacted me, I didn’t immediately respond, if only because a tale of two people living in a park struck me as all too common. But Turin persisted. This was a mother and son, she said. The son, 35, had been in a terrible car accident several years ago and suffered lasting damage from a brain injury. If you ask him questions about his life, he’s forgotten the details, so he asks his mother in Romanian, then translates back to English.

I visited Ioan Ionita and his 63-year-old mother, Floarea Salagian, in the park one day. They were sleeping on the grass when I arrived, then Ionita opened one eye and saw me. I spoke to him and his mother for an hour, with the son answering my questions — how old was he, where was his accident, where was he from — by asking his mother the same questions in Romanian, then translating for me.

He came to California in his 20s, worked as a busboy and a driver and wanted to be an actor. He did some commercials, but then got into the car accident that ruined his life.

Ionita showed me his medical records from Cedars-Sinai and other hospitals, along with letters from doctors citing his near-death accident and traumatic brain injury. “He has suffered significant memory loss, depression and seizures,” said one doctor this year, noting that Ionita is on anti-seizure medication.

Salagian said she was arrested at a store for stealing food. She insisted she was shopping, not shoplifting. She said her son was a U.S. citizen and she was on a visa, but the documents she produced were inconclusive.

When I went back to the park the next day, Ionita didn’t remember me, so his mother explained who I was. They told me Ionita gets a monthly Social Security disability check for $900, which wasn’t enough to hold onto their apartment when the rent increased, so they took to the street in the summer of 2016.

At the beginning of each month, when the check comes, she said they stay in a cheap motel for one week, then move back outside for three more weeks.

“It’s dangerous,” said Salagian, who wept and told me they rode buses through the night for a while, thinking that would be safer.

Turin said that when she learned of their story, she could not walk past a mother sleeping in the park with a brain-damaged son and not try to help. She watched them lay out a mat in the morning and have their breakfast.

“They made it like an apartment,” she said, and they always cleaned up their mess and then cleaned the park, collecting recyclables for spending money. “I try not to judge. You look at people living like this and see that they’re dirty, and it’s easy to reduce them to something less than human.”

Ionita said through his mother that they have thought about going back home or moving to a cheaper area in the U.S. For now, they’re paralyzed by their predicament, and reluctant to interrupt his access to medical care. It seemed unsafe for them to be homeless, given Ionita’s condition, so I contacted PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, a social service agency that does great work in that area. PATH sent an outreach team to evaluate Ionita and his mother, and that same day, they were taken to a nearby motel and offered groceries.

“Thank you, thank you!” the mother cried as they checked into the motel.

Jesus Torres, the leader of the team, said he would evaluate their situation and see if he can get them into long-term housing.

When I asked if there had been any trends this year among people living on the streets, he said yes. He’s been seeing more older people who got priced out of their homes and had nowhere to go.

The growing homeless population and the burden of rising rents are among the biggest stories of 2017 in California.

We know the supply-and-demand causes, we know the effects of a mental health system that does not reach everyone in need of help, and we even know some of the fixes.

And that, too, was a big California story in 2017.

Legislative fixes have been slow to come, and what we lack, more than anything, is a sense of urgency.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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