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Homeless people migrating from downtown to County-USC, study finds

Homeless people gravitating to Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights, county hospital, study finds

Homeless people squeezed out of downtown Los Angeles are migrating to nearby Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights, where they are seeking refuge in the emergency room and on the grounds of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, according to a six-month study released Thursday.

One in five homeless people surveyed as part of the community-needs assessment study said they either stay on the hospital grounds or in lobby areas, or use the medical center as a base, the study found.

Many come for medical services and remain because it is safer than surrounding neighborhoods, hospital staff said.  Homeless men on average use the hospital  emergency room seven times a year, and homeless women twice yearly, according to the survey findings.   

Earlier studies have shown that providing housing for homeless people is far less costly to taxpayers than paying to cycle them in and out of emergency rooms.

“The emergency room has unfortunately become a place of last resort for many of our house-less neighbors,” said Zelenne L. Cardenas,  director of prevention services at Social Model Recovery Systems Inc., which conducted the $30,000 county-funded study.

A town hall is scheduled Thursday for nonprofit agencies, government offices, medical and mental health and substance abuse programs to discuss strategies to fix the situation.

Downtown Los Angeles has seen a rebirth in recent years, with luxury lofts and swank bars and bistros sprouting in a long-moribund part of the city.

Cardenas said in an email that the development has triggered government cleanups and enforcement that propel homeless people to areas “where their mere presence does not involve such vigorous scrutiny, ”such as the Eastside, thus “making ‘ending homelessness’ ever more difficult to achieve.”

Cheryl Grills of Loyola Marymount’s Psychology Applied Research Center, who analyzed the study data, said the homeless people were familiar with skid row shelters and services, demonstrating they had previously stayed there.

The city and county of Los Angeles have recently pooled resources to bring more intensive and better-coordinated mental health services and medical attention to homeless people during stepped-up cleanups on skid row.

The study surveyed 114 homeless people, as well as Eastside residents, and cross-checked the results against police data, park observations and exit interviews from a drug abuse treatment center, Grills said. There is no recent count of the total number of homeless people in the area, she added.

The study found that 44% of the homeless population in the area are Latinos and 31% are African American. About 36% had family in the area, the study found.

“The homeless residents in the vicinity of County-USC  are not a transient group," Grills said. "Many have been there four-plus years.”

Hospital administrator Cecil Clark said the homeless presence at County-USC began growing four years ago.

Cardenas said Los Angeles is not alone. Emergency rooms in Atlanta, San Francisco and other cities serving as de facto homeless shelters have also been documented, she said.

Neighborhood residents also surveyed as part of the study expressed concern about drug dealing and public drinking in Lincoln and Hazard parks, and liquor stores selling alcohol to obviously drunk people.

Cardenas said many of the homeless people in the area have mental health or medical disabilities or addictions that prevent them from leaping directly into productive lives.

“A lot of people we surveyed are not ready to jump into the work-force environment,” she said. “A lot of our homeless neighbors spend a lot of time alone; building that trust and reliance and self-confidence takes a lot of time.”

Cardenas said town hall organizers hope to get the homeless people into “meaningful activities” such as volunteer work with agencies including Homeboy Industries, Volunteers of America or Chrysalis, a skid-row job agency.

“This is not just a hospital problem,” Clark said.  “The problem is greater than that."

Follow @geholland for news about homelessness.


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