The statistics are numbing. Studies show that 100,000 to 160,000 people in the city of Los Angeles are homeless during the course of a year and 40,000 families live in converted garages.
The problem is so severe that Mayor Tom Bradley has made affordable housing his top priority.
To meet the demand for temporary shelter, the number of homeless refuges grew and shelter beds increased 25% in the county last year, to nearly 8,000. But even with this growth, most housing experts and advocates for the poor agree that permanent housing is needed most.
Few people understand the issue better than Alice Callaghan, who in 1982 founded Las Familias del Pueblo, a family emergency service on Skid Row. Callaghan is known as an effective lobbyist for the poor with Bradley and City Council members. She is critical of many city policies affecting the poor.
In the 1980s, Callaghan oversaw the relocation of 400 newly arrived immigrant families out of Skid Row, an accomplishment that many city leaders believe helped prevent the creation of a new slum population in the troubled area.
Today, she says, there is a more pressing problem in Skid Row and citywide. As the poor continue to flock here, rents are skyrocketing, with an average apartment now costing more than $600 a month.
Two years ago, with the aid of top business executives, Callaghan founded Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit foundation to buy and renovate Skid Row’s worst hotels to provide safe and affordable housing to the homeless.
Despite her access to political and business circles, Callaghan is still “Sister Theresa” to those seeking her help each day.
Q: You fight battles at the City Hall level, but as director of Las Familias del Pueblo you’re also in the streets daily. How bad do things get for families on Skid Row?
A: Not long ago, the police were closing the Olympia Hotel because of so many murders and transvestite and transsexual drug dealing and prostitution. . . . We got a call that there was one family in there, among all this mess, and we were asked to come help. I have seen a lot here on the Row, but I have never seen anything like this. A 15-by-15 room filled with filthy belongings, piles of junk and a duck and a cat. These animals had simply used the floor for a bathroom. The mother was mentally ill and the father was a drug user with AIDS. There was a 2-year-old baby and an 11-year-old son.
The mother had called a moving company to move all their stuff but they took one look at the room and refused. So I sent (an aide) back to get plastic bags and held onto the door of the moving company truck and begged them to stay. The mother was so ill and confused she wouldn’t let us throw anything out, so we shoveled it into bags.
We got them relocation money and got them into an apartment, but the next day the baby and mother came here with bruises all over their bodies. It turned out the 11-year-old had beaten them up. He had been mentally overwhelmed by the situation.
I did something I rarely do. I called Child Protective Services and kept the family around until the county arrived and took the children away. Some fool social worker released the children to the mother a few days later, and we were horrified. We had (County Supervisor) Kenneth Hahn intervene and the children were taken away for good.
Q: You often criticize bureaucrats who erect obstacles that make life more difficult for the homeless. Tell about an obstacle you are faced with right now.
A: Two months ago the county welfare fraud unit came here with the district attorney and ordered us to stop letting the homeless use our (Las Familias) address to get their general relief checks. We have provided this as a mail stop for the poor for many, many years because it is the only safe place for many of them to get mail. Now they will have to give the address of whichever flophouse they are in, and then when they move, usually after a month, their check will go to their last address, and they will miss their check, and we are going to have crisis after crisis because of that. But in the bureaucratic minds of the county, this is a way to ensure somebody is not ripping off the system. Good heavens, as if we would steal welfare checks from the poor. They said Las Familias could become a designated mail stop, but only if we accept full financial liability for any missing check. But we could never afford it if something bad were to happen, even though nothing ever has.
Q: Since you take no public funds to run Las Familias del Pueblo, how do you stay afloat?
A: It is all through donations. We have a guy, a wealthy person with investments, who gives us basically an unlimited amount of money earmarked for dental care for children. We have an account at UCLA Dental School downtown, and when we get a new child through here we check their teeth and send them over. . . . We have another regular (donor) who supplements the rent of a woman who cleans toilets and collects aluminum cans to keep her family going. . . . We don’t want government money because the reason we get as much done as we do is that we don’t have to ask anyone’s permission or spend great amounts of energy filling out forms and accounting to the government. We also made a decision, early on, to do no fund raising whatsoever. It is far more important to us to have Bob Wycoff (president of Arco) on our board helping us decide what to do about housing than to throw fund-raising dinners.
Q: About 11,000 people live in Skid Row, but the land is being squeezed by development of Little Tokyo, the import toy industry, fish processing plants and garment industry. What does the future hold for the homeless living on Skid Row?
A: For many years, the Community Plan for Skid Row has taken into account saving all the housing while encouraging the existing industries, but the actual zoning for this area is far older than that plan. The zoning allows for the existing housing, but it precludes any new shelter beds or permanent housing. This (zoning) was written in a much more innocent age, when there were no homeless living downtown. So today, a growing and powerful business core is using the old zoning as their primary tool to keep out shelters. They have called on (City Councilman) Gil Lindsay to draft a specific plan for Skid Row, which would be much more formal and binding than the community plan. . . . Now an 18-member advisory committee has been named that is terribly skewed toward the business community and against housing. The politics is incredible! . . . Will Skid Row be housing-friendly or not? We are terrified that it will not. Q: The Skid Row Housing Trust is using private financing and city and state funds to renovate 14 flophouse hotels, and you plan to redevelop dozens of others. What made you make the leap from your storefront work at Las Familias to housing developer?
A: It has taken society some time to make the connection between homelessness and the loss of affordable housing we have seen in the urban core of every major city. But people can pay the rent if affordable housing is just available. It makes no sense to build temporary shelters while you lose real housing right down the street, and that is what has been happening in Los Angeles. We realized that if we let them tear down the 8,000 units here in Skid Row, the city of Los Angeles would eventually have to build 8,000 units of poverty housing under some huge program that would cost a tremendous amount of money. . . . We had a net loss of something like 10,000 housing units citywide in Los Angeles last year. . . . The bad news is that we are just beginning to see the kind of homelessness we will see in five years, when things will be far worse.
Q: You often criticize the slum housing that is increasingly prevalent in Los Angeles. What can be done to alter the situation?
A: The Slum Housing Task Force at the city attorney’s office needs to be expanded. There’s too, too much out there and the (task force members) are the key players in improving the housing. The enforcement end needs to be strengthened. No slumlord will fix up his hotel or apartment unless he has to--we have seen that again and again. The sanctions need to cost him more than the cost of the improvements. The city needs to become more aggressive on penalties and on who gets caught.
Q: It seems as if you are constantly fighting an agency to do things differently, or standing up in City Council Chambers to demand correction of some wrong. Don’t you ever get depressed or burned out?
A: In this business you need an incredible capacity for outrage, because the alternative to outrage is sadness in which you just give up. Outrage . . . sends you out to do something. And my life tells me that one person sent out to do something can truly make a difference. If you look at the biblical mandate it is not suggested that one should go out and feed the hungry if there is a reasonable chance of success and it won’t make you too uncomfortable. The mandate is that you simply must go out and do it. My job is to stand in the trenches and wave my arms and yell, “Help!”