Scattered throughout Central Los Angeles, in the shadow of freeways and bridges and in alleys, hundreds of homeless people have set up shelter in encampments that continue to multiply.
Once considered vagrants and scavengers who begged for money only to buy liquor or drugs, the homeless have a changing face, especially those who live in encampments surrounding the Skid Row area, according to a recent study of urban encampments by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness. Increasingly, they are working people who have fallen upon hard economic times, the study shows.
"These people living on the streets are a whole lot more like you and I than you and I ever suspected," said Gary Blasi, a coalition board member and UCLA law professor, during a press conference last week to release the study.
One of the most striking changes researchers found was the large number of homeless people who had marketable job skills. About one-third of those interviewed said they held jobs requiring certification or special training, such as an electrician, paralegal and computer programmer. Several others were construction workers or had worked in warehouses. Almost half of the people cited economic problems as their main reason for becoming homeless.
"You can have a good job today and it can be gone tomorrow, and after the money runs out, you have nowhere to stay," said Darryl Scott, 35, who was trained as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy and has been homeless for the past three years.
However, the study also noted drugs and alcohol problems may have contributed to the homelessness of some of the people interviewed. More than 70% of the homeless people said they had substance-abuse problems. For some, their homeless situation exacerbated their drinking or drug use. More than 70% said they used alcohol, while nearly 30% said they used crack cocaine. Some did both, the study noted.
In the past 15 years, the number of homeless men, women and children has skyrocketed, with more than 70% living in vacant lots, along sidewalks or under freeways and bridges, the study said.
"We were really struck by the differences in people who were becoming homeless and the conditions they were living in," said Michael Cousineau, principal investigator of the study.
The encampment study examined conditions and lives of homeless people in 54 encampments outside a five-mile radius of Skid Row. Former homeless people and counselors for the homeless interviewed 134 people who live in the makeshift shacks of wood, pallets, blankets and tarpaulins under dozens of freeway ramps, bridges and along the Los Angeles River during a week in April.
The study found that there is a growing number of homeless Latinos. One-third of the homeless people interviewed in the recent study were Latino, perhaps because the study area, which went as far west as Hoover Street, crossed into predominantly Latino sections of the city.
The purpose of the study is to help city officials develop public policies and programs for service providers and police to better understand the people living in these areas.
"Instead of sending out the police that would send (the homeless) further into hiding, we need to develop programs that would help these people and get them out of homeless situations," said Bob Erlenbush, director of the Coalition to End Homelessness.
First District City Councilman Mike Hernandez, chairman of Los Angeles' Economic Development Committee, which oversees city departments that work on homeless issues, said he will move to lobby for efforts to develop affordable housing and jobs geared for the homeless.
There is also a need for improved health services for the homeless, the study pointed out. Although many of the conditions that the homeless people live in are unchanged since earlier studies, researchers said they were concerned about the deplorable health conditions in the encampments. Rodents that carry diseases were seen in almost all of the sites, and access to health care was limited, the report said.
Nearly 38% of those interviewed said their health was poor or fair, and almost a third had health problems that required ongoing medical care, including diabetes and respiratory problems. Only one person interviewed was covered by Medi-Cal. When people did go for health care visits, about half went to a county hospital or clinic, and about 12% visited a health care center for the homeless.
"What we're seeing here is the breakdown of the county system, because there's an overburdening on these clinics and that threatens the health of these people," Cousineau said.
Many of the findings in the study were similar to other studies and probably will not change drastically in the near future, Erlenbush said.
Most people wanted jobs and rooms of their own and do not want to remain in the encampments. "Encampments are not a good idea," Erlenbush said. "What we need is affordable housing and jobs for people. I think the study states that overwhelmingly."
Job Skills Among Homeless
Of 134 homeless people surveyed, about one-third were found to have high job skills--those requiring certification, training, education or license. About one-half had other job skills.
NUMBER OF TYPE OF JOB RESPONDENTS PERCENT Certified mechanic 8 6.0 Skilled laborer/journeyman 8 6.0 Skilled medical 6 4.5 Computer programmer 4 3.0 Electrician 3 2.2 Paralegal 3 2.2 Business/professional 2 1.5 Truck driver 2 1.5 Welder 2 1.5 Firefighter 1 0.7 Cable splicer 1 0.7 Telecommunications 1 0.7 Contractor 1 0.7 Certificated teacher 1 0.7 TOTAL 49 36.5
NUMBER OF TYPE OF JOB RESPONDENTS PERCENT Construction/painting 21 15.7 Clerical 9 6.7 Warehouse/shipping 8 6.0 Cook 5 3.7 Gardening 3 2.2 Human services 3 2.2 Artisan/musician 2 1.5 Auto body worker 2 1.5 Domestic 2 1.5 Maintenance 2 1.5 Retail clerk 2 1.5 Seamstress 1 0.7 Barber 1 0.7 Farm worker 1 0.7 Baker 1 0.7 Security guard 1 0.7 TOTAL 64 47.7
NUMBER OF TYPE OF JOB RESPONDENTS PERCENT 21 15.7 TOTAL 134 100.0
Source: Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness