When homeless activist Len Doucette sought a cot the night after the earthquake in a Red Cross emergency shelter in Santa Monica, he was turned away because he was homeless.
And as the federal government distributes emergency housing vouchers to those displaced by the disaster, people who were homeless before the Northridge earthquake--including some who have been waiting years for federal housing subsidies--are learning that they do not qualify for shelter assistance because they did not have a home prior to the temblor.
Given the growing homeless population and the limited government aid ordinarily available, homeless advocates say they are not surprised at being left out in the cold. But they are frustrated by what they say is a Catch-22 situation that dramatizes the impediments the long-term homeless face.
“What’s being said is that the earthquake victims matter and they don’t,” said Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a Skid Row-based community service agency. “When the homeless are without food, shelter and water--too bad. But the minute San Fernando Valley residents become homeless, we couldn’t imagine them making it through a night without portable toilets.”
Although the long-term homeless did not lose any housing--except for those who lived in a handful of homeless shelters shut down because of earthquake damage--the temblor did unleash a host of practical, political and philosophical questions concerning their plight.
Leading government officials say it is simply a matter of solving one problem at a time. Besides, they say, without a swift response to the quake emergency, the chronic homeless problem could be exacerbated.
“It is impossible to solve every problem in the entire metropolitan area under the guise of earthquake relief,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros during a news conference last week.
“We (must) act expeditiously on the earthquake or there will be a new class of homeless people who become homeless as a result of the earthquake,” Cisneros said. “And unfortunately, many of those are going to be families if we don’t act strongly.”
Santa Monica homeless activist Ron Taylor counters that the government and social service agencies are engaging in a form of segregation by treating the pre-quake homeless differently than the quake-made homeless.
“HUD, FEMA, they’re all doing a great job,” he said. “But what I see here is that they are separating citizens. Do you really lose your citizenship because you’ve lost your house (prior to the quake)?”
In the wake of the temblor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sprung forth with disaster assistance for displaced renters and homeowners, regardless of their incomes. The FEMA aid includes individual cash grants of up to $12,200 for emergency provisions, two-month rental subsidies for renters and three-month rental subsidies for homeowners. By late Thursday, FEMA had issued 8,917 rent checks totaling $27.6 million, officials said.
HUD has made 10,000 temporary Section 8 housing assistance vouchers available to low-income earthquake victims--subsidizing a portion of their rents for up to 18 months. They will receive these temporary certificates while more than 40,000 city of Los Angeles residents remain on a waiting list compiled four years ago for a different type of Section 8 assistance, this one providing long-term housing.
“We got 80,000 applicants back then and we’ve been working that list down ever since,” said city housing authority spokesman Marshall Kandell.
Days before the quake, Cisneros announced that the city and county of Los Angeles, and Glendale and Long Beach, would be the sites of the nation’s second “Homeless Initiative” and would receive a significant increase in aid.
Although no amount was specified, Washington, D.C., the first recipient, was awarded $20 million over three years. However, the funding is but a single step in solving the massive problem, homeless advocates say.
Last month, a report prepared for the Los Angeles City Council placed the pre-quake countywide homeless population at 80,000. While many are alcoholics, criminals or mentally unstable, recent studies have estimated that as many as 5,600 families are homeless at any one time in Los Angeles, including 10,700 children.
Los Angeles County has only 10,000 shelter beds for the homeless, 2,000 of which are only available in cold weather.
Because the homeless have little political power, it is not surprising that their problems fester in the wake of the quake, advocates say.
“I just think that it’s business as usual,” said Jeff Dietrich, a 23-year worker for the Los Angeles Catholic Workers. “The voters who vote are going to get the money. The homeless do not vote so they’re not a viable constituency.”
USC geography professor Jennifer Wolch, co-author of “Malign Neglect,” a study of the homeless in Los Angeles, says the problem goes beyond the ballot box.
“A lot of Americans feel that in one way or another, people who are homeless for reasons other than a natural disaster are somehow implicated in their situation,” she said. “In a natural disaster, it’s obvious no individual has any kind of culpability for their situation. That makes a difference in terms of how people respond.”
Wolch said that cash grants or housing subsidies similar to those offered earthquake victims would not solve the problems of every long-term homeless person. But there is little difference, some experts say, between quake victims who had been living paycheck to paycheck and some members of the homeless population.
“Various studies suggest about one-third of the homeless population is working either in day labor, regular full-time employment or part-time jobs,” Wolch said. “A significant portion of this population, were they to be more stably housed and provided with support, could probably do OK.”
Since the quake struck, few complaints have come from the long-term homeless as they have watched federal disaster programs swing into operation and National Guard-run tent cities and Red Cross shelters sprout up across the Los Angeles Basin.
However, in Santa Monica, where rights of the homeless are a key municipal issue, acting City Atty. Joseph Lawrence said his office has received daily reports from homeless people turned away from a Red Cross shelter in the Santa Monica Community College gym.
Len Doucette was the first, Lawrence said. He had been told of the shelter by Lawrence at a City Council meeting the day after the quake. Deputy City Atty. Marty Tachiki gave Doucette a ride to the shelter and witnessed him being turned away for lack of a permanent address.
At first, officials of the Santa Monica chapter of the Red Cross insisted that Doucette’s experience was an aberration.
Since then, Lawrence said the organization has been open to the concerns of his office about discrimination. Moreover, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles chapter of the Red Cross said the organization does not discriminate against the chronic homeless.
However, Red Cross shelter director John Keema confirmed Friday that the policy in his shelter at the Santa Monica gym has been to demand IDs and to refer the long-term homeless to social service organizations elsewhere.
“We ask for an ID and we have asked for some proof or indication of residence,” he said. “The Red Cross policy is that this shelter is here . . . to help people displaced because of a disaster.”
Asked why the shelter is open to people who are afraid to return to their habitable homes while the homeless are referred elsewhere, Keema said: “I don’t want to respond to that.” He added, however, that the shelter has allowed about 28 long-term homeless residents who “slipped through” the registration system to remain indefinitely.
Doucette, who publishes a newsletter for the homeless, said government and social service agencies are frequently “concerned about people being caught in a natural disaster. But those caught in a political, social and economic disaster aren’t even treated as human beings.”