Quietly, Vera Flores described how her family of eight had been homeless for two months on skid row in downtown Los Angeles, sometimes sleeping on sidewalks before finding a bit more comfort in a mission parking lot.
For the volunteers who came to help Flores, the most riveting aspect of her family’s plight rested a few feet away: a month-old baby girl named Vanessa gently gurgling in a stroller.
“The notion that, in the city of Los Angeles in 2004, we have kids this age sleeping in these conditions -- somehow we’ve collectively failed,” said Dan Grunfeld, president of Public Counsel, a public interest law firm that works with Midnight Mission to assist about a dozen homeless families at the shelter.
The homeless newborn has jolted the advocacy community, spotlighting Los Angeles County’s burgeoning numbers of homeless families and its disjointed and inadequate system of addressing their needs.
The county does not have enough emergency shelter beds. It has no single agency responsible for the welfare of the homeless.
And the county’s services pale in comparison to those provided in other large urban areas.
“This is an orange alert for the homeless,” said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, likening the urgency of the situation to a level on the Department of Homeland Security’s warning system.
“We don’t have time to set up a whole new system,” said Perry, who represents much of downtown’s skid row. “We have to leverage what we have now and get people off the street.”
Families are the fastest-growing segment of the local homeless population. Poverty and high housing costs have been driving more and more onto the streets from Pacoima to Long Beach.
Last year, Los Angeles recorded a 25% increase in requests from families for emergency shelter.
An estimated 34,000 family members -- about the population of Beverly Hills -- are homeless at any given time in the county, according a report from the Economic Roundtable, a group that researches social issues.
A recent Long Beach count of homeless people found that 795 families, including more than 2,000 children, were homeless on any given night.
In Pasadena, another recent survey found almost a third of that city’s 1,000 homeless people were children.
For families that suddenly find themselves without a home, the county has 975 emergency shelter beds and has been hard-pressed by limited funds and high real estate costs to add more.
A proposed $4.5-million, 30-bed emergency family shelter slated for South Los Angeles has been stalled for nearly a year.
Officials have $2.5 million for the project and have asked the county to pony up the balance, but so far have received no commitment.
The region’s many governments and its geography -- 88 cities spread over more than 4,000 square miles of terrain -- also hinder efforts to consolidate services. The result is a patchwork of charitable, religious and governmental efforts.
“We should all be linked together and communicating effectively, but instead we’ve got 200 different executive directors, 200 account supervisors, 200 development directors,” said David Grunwald, executive director of L.A. Family Housing, which runs emergency shelters and permanent housing for single adults and families.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an independent agency formed in 1993 to address homelessness on a regional basis, oversees an emergency shelter program through contracts with dozens of community groups. However, the agency provides no direct services.
The Economic Roundtable estimated that Los Angeles spends about $58 million annually on homeless services and the county spends about $285 million, including healthcare, welfare and other social services.
Two-thirds of the county’s 88 cities make no homeless expenditures at all.
Other large urban centers -- especially those in colder climates where homeless people risk weather-related injuries or deaths -- typically spend more per capita than Los Angeles County does and consolidate their services.
In New York, for example, the city provides emergency and transitional housing for 9,000 families, including 16,000 children.
This year, New York plans to allocate $708 million for homeless services and recently announced a $30-million project to rebuild a 20-year-old agency that processes families applying for emergency shelter.
Chicago runs nine service centers -- including a 24-hour facility -- and 128 shelters with 6,000 beds.
An estimated 28% of the city’s 10,000 homeless people are family members, including 2,500 children.
The city spends about $40 million on homeless shelter, substance abuse counseling and case management services.
Last year, Boston sheltered about 758 families, spending $70 million in state funds on emergency family shelter alone. Boston families can go to a central facility or call a hotline.
However, because of stringent state eligibility requirements, many families are turned away, said Jim Greene, executive director of the Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.
“The need has increased and we’ve been challenged to provide more with less,” he said.
In Los Angeles County, more than half of families seeking emergency shelter are turned away, a study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors concluded, and families often must be split up to be housed.
This is what often happened when Flores, her husband, five daughters and 13-year-old son sought refuge downtown.
Flores said the family had been evicted from its Westlake apartment when the manager complained there were too many of them living in the single room.
While her husband, who did not want his name used, often slept on the streets, the rest of the family stayed on cots in the gated Midnight Mission parking lot on Los Angeles Street.
Originally intended for single adults, over the summer the lot became a haven for 10 or 11 families with 30 to 40 children.
Last month, the families were moved inside.
Rochelle Thomas, 42, said she had been coming to the Midnight Mission’s Operation Safe Sleep on and off for eight months after the six-bedroom house she rented for $850 in South Los Angeles was sold.
She and her three girls have been unable to find other affordable housing.
“I have a home healthcare license and the only reason I’m not using it is because I don’t have a house to use it in,” Thomas said.
Attorneys have been working to help Thomas and other families at the Midnight Mission obtain public benefits and find other shelter.
Most families that fall into homelessness qualify for 16 consecutive nights of emergency shelter, but many have exhausted that aid.
The scarcity of affordable apartments and fewer vouchers for federally subsidized housing has also meant a huge backlog, said Tanya Tull, executive director of Beyond Shelter, which finds housing for the homeless.
Of the 1,200 homeless families that are served each year through her organization, about 800 eventually find shelter while the others wait, often in hotel rooms, she said.
In September, advocates were dismayed when the nonprofit L.A. Family Housing closed an East Los Angeles shelter that housed 19 families.
The agency had been operating several shelters at a deficit, said Grunwald, and could not afford to absorb the East Los Angeles shelter’s $600,000 operating budget.
The closing “puts tremendous strain on my agency and the entire system,” he acknowledged.
Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said officials are working to address the crisis in family homelessness and move toward a seamless system.
Los Angeles County, for example, is hoping to expand a pilot program that now provides emergency shelter and support services for 40 families. The county wants to add four sites and 310 families.
Advocates said they also hope that Bring L.A. Home -- a joint project with city, county, philanthropic, religious and business leaders that aims to eliminate homelessness in 10 years -- will create a coordinated system.
One idea is to establish eight access centers for getting people into emergency housing.