Everyone who cares about homelessness is looking at L.A.

A woman sits in an encampment in the woods
Terra Wilmoth leans on her baby’s bassinet in her encampment in the woods in Jackson, Miss.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Aug. 23. I’m Noah Bierman, a reporter for The Times based in Washington.

When it comes to homelessness, almost every story pivots to California. That was the subplot as I traveled to Jackson, Miss., Detroit and Jacksonville, Fla., this summer. I was reporting on why homelessness is so much worse in Los Angeles than in other parts of the country, even as other cities also combat poverty, drug addiction and crime — and enjoy warm weather like L.A.

California has about a third of the nation’s homeless population, making it a test kitchen for ideas, a subject of pity and scorn and a cautionary tale as homelessness grows around the country.

Again and again in abandoned buildings, nonprofit offices and tours of homeless shelters, people had something to say about Los Angeles, California or both.


A woman named Terra Wilmoth, who had recently given birth to twins by the side of a creek in Jackson and sometimes survived on sea turtles she and her husband caught, interrupted her harrowing story to weigh in on California.

“I used to live in Bakersfield,” she said. “Unfortunately. It was a horrid place. I was homeless there, too.”

Learning from L.A.’s services

A smiling man seated in a driver's seat of a car exchanges a fist bump
Tommie Brown, a homeless outreach coordinator with Stewpot Community Services, visits with a homeless man in Jackson, Miss.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Tommie Brown, an ordained minister and former cop who is now a homeless outreach worker in Jackson, had traveled twice to learn about homeless people in L.A., spending a week each in 2010 and 2016.

Though he lives in one of the poorest places in the country, Brown felt sorry for Los Angeles. At least Mississippi, which has the lowest per capita homeless population in the country, could still be proactive in combating homelessness.


There are enough homeless people in L.A. County alone — an estimated 75,000 — to make up half the population of Jackson.

But Brown did not mock Los Angeles. He came away from his visits inspired by the workers he met at the Dream Center, an L.A. charity, and how they approached people by asking them about their aspirations.

“What is it that you — as a child — what did you want to become, you know, what was your vision for your life?” he said, summarizing the outreach message he heard in Los Angeles.

The experience helped him dispense with preconceived notions about why people experience homelessness — that they’re lazy, or choose to be that way — and instead focus on how he could help them tame drug problems, attend to their mental health or otherwise reengage with society, he said.

Housing, housing, housing

Shannon Nazworth, president & CEO of Ability Housing in Jacksonville, took away another inspiration from California: the movement to change zoning laws to allow more housing types.


“Los Angeles was really groundbreaking in realizing the biggest availability of land is in people’s backyard,” said Nazworth, whose nonprofit group focuses on finding long-term housing and services for homeless people.

While L.A. has liberalized rules to allow more garage apartments and granny flats, there remains some local skepticism.

Many of the Angelenos converting garages into guest houses — particularly higher income people — aren’t renting them out, and are instead using them as guest rooms or pool houses, said Mott Smith, principal with Civic Enterprise Development, an urban infill developer.

But Jacksonville homeless advocates said they like to use Los Angeles as a cautionary tale when they lobby politicians for more affordable housing.

“That’s kind of the example that’s out there,” said Cindy Funkhouser, who heads the Sulzbacher Center, Jacksonville’s main shelter provider. “We don’t ever want to have that intense of an issue.”

More from my reporting:

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


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L.A.’s hottest new concert venue? Inside the dome at Mt. Wilson Observatory. Several classical music performances are happening at the facility in the San Gabriel Mountains, where the acoustics are reportedly out of this world. Los Angeles Times

Hundreds of patients — including some in critical care — had to be evacuated after a Boyle Heights hospital lost power. The power at Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital initially went out early Monday during Tropical Storm Hilary. Then backup generators that were supposed to last three days lasted only one, prompting the evacuations. Officials say all patients are safe, including a mother who gave birth during the outage. Los Angeles Times

Where are L.A.’s eviction hot spots? City Controller Kenneth Mejia published a map showing where renters are being pushed out, based on filings from landlords. Higher concentrations of eviction notices are being filled around downtown L.A., along with the city’s Koreatown, Hollywood and Fairfax neighborhoods. LAist


A state bill that sought to add a $1.50 bridge toll in the Bay Area to help fund public transit is now on hold. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said proponents of SB 532 “did not have enough time to do the consensus-building,” politician-speak for indicating the bill faced some strong local opposition. KQED


First comes the storm, then the fraudsters. Victims of Tropical Storm Hilary and well-meaning people looking to help them should be on the lookout for these common scams. Los Angeles Times


The Federal Trade Commission is suing a San Diego-based tech company, alleging its founders deceived customers with fake AI marketing to rake in roughly $22 million. Automators AI “claimed to use ‘AI machine learning’ to maximize revenues” for people running online stores, the lawsuit states. But most of its customers didn’t make a profit and instead lost their investments and fell into debt, according to the FTC. San Francisco Chronicle

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In the latest installment of its series on how the state deals with its toxic waste, CalMatters examines the aging facilities that handle the hazardous compounds. California sends a lot of the toxic waste it generates out of state, but that could change as legislators explore options. Could our current infrastructure handle a larger toxic load? CalMatters

As sea levels rise, will California rise to meet the challenge of its vanishing coastline? Times environment reporter Rosanna Xia has a new book out next month exploring that question. You can read an excerpt from it here. Los Angeles Times

One end of California got doused, while the other end burns. Several wildfires continue to rage in Northern California, consuming dozens of square miles and prompting mass evacuations in forest areas at and near the Oregon border. Here’s more on the fires and their impacts. The Mercury News

Global firestorm: A summer of infernos in Canada, Greece, Hawaii and beyond point to the future. A series of catastrophic wildfires, globe-spanning heat waves and a hurricane’s extraordinary charge toward California have stunned the world in recent weeks. Los Angeles Times


What happened when a ‘hurriquake’ struck Ojai? Little damage, plenty of weird vibes. The 400-pound Buddha hanging askew on the wall was the only sign Dharma & Dog, a purveyor of raw pet foods and metaphysical gifts, had gone through two natural disasters in one afternoon. Los Angeles Times


Lizzo’s brand was built on empowerment and acceptance. Her accusers tell another story. Lizzo is facing a lawsuit from former backup dancers that threatens to undo her image as a beacon of empowerment and self-acceptance. Los Angeles Times

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Today’s California landmark is from Craig Smith of San Luis Obispo: the former Farmer’s Alliance Building in Paso Robles.

The Farmer's Alliance Building in Paso Robles, now a winery.
(Craig Smith)

Craig writes:

The 100-year-old [building] was an agriculturally significant structure in its day, as it served the almond business for a couple of decades until the winery business took over the agricultural world of San Luis Obispo County. After being vacant for decades, it was restored as a winery production and tasting room.

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