After a week without food, skid row activist still hungry to make a statement about housing shortage

Housing proposals are buried in city hall bureaucracy while Kaleb Havens of Catholic Worker enters the second week of his 46-day hunger strike.

Kaleb Havens could have given up candy, pizza or tacos for the 46 days of Lent.

That would have been reasonable, right?


Instead the 30-year-old Catholic Worker activist gave up all food last week, on Ash Wednesday, and began a hunger strike.

Havens also chained himself to a fence on skid row, at 5th and Central, to protest conditions in the homeless capital of the Western Hemisphere and to call attention to the need for a response that matches the size of the emergency.

This was not the most strategic location, given that his favorite restaurant — Catch 21 — is just a few feet away. The wafting scent of fried fish is a constant tease, Havens said, even in his sleep.

"I have dreamed about pizza and fish, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, corn dogs, all of it," he said. "And I don't normally dream."

A fishy smell has been wafting up from nearby halls of power, too, where officials underreacted to a rising crisis for years, then begged voters to pony up for housing and services but vastly underestimated the growing demand. So as millions of dollars are spent, the problem gets worse, and bureaucracy works like a speed bump.

"The bureaucratic inertia is at least as big a hurdle as neighborhood opposition to specific projects," L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin said in an email Tuesday.

Bonin said he and Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson had called on the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority to "develop an immediate plan to provide an alternative to sidewalks for the thousands of unsheltered homeless people in L.A." Not only has the housing authority not made much progress on that front, Bonin said, but "they do not have a plan."

Speaking of a snail's pace, I'd like to take you back to January, when I was working on a column about the fact that skid row conditions have gotten worse and encampments have spread across the region.

I'd heard that four proposed supportive housing projects — two on the West L.A. VA campus, one near MacArthur Park and one in South Los Angeles — had been rejected, even though they would have housed nearly 300 homeless veterans. So I went to a City Hall meeting to see if the decision might be reversed.

That seemed a safe bet, given the stellar reputation of the nonprofit involved: Step Up on Second, a local leader in housing and mental health services.

But it didn't happen.

The applications were incomplete, said the staff of the Housing and Community Investment Department, which makes decisions on how to spend a billion dollars approved by voters through Measure HHH.

It was not clear what the problem was, so frustrated members of the HHH citizen oversight committee reminded the staff that L.A. has a crisis on its hands. In other words, it would be nice to work out the kinks and help push reasonable applications along rather than bottle them up.

Staff members nodded.


Tick-tock, tick-tock.

A month went by, and then the matter came up again at last Friday's HHH meeting.

All systems go?

Of course not. Still no approval, and still no explanation.

"This is kind of insane, and we can't figure out what the issue is," said Step Up's Tod Lipka. There were a couple of minor hangups, he said, but he was under the impression those had been addressed.

Lipka suggested I call Miguel Santana, who chairs the oversight committee, but Santana was at a loss, too. And due to an apparent procedural issue at last week's meeting, he said, it was not clear whether the matter could be discussed.

"We spent a good 45 minutes talking about whether we could talk about it. It was a big waste of time," he said.

I think I'm going to see if Havens has an extra chain. As someone who voted for HHH, I'm not sure whether to flog myself with it or lock myself to the exits of City Hall until someone explains what's going on.

I made some headway with Bonin. A couple of minor bureaucratic hangups are resolvable, he said, but another matter could present a bigger snag. On the conversion of existing West L.A. VA buildings into permanent supportive housing, Bonin said, the cost per unit would be as much as $660,000, "which would be the most expensive … units we've seen."

Bonin said it wasn't clear how that amount was calculated, and he intended to ask questions Wednesday at a council committee hearing.

Meanwhile, Matt Szabo, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Eric Garcetti, had his own problems trying to understand the holdups. Szabo serves on yet another oversight committee that couldn't get a clear reading from the staff as to why Step Up's projects got stuffed.

"My role on behalf of the mayor is to vote to approve every single eligible project, and these four projects would offer 288 units of housing to homeless vets," Szabo said. "If we're not going to fund these projects with dollars voters gave us, then we have an obligation to give a very good explanation as to why not."

If the projects lack merit, so be it, he said. But he said a staff report recommending against the four projects offered no reason whatsoever on one of them. As for the $660,000 cost per unit in West L.A., Szabo said only about a third of that amount would be covered by HHH money, and projects with the same basic math have been approved.

He said the fate of the projects, regardless of staff recommendations, will be up to City Council members in the end.

Yes, but it would be nice if Garcetti lit a fire under them, or better yet, if someone lit a fire under him.

There's no telling how long it might take for the bureaucracy to grind out a decision, or whether Havens will still be fasting when it happens. He told me on Tuesday morning that he made it through a chilly Monday night with all of his resolve intact, thankful for a donated lounge chair that kept him floating above the rats, less than six weeks of Lent to go.

Jesus rose from the dead on Easter.

Will city officials do the same?

Activist Kaleb Havens, 30, is on hunger strike on skid row in downtown Los Angeles to protest conditions for the homeless.
Activist Kaleb Havens, 30, is on hunger strike on skid row in downtown Los Angeles to protest conditions for the homeless. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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