People come out of tents to vote on homeless housing funds

People come out of tents to vote on homeless housing funds
Downtown resident James Evans, 59, cast his ballot at the polling place inside the Midnight Mission on skid row. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Prodded by a registration campaign, phone banking and a ballot measure to fund homeless housing, skid row voters hobbled out of their tents and welfare hotels in force Tuesday, lining up at times to cast ballots at four polling stations in the 50-block district.

"Pride most of all," said skid row activist Wendell Blassingame, explaining what he described as an unusually large voter turnout in the impoverished neighborhood.


Some voters such as Phillip Evans, 60, who lives in the street and said he sleeps mainly on buses, were casting their first-ever ballots.

"I got talked into it," he explained as he shuffled into a polling station at Los Angeles Mission, leaning heavily on his pushcart for balance. "All I know is I'm a Democrat."

Measure HHH, a $1.2-billion bond measure to build housing for the city of L.A.'s 28,000 homeless people, was a big draw, Blassingame said, and would address what he described as a worsening problem.

Gesturing at a cardboard encampment across from the Los Angeles Mission, he said, "Look at that. They don't even have blankets; they're using boxes to stay warm."

"I need help, and my brother here needs help," said James Evans as he and friend David Chavarria sat outside the Midnight Mission in wheelchairs, resting after Evans voted.

Evans, 59, a former Manual Arts High School and Long Beach State athlete, said he was paying for his sports career, recovering from a hip replacement. Chavarria, 52, said he has cirrhosis of the liver, which recently landed him in Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in a coma.

Chavarria, whose stomach was scarred by old stitches from a gaping wound repair, had spent a sleepless night in the cold and kept nodding off during the conversation.

"We have to get all these people off the streets," said Kennedy Maxwell, 58, a formerly homeless man who now works as a City of Commerce landscaper and voted yes on HHH. "It's pathetic."

Skid row is home to more than 10,000 people in various stages of sobriety and employment, united only by their poverty. Perhaps counterintuitively, several skid row residents said they turned out to vote the homeless housing initiative down.

Tina Larrimore, 51, said she believes homeless people aren't using the resources that are already available. "They've been here forever," she said of the homeless population.

Tyrone Taylor, a skid row activist known to many as "Da Mayor," said he didn't vote on the measure because he didn't understand it.

"I'm 67 years old and I'm just now learning how to vote," said Taylor, a laid-off Pittsburgh steelworker who spent 20 years homeless before his grown daughter found him in the streets of skid row. "Now I'm glad to be part of society and make my voice heard."

Lebertis Nickolson, 48, agreed it will be tough to get someone who spent 20 or 30 years in the streets to take on the responsibility of an apartment, even a heavily subsidized one with supportive services, as the city measure is designed to build.

But everybody needs to be "given an opportunity to do right," Nickolson said, adding that he had benefited from one of the neighborhood's many recovery programs.


Blassingame, who dispenses social service and job referrals daily from a card table in skid row's San Julian Park, said other cities and states continue to bus their homeless people to skid row. One recent arrival was so mentally debilitated he couldn't say which state he came from, Blassingame said.

The handful of skid row voters informally polled were unanimous on their one-word choice for president: Hillary.

"I'm hoping Hillary will be understanding of people that's minorities," Evans said.

Larrimore, who works as a caretaker but can't afford to move off skid row, said she had high hopes Hillary Clinton would help single working women like her.

There was no love for Donald Trump among the voters.

"Down here we know unstable, and Trump is one of us," Blassingame said. "He's not stable at all."

Twitter: @geholland