For years, overnight shelters have had a bad reputation for being crowded, cot-filled caverns where homeless people can’t bring all their belongings and where violence and stealing are all too common. I’ve rarely met a homeless person on the street who wanted to go to one. But the homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk on an industrial stretch of Cotner Avenue in West L.A. was different.
She smiled wanly at me as she leaned against a wall. She was rational and calm. In her small plastic bag of belongings, she had the card of an outreach worker from St. Joseph Center, a provider of services to the homeless. Now she just wanted a bed in a shelter for the night. Her name is Michelle, she is in her 50s and she had no phone. Her abusive ex-fiance had smashed it, she said.
I write about homelessness. I know all the numbers to call, I thought. Even though a court agreement known as the Jones settlement allows people to sleep on the streets because there is not enough shelter or housing for all of L.A.'s homeless people in the aggregate, I figured that didn’t mean that on this particular night there was no shelter bed in the city for a single homeless person.
First I called the cell number on the outreach worker’s card. I got a voice mail and left a message. But it was 5:30 p.m. on the day before a holiday. I never heard back.
Next, I tried the county’s 211 hotline for health and human services referrals. I said that Michelle was a victim of domestic violence. The 211 staffer said she couldn’t go to a regular shelter bed. Michelle would have to go to a domestic violence shelter for security reasons. We were connected to the domestic violence shelter hotline, and I turned the phone over to Michelle.
I could hear her describing her ex-fiance. He was on parole, she said. “He hit me in the face three times.” There was a little cut, healing, across the bridge of her nose.
The 211 staff person gave me numbers for two domestic violence shelters. But both were in Lancaster in the Antelope Valley. “We’re in West L.A. We can’t get to Lancaster!” I protested, foreseeing an hour and a half drive. She said those were the only places with beds available.
She connected me to another hotline, which directed me to yet another hotline. When I called that number, I decided (rightly or wrongly) not to mention that Michelle had been a victim of domestic violence. That person told me to call a shelter for women run by Volunteers of America. I called it and got a cryptic recording indicating that no one was available. I tried twice. By that time, Michelle had slumped over on the sidewalk, saying she didn’t feel well. She wanted to go to a hospital. The owner of the wine store Michelle was sitting near came out and offered to help. We put her in an Uber to the Cedars-Sinai emergency room, the only place in the city that I could find that would safely put her up for the night.
It turns out that a single homeless woman, without a child in tow, who is a victim of domestic violence and decides after 5 p.m. that she would like to stay in a shelter for the night is generally out of luck in the city of Los Angeles. Overnight emergency shelter beds are in dwindling supply.
If Michelle had had a child with her, the 211 operator probably could have gotten her a motel room for the night with a county-funded voucher. But many shelters won’t take a victim of domestic violence, fearing that her abuser could find her and endanger the other shelter residents. (The locations of domestic violence shelters are kept confidential for this reason.) I understand that, but turning away a homeless person who might need to be off the street to avoid an abuser seems particularly cruel.
As for the outreach worker who didn’t call me back, she and most of her colleagues work an 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift.
And a big problem is that there is no real-time system that allows 211 workers to know what shelter beds are available at any given time. That’s ridiculous in this day and age, and it needs to change. The L.A. Homeless Services Authority has created a pilot website for that service but it has problems.
There are now 9,702 emergency shelter and transitional housing beds in the city of L.A. (That does not include domestic violence shelters.) Obviously, that’s not enough beds for all the 27,000 unsheltered homeless people in the city.
But frankly, the city can’t afford to put its limited resources into a building boom in shelters. L.A. has been moving toward building “bridge shelters” where people have cubicles and storage space and room for their pets. Those are better than the old-style warehouses full of beds, but still, they’ve taken longer and cost tens of millions of dollars more than the city expected. Building more shelters siphons off money that could be spent on permanent housing.
The county will spend more than a quarter of the $460 million allocated this fiscal year from its Measure H funds on service providers and operations at shelters, transitional housing, and recuperative care facilities for homeless people. That’s fine, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the longer term solution to homelessness is a permanent home, not an interim shelter bed.
We need better deployment of the resources we already have to help someone like Michelle find a scarce shelter bed for the night. I don’t expect outreach workers to put in 12-hour days or be on the streets in the middle of the night. But homelessness doesn’t exist only during banking hours. Shouldn’t there be an after-hours worker who could have talked to Michelle and discussed her options?
After the holiday, I found a voice mail on my office phone from Michelle. She had been released from the hospital. There was still no domestic violence shelter space for her, she said, so she was back on the streets. She was OK, but she’s still looking for a bed.