I noticed the first couple of tents near KQED’s Los Angeles bureau several months ago on a busy thoroughfare connecting downtown to Koreatown and MacArthur Park. That’s around the time Arnell Lee staked out the area and pitched camp.
“Oh, I was like the first one that stayed right here, right there next to the palm tree,” says Lee leaning up against a retaining wall awash in graffiti behind a tent belonging to Jeremy Thompson.
“I had a friend of mine, told him, ‘man don’t tell nobody about this spot,’ it’s a good area you know what I mean,” says Lee.
“People just don’t take care of the spot and there are too many people,” says Thompson from his tent, wrapping grip tape around a pair of handlebars. There are stacks of bicycle tires, frames, tools and other parts behind and inside the tent.
Thompson says police confiscated some older bike parts a while ago, suspecting it was all stolen. He insists he’s no thief. He’s just good with his hands.
“They were fine with everything, and the next day they came back and did bulk property removal and threw out about $4,000 worth of frames, just drug ‘em off threw them away,” says Thompson.
Thompson says he used to run his own bike shop and other businesses back in the Midwest where he’s from. He’s vague about what brought him to L.A., why things took a turn in his life.
“Chasing a woman,” he laughs.
“I make next to nothing off this,” he says of his makeshift bike repair. “I don’t even break even it’s just a labor of love.”
What’s a little unusual about this encampment is that it’s only about a 20-minute walk from the heart of L.A.’s Skid Row, the largest concentration of homeless people in the nation. Skid Row also has the biggest concentration of homeless services, supportive housing and shelter space — when there’s vacancy that is.
So why pitch camp on this patch of sidewalk down the hill from a public school and across the street from a pair of vehicle maintenance yards?
“Before here I was just bouncing around from place to place,” says Lee.
“I can’t stand Skid Row, I can’t stand it man. It’s too cluttered, too many people, it smells, too much drama,” he says.
“It’s cannibalistic and parasitic,” chimes in Thompson. “We all have each other’s back right here.”
An ever tightening housing market, a shortage of low income housing and finite public services for the homeless spurred Los Angeles city and county to declare a ‘homeless emergency’ last year. And to push hard for passage of two landmark, voter-approved funding efforts Measure H and Proposition HHH to bankroll homeless services and supportive housing.
“And so our goal is providing integrated services to our homeless brothers and sisters along with the resources to succeed and to thrive,” declared L.A. County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas earlier this month during a news conference in the parking of the non-profit Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System or HOPICS in South Los Angeles.
“Thrive,” says Ridley-Thomas. “That’s what we’re here to do.”
Ridley-Thomas trumpeted a renewed effort to partner with community groups like HOPICS and Sanctuary of Hope youth services to create a virtual army of street outreach teams with the aid of Measure H money.
The aim is to steer people living on the streets to services, find temporary shelter and hopefully put them on a path to permanent housing.
On a residential street abutting the 110 Freeway in South L.A., there’s a settlement of tarps, tents and small RVs that stretches for two city blocks. A couple of outreach workers with the L.A. County Homeless Services Authority knocked on RV doors and called into open tent tent flaps to check in on people and offer a menu of possible services.
The encampment is a mix of single women, white men, black millennials and Latino immigrants. It sprung up about 18 months ago or so says LAHSA outreach worker Crystal Clarke.
“We saw encampments definitely grow, and we’re also seeing it move into areas it never was before,” says LAHSA’s outreach coordinator Colleen Murphy.
“I think there is community pressure, law enforcement pressures where encampments will start one place and then move. So we have to stay on our toes and know where that’s happening and then move our services there,” says Murphy.
“With Measure H we have a lot more resources flowing down the pike, whether it’s rapid re-housing, more shelter beds.”
I tell Murphy about Arnell and Jeremy, the guys I met living in tents near my office, about how they stay away from Skid Row, and are leery of shelters.
“Those folks don’t have to go to a shelter, we can work with them straight from their encampments,” says Murphy.
Down the block, street outreach volunteer Reba Stevens is working alongside a team from Sanctuary of Hope youth services. Stevens was homeless for years herself she says.
“And there was nothing like this,” she says referring to the street outreach teams. Had there been, she might have gotten off the streets sooner.
Stevens speaks to a tall, trim young black man with an orange bandana around his neck named Craig. He doesn’t want to give his last name. Craig is 25. He says he used to live around here, with a godmother. He moved in with her after his mom died years ago. Then there were conflicts over his sexuality and apparent substance abuse.
“If we could get you into a shelter today, would you go,” asks Stevens leaning in close to Craig.
He says he wants to but he’s unsure. The shelters are crowded, big, no privacy.
Craig is eventually persuaded to take a spot at a youth shelter. At 25 he just qualifies. Someone calls to arrange a pickup. It’s the kind of breakthrough you hope for everyday says Colleen Murphy.
“We don’t give up that’s our mantra,” says Murphy.
“We do whatever it takes, we don’t give up and we may get ‘NO’ ten times and we will just keep coming back until we get the ‘YES’.”
Turns out, they’ll probably have to come back and ask Craig again too. In the time it took for Murphy and I to reach the end of the block and walk back, he’d changed his mind. He’s not ready to come in off the streets just yet.
I call out to him as he heads off down the street.
“So, are you going?” I ask.
He shrugs his shoulders and smiles sheepishly.
“Thank you,” he says and walks on.