By Apsara Senaratne
A few months ago, the Los Angeles Times boldly declared, “LA City Council presses ahead with plan for homeless shelters.” The plan, which was supported by Mayor Eric Garcetti, was to set up more emergency shelters for homeless individuals across the city, a supposedly heroic attempt to prevent the homeless from continuing to sleep on the streets.
Efforts such as these, however noble, are often in vain. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the last six years alone, homelessness in Los Angeles (LA) has increased by an overwhelming 75 percent and is continuing to rise at an alarmingly fast pace. 43,000 homeless people are currently unsheltered, a figure which accounts for roughly 75 percent of the homeless population.
Some, like these City Council lawmakers, believe that throwing millions of taxpayer dollars at the issue and building more shelters will be the magic pill for curing LA’s homelessness. This purported “solution” to the issue of homelessness is based upon the idea that LA’s housing shortage alone is responsible for the vast number of unsheltered homeless.
Though this holds some truth, the reality is that many homeless individuals refuse to seek shelter and choose to instead sleep on the streets, leaving thousands of shelter beds empty at night. This is at least in part due to uninhabitable conditions in many shelters.
A recent Southern California Public Radio (KPCC) investigation of nearly 20,000 shelter beds across the United States found reports of bedbugs, rats, roaches, and mold, a prominent reason for homeless individuals’ avoidance of shelters. Additionally, reports from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) have confirmed various safety and sanitation issues in homeless shelters throughout the county.
LAHSA monitors also found that 25 percent of facilities failed to meet even the minimum standards required of all LA shelters, and that several health and safety standards were all but disregarded in the running of these facilities.
According to KPCC, reports of such issues within homeless shelters are rarely met with legal action such as closures. Shelter systems are often improperly regulated, and, as many shelters are not owned or directed by the government, such health violations are often overlooked. As homeless shelters are built and run with the intention of keeping the homeless off the streets and of providing them with a safe place in which to stay, government officials find themselves unable to act. LA already has too few shelters, and closing existing shelters, however uninhabitable, would only push more of the homeless onto the streets.
However, it is not only the unsanitary environments of shelters that repel homeless individuals. In her article “Why Don’t Homeless People Use Shelters,” Kylyssa Shay an activist and former homeless individual, wrote, “Homeless shelters and the areas around them are often hunting grounds for human predators, [and] although there are usually attendants on some kind of watch, almost none of them are trained to deal with violent behavior.” Moreover, on multiple occasions, homeless individuals seeking shelter have reported that the staff are often the perpetrators.
When Renee Miller, a volunteer who works with the homeless of City Walk, disguised herself as a homeless individual in order to understand for herself how homeless women were treated by shelter staff, she found that “in order to get your laundry done, you had to perform sexual favors for the staff or you would get put at the end of the list,” she wrote for her article on AlterNet.
Another prevalent issue that continues to exist in homeless shelters is discrimination against women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and disabled individuals. Miller found during check-in that while she, a white woman, was allowed into the shelter, an elderly black woman who had entered the shelter right after was denied entrance and given the vague excuse that she was too late for check in. Additionally, upon speaking with the women who were allowed into the shelter, Miller found that several women were cruelly insulted before their children and constantly subjected to racial and sexual slurs. “If a woman decides to stick up for herself, she is threatened with a call to DCF (Department of Children and Families) to have her children taken away,” Miller wrote.
Though not all shelters are subjected to such issues, when shelters are run well, the homeless tend to encounter an altogether different problem. In a National Public Radio (NPR) interview, “John,” a shelter director in Colorado, claims that when homeless shelters are “run well, [they] get very, very crowded.” With overcrowding comes a heightened risk of illness, physical violence, and robbery. This is problematic for those members of the homeless community who are looking for a safe place in which to sleep, and offers a reason for homeless individuals to avoid even well-run shelters.
In light of such issues inherent within the shelter system, many homeless people prefer the freedom and relative safety of the streets.
Los Angeles lawmakers must learn that the primary solution does not lie in how many more shelters we can build, but rather in how we can remedy the problems of existing shelters. For example, all shelters, regardless of ownership, must be subjected to a set of codes of conduct and must be compelled to obey health and safety regulations in the running of shelters. Additionally, staff must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their volunteer status. We must dramatically shift our attitude towards the homeless and, in so doing, look to a different set of solutions altogether than those which have been tirelessly advocated by those who are not fully aware of the persistence of issues within homeless shelters. Our construction of more and more homeless shelters is based upon the belief that the hundreds of shelter beds within them will not stay empty at night, and that all existing shelters are at or above capacity. Unless we change the way in which we view the homeless and the conditions of our existing shelters, the population of homeless individuals living unsheltered will only continue to grow.