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In South Los Angeles, close to 9,000 homeless men, women and children are scattered throughout the district’s streets, parks, alleyways and shelters.
According to the 2011 Greater LA Homeless Count, the South LA region, comprising Compton, Crenshaw, Watts and West Adams among other communities, is second to only Metro LA, home of Skid Row, in terms of homeless population size.
“The resources aren’t really there to assist this population, to assure that we kind of decrease homeless[ness],” said Takita Salisberry, a benefits specialist at the Homeless Outreach Program/Integrated Care System, located off Broadway and Slauson Avenue.
HOPICS, one of many resource management centers for the homeless in South LA, serves more than 1,000 clients annually. Their services include housing placements, individual counseling and mental assessments.
Like all homeless organizations in the city, HOPICS works within a system that is restricted by funding and plagued by an insurmountable amount of cases.
“Right now I’m having a really hard time placing clients,” said Salisberry. “It’s very heartbreaking because you have these families who have young children — some infants, some who just had babies — who have nowhere to go and nowhere for me as an individual case manager to actually refer them out to.”
Many shelters in South LA, such as New Image Emergency Shelter on Broadway, are overcrowded and struggling to keep up with the needs of the region’s large homeless population.
“We’ve been using our own funds,” said New Image Deputy Director Lynda Moran. “Extra staff, extra food . . . it has really hit us financially.”
Some organizations have even started charging for shelter.
“They’ll only let you stay a couple nights free, then after that they make you start paying,” said Geneva Ramos, a housing specialist at New Image. “It makes it really hard. A lot of people don’t have money to pay.”
Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue that encompasses far more than a simple lack of housing, however. Addictions, mental illnesses, physical disabilities and criminal records are all part of this journey that hundreds of thousands of Americans share each year.
The struggle to survive is very real in South Los Angeles. From needle-filled parks and trash-filled alleyways, the faces of its streets have shared their stories:
Amid the bleak rows of factories and fabric shops that line the deserted, trash-filled streets of South Los Angeles, a line forms outside of an old warehouse on Broadway Place.
“What in the hell are you looking at, bitch?” screams a middle-aged woman to no one in particular. Dozens of pencil-thin bodies slowly pick themselves off the pavement and stagger across the street. The sound of shopping cart wheels scraping against the pavement echoes throughout the block. It’s 4 p.m., almost time for New Image Emergency Shelter to open its doors for the night.
Michael Brown has been homeless for less than 12 hours. Since his daughter kicked him out of her apartment last night, he has been sitting on a stretch of grass at the Gilbert Lindsay Community Center, thinking about his next move.
“I drank too many beers and I said some things and . . . it went too far, and right now I’m really feeling disgusted with myself, not nobody else,” he says. “Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy, the more I see that.”
James Harris has lived in a tiny alcove beneath the 110 Freeway for close to five years. Originally from New Orleans, Harris came to Los Angeles in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home.
“My house blew down and then the people took the property — I think they blowed the thing up,” he laughs, referring to city’s levee system.
Harris’ new apartment is a two-bed, zero-bath complex completely furnished by the dumpsters of South Los Angeles. While it’s not the ideal spot for a 62-year-old man, he says the place is better than his last home.
“I never saw myself smoking crack, doing anything I couldn’t put down when I wanted,” said 48-year-old South Los Angeles resident “Country Cowboy.”
Originally from the southern United States, “Country” moved to California in 1990 to escape a decade-long addiction to crack cocaine. For seven years, he stayed sober and held a steady job at a post office, but his demons caught up with him in 2000.
“Imagine that,” he said, amazed that after 25 years of battling the drug, he still finds himself on the streets and using.
Six months have passed since Andy Mendoza last saw his son.
“I call my ex and I hear my boy, you know,” he says. “I see pictures of him on Facebook when I go to the library.”
Luis Mendoza, now 4 years old, lives with his mother in a Huntington Park apartment. His father lives in a sleeping bag at the South Park Recreation Center in South Los Angeles.
In less than six months, Xavier and March Gaston will be celebrating the birth of their first child.
“I’m happy,” says March, 26, in between drags from her cigarette. “I can’t wait.”
After spending their first night on the streets of South Los Angeles, the couple are searching for shelter. Xavier has spent the morning panhandling on Avalon Boulevard, though he is well short of the $45 he needs for a hotel.