Fault Lines: A Trip to the Midnight Mission

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"Jean Ellingen sleeps in a tent at the Midnight Mission."
“Jean Ellingen sleeps in a tent at the Midnight Mission.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Dinnertime at the Midnight Mission starts at 4:30.

By then, on a sweltering summer afternoon, the line for food at the Skid Row homeless center stretches for nearly an entire block. These days, demand is high at the Midnight Mission, which serves about 3,000 meals a day. By comparison, a typical large, busy L.A. restaurant might serve 1,000. That’s more meals than at any other time since the Great Depression.

It may sound surprising, given that we’re five years into a recovery. But new Census Bureau numbers out this week show that, despite our improving economy, about 20 percent of people in our area live in poverty.

Listen: Madeleine Brand visits the Midnight Mission near Skid Row 

In Los Angeles County, homelessness increased 15 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to the latest numbers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

At the Midnight Mission, those statistics are laid bare. “About three years ago we saw a pretty rapid increase in the amount of meals being served,” said Larry Adamson, president and CEO of the Midnight Mission. “We got very close to a million meals, then two years ago we surpassed a million meals. We did it again last year, and this year we’re on track to be a little over 1.1 million meals.”

As has been the case for decades, the majority of people seeking help at the mission struggle with mental illness and addiction. But some of those crowding the cafeteria don’t fit that profile.

They’re the economic casualties: people who have had jobs and homes most of their adult lives. They first turned up in noticeable numbers about a year and a half ago, Adamson says, and haven’t disappeared yet.

“First they survive on what they had left,” he said. “When they fall out of the final safety net, we see them.”

That’s what happened to Jean Ellingen. She’s 52 years old, and on a recent afternoon was dressed like a corporate professional in a fitted black dress and matching heels with pointed toes. Standing in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission, she looked out of place. But that’s where she lives, in a green tent about the length and width of a twin bed.

After waitressing for two decades in Minnesota, Ellingen decided to change careers. She earned a real estate license, but couldn’t find clients. Eventually, faced with the prospect of becoming homeless in Minnesota in the winter, she came to L.A. last January to stay with friends. After exhausting all her offers of couches to sleep on, she ended up at the Midnight Mission.

“I was absolutely terrified,” she said. “I feel hopeful at times. Most of the time I feel pretty anxious and fearful.”

Ellingen says she’s applied for jobs at dozens of Starbucks shops. She had a job waitressing at a westside restaurant that closed for renovations, and also tried her hand at canvassing.

“I’m afraid I wasn’t very good at it, so I didn’t last,” she said. “No one has specifically said, ‘we won’t hire you because you’re homeless,’ but I doubt that that’s something anybody would actually say.”

Single people like Jean aren’t the only ones who are economically vulnerable. About 12 percent of L.A. County’s homeless are families.

For parents and children on the edge, it only takes one big setback to become part of that statistic.

"Christian Caudillo eats regularly at the Midnight Mission with his family."
“Christian Caudillo eats regularly at the Midnight Mission with his family.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Twelve-year-old Christian Caudillo shared a one-bedroom apartment in El Monte with his parents and six siblings, until earlier this year, when his father was laid off from the Sriracha hot sauce factory. They couldn’t make rent. Now they eat at the Midnight Mission, and sleep at a different Skid Row shelter.

Still dressed in his school uniform, Christian ate an early dinner with his parents, as his baby brother fussed in a stroller beside the table. Despite the stuffy, crowded cafeteria around him, he cheerfully showed off drawings he’d done and chattered about his love of books and art.

“I like to read books so much that at recess and lunch I don’t like to hang out with anybody,” he boasted. “I just sit there and read until my next class. Even then, I read at free time in my class and in between, walking to classes.”

Once someone falls into homelessness, the obstacles to climbing back out can pile up quickly.

Especially in an expensive city like Los Angeles, where the average renter spends half his income on housing, according to a UCLA study out last month. The report claims L.A. has the most unaffordable rental market in the nation.

The Midnight Mission’s CEO, Adamson, says high prices mean people can remain stranded on Skid Row even after they’ve kicked drugs and alcohol, or found jobs.

“I have men in our program here that are ready to graduate and ready to move on,” he said. “But without there being some kind of subsidized housing for them to first move into till they can build a greater income, they’re stuck.”

And yet, thousands of luxury apartments and condos have sprung up all around the Midnight Mission in recent years – with more on the way. There’s never been a more visible gap between the haves and have-nots in downtown Los Angeles.

Twenty-three-year-old Thomas Martinez straddles that divide.

He’s a lead cook at Little Bear Pub, a hip Belgian restaurant and beer bar in downtown’s Arts District, just one mile from the Midnight Mission. He earns $10.50 an hour and works up to 36 hours a week, and it’s not quite enough to make ends meet.

“Thomas Martinez works at a hip downtown restaurant and lives in South L.A., but eats at the Midnight Mission when money is fight.”

Martinez shares a studio apartment with a friend in South L.A., but money is tight. When he can’t afford food and can’t get a meal at work, he eats at the Midnight Mission.

The first time he went to Skid Row, he said, he was shocked. “You see people struggling and and having to sleep in the street,” he said. “And you come up here and there’s people buying $50, $80 lunches.”.

Indeed, just around the corner from the high-end lunch crowd, some 3,500 people live on the streets and shelters in Skid Row. The streets teem with people pushing shopping carts piled high with belongings, sleeping in makeshift tents on the sidewalk, sitting on curbs or just milling around — many displaying obvious signs of mental illness.

The city and county recently teamed up on a new plan.

Last month in the first of what’s intended to be a series of outreach sweeps, workers fanned out across Skid Row, offering immediate health services. They moved about 60 people into housing, most of it temporary.

They’re still a long way from their goal: providing permanent, safe, affordable housing to the people who need it most; a place where they can maybe start over.