How the Union Rescue Mission is working to help the growing number of homeless families

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Recent numbers indicate that homelessness is soaring in LA County. The most recent homeless count showed a 23 percent spike over the last year. In downtown, the Union Rescue Mission is dealing with the increase on a daily basis. The mission’s CEO, Andy  Bales, talked to KCRW about how he’s seen major growth in the number of families and single women coming to the organization for assistance.

Andy Bales: In the last year, we’ve seen really nothing like we’ve ever seen before. We are at all-time highs in families. In fact, last year we had twice as many families come to the Union Rescue Mission as we did during the Great Recession. And we have all-time highs among single women. That is the most noticeable increase. So much so, we’re going to add a tent-like structure to our back parking lot for 200 single women. Hopefully before winter weather gets here on December 3rd.

KCRW: Do you have any idea what is driving the increase for single women?

AB: We suspect that it’s skyrocketing rents- really for everybody, but I think it’s having the biggest impact on single women. Domestic abuse has always been the leading cause of women and families being on the street. Also the mental health issues, the addiction issues, unemployment, breakup of family. But that ingredient that’s been added is skyrocketing rents have in my opinion pushed this past the tipping point and caused homelessness to become an absolute epidemic. I figured it out the other day: There are 14,000 people in shelters or transitional housing. There are 15,000- this is the count anyway- 15,000 living in their cars and tents. That leaves about 29,000 who absolutely in L.A. County have nowhere to lay their head except the concrete sidewalk.

KCRW: Do you get the sense from the people you’re talking to- are these people who have lived in L.A. or Southern California for a long time or are these newcomers who have just arrived perhaps hoping to find a job or something like that?

AB: All studies show that 70 percent of the people experiencing homelessness are longtime Angelenos. Between 20 and 10-year Angelenos. But there are others as you said who come out here hoping to make it and they run into the challenge of the cost of rent and the lack of a job and they do end up on the streets. But primarily we’re talking about longtime Angelenos who just cannot afford their rent anymore and we’re seeing it in our own team. Some of our own team have ended up having their rent raised and a couple people came forward and we actually put them on our fifth floor because they just absolutely cannot afford a rent. So it’s a lot like the Great Recession. People were losing their homes and facing foreclosure. Now people are just unable to pay their rent and they’re ending up on the streets.

KCRW: When you talk about the big increase in families you’re seeing, how young are these children?

AB: Oh, brand new babies all the way to 17, 18. We never turn away a single woman who comes to our door and we never turn away a family who comes to our door, so we are way past capacity. We’re seeing numbers that we haven’t seen in 126 years and there really is no end in sight. We have 100 women on air mattresses in our chapel. We have 50 women in our guest area on the first floor on air mattresses and cots and the 100 men in our men’s guest area and women have actually overflowed into our hallway at night. And that’s just on our first floor.

KCRW: Traditionally, we tend to think of winter time as being the highest demand for emergency housing. Are you concerned that the need is just going to go up as we head into the rainy season?

AB: It absolutely will. And I’m very concerned because some of the funding has moved away from winter shelters and there will be not enough places for people to retreat when the bad weather hits. That’s why we’re trying to do everything we can. But I’m also- I’m really pleased with Measure H which is going to bring lots of supportive services in the next 10 years and Measure HHH which is going to bring permanent supportive housing. Those are great mid-range and long term plans to address homelessness, but I’m really concerned about the 29,000 precious souls who are on the streets. And  I’d like to see a FEMA-like, Red Cross-like approach, even if it’s tents. I believe we could do 100 immediate industrial tents with 200 people staying in each and with case management and we could get at least 20,000 people off the streets and triage and work with them to address their long term issues. I just don’t think Los Angeles as a city or county should tolerate so many people suffering on the streets.