'That Is The System'

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Christine not long after she became homeless in 2012. Photo by Bill Aron for KCRW.

With most long-form pieces of journalism, for everything you include there’s at least one thing you leave on the cutting room floor. Often more. With limited time to tell a story, it’s impossible to share every noteworthy fact, interview, or anecdote. That was certainly the case for me while putting together my podcast Samaritans. 

The series chronicles a year in the life of a woman named Christine Curtiss as she enters and navigates LA’s homeless services system. It’s an intimate story, and as I was putting it together my primary goal was to put listeners next to Christine, to provide a rare look into what it’s like to live on the streets of Los Angeles, and to be on the receiving end of the county’s street outreach efforts. To that end, I minimized interviews with experts and politicians, except when it was absolutely necessary. 

But one interview that I was only able to use a small portion of in the series was especially great. Gary Blasi is a public interest attorney who has advocated for decades on behalf of people experiencing homelessness in LA. He’s a retired UCLA law professor and a former president of the National Coalition for the Homeless. For journalists in LA, he’s also a go-to guy if you want a critical take on how the city and county are handling the homelessness crisis. The LA Times features hundreds of quotes from him on this topic over the past two decades. There are few people with such deep on the ground and institutional knowledge of homelessness in Los Angeles.

Here, I share a little bit more of our conversation that didn’t make it into the podcast. 

Anna Scott: You’ve worked on this issue for...how long has it been?

Gary Blasi: I started working on the issue of homelessness in L.A. in 1983, which was about exactly the time that word [homeless] began to be used with regard to anybody except people who were the victims of natural disasters. Before that, people said epithets of various kinds.

What's that like to have worked on this for almost 40 years and see where we're at now?

Blasi: Well, it's very frustrating. Because the situation has gotten so much worse. And that's largely because the things that were producing large numbers of homeless people back then are still at play. And many of them are much worse than they were — affordable housing and the lack of income.

For most people the fundamental issue is: they just don’t have enough money to pay the rent. There are two reasons for that, obviously, on either side of the equation. We tend to focus on housing because that's concrete and easy to think about. But just in terms of income...the last resort program for people who don't have any other source of staying alive is general assistance, or general relief, provided by the county. When I started working on this in 1983, it provided $221 a month, which was enough to stay off the street for a whole month. It’s still $221 a month. 

One thing that’s been interesting working on this story is [that]people around [Christine’s] immediate situation, like her friends or even a neighborhood cop who tries to help people who are homeless in the neighborhood —  no one is impressed with the system. Then when elected officials talk about it, they make it sound like it’s so much better than anything we’ve had before. There is a disconnect there. 

Blasi: I think at the policy and political level, a really big problem is facing the facts. People can have different opinions, but we ultimately have to agree on what the facts are. I had the unhappy experience of being invited to a meeting where basically the spin that was to be put on the [2019] homeless count was discussed by everybody at the management levels of all of these entities. It was really quite depressing because nobody ever asked: is there anything we're doing wrong? Anything we could do better? The entire focus of the meeting was: so what can we blame? 

And they agreed on: let’s blame the affordable housing crisis — which is not wrong, except that we've had that for 30 years and we're gonna have it for another 20 years. It's basically just skipping out on your obligations. Your obligation is to do something with this [Measure H] money that the voters have given you to actually make life better for a significant number of people. And to be fair a significant number of people have been helped, but not nearly as many as they claim, and not in the sort of sustaining way that will be necessary to keep those people from going back to the streets. 

Listen to the rest of the series below:
Episode 1. 'It’ll Get Done When It Gets Done'
Episode 3: 'Back and Forth'
Episode 4: Homecoming



Anna Scott

This episode was produced and written by Anna Scott.
Editing by Sonya Geis. Mixing by Lyra Smith and Ray Guarna.
Music from FirstCom.
Special thanks to Madeleine Brand, Sarah Sweeney and Christian Bordal.