There Are Empty Beds. Here's What's Keeping Homeless People Out Of LA County Shelters

A homeless man sleeps beside his makeshift temporary shelter on a street in downtown Los Angeles on June 25, 2018. The mayor said last week people may start getting arrested again for sleeping on the sidewalk now that the city feels it has enough new housing to meet settlement requirements. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Los Angeles County is spending millions of dollars to get its roughly 54,000 homeless people off the streets as quickly as possible. A big part of that plan is to invest in new short-term housing — like homeless shelters. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, for example, wants to build new temporary shelters in every council district in the city.

But right now, many of the shelter beds that already exist aren't being used. That was the finding of a recent KPCC investigation that discovered evidence of rats, roaches, bedbugs, and mold while looking into conditions of roughly 16,600 shelter beds across the county.

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority — which funds a lot of the beds — thinks the issue of people not using the beds is largely logistical.

LAHSA officials say the biggest problem is that if someone walks into a full shelter in Santa Monica (for example) there's no system for finding them an open bed somewhere else. So that person stays on the street in Santa Monica, and a bed they might have slept in lies empty in another part of the city

But... A lot of homeless people say they've tried out shelters, and they prefer the street.

WHY SOMEONE MIGHT CHOOSE A PARK BENCH OR TENT OVER A BED

Hygiene and safety issues abound in L.A.'s homeless shelters. See above. Dirt, foul odors and gross bathrooms are a few more reasons.

Meanwhile, the system for regulating shelters is jumbled, confusing, lacks teeth and often fails to rectify big problems.

There's also the simple fact that communal living environments are challenging — not to mention communal living environments that house people with complicated personal backgrounds including histories of drug use, mental illness, and health conditions.

On occasions, there's also violence in the shelters and homeless people claim staff is often ill-equipped to handle conflicts.

There are also lots of rules. About how much stuff you can have. And which bathroom you can use. And curfews. And cleaning assignments. And early wake-up times.

Put that all together, and the freedom of a tent becomes more attractive, many homeless people say.

WHO'S SUPPOSED TO TRACK AND FIX SHELTER PROBLEMS?

Depends on who's paying for them.

  • Some shelters are private and are run exclusively with private dollars.
  • Others receive funding from the federal government.
  • Some are funded by a city (like L.A. or Santa Monica)
  • Or the state of California.
  • Or LAHSA.
  • And there are several county agencies that also rent shelter beds for its clients (like the Department of Mental Health).

That means there's a patchwork quilt of oversight, with different agencies looking out for different issues.

Each agency has their own paperwork, own quality control process, and own people who are responsible for evaluating shelter contracts.

The agencies largely do not share information with each other.

And a single shelter might have contracts with six different agencies and get monitored by each of them separately.

IS THAT A BAD THING?

According to homeless people, it makes it hard to figure out how to complain and who to complain to when something goes wrong.

According to shelter operators, they wouldn't exactly mind if some of the paperwork and monitoring was consolidated a bit.

At least one major shelter operator told KPCC that it's hard to have a strong mission and plan to execute it when you answer to five or six different agencies that have different ideas about how things should be run — especially now that L.A. is poised to significantly expand its shelter capacity.

SO WHY DO LOCAL OFFICIALS WANT TO BUILD MORE SHELTERS?

It's clear that finding permanent housing for everyone is going to be a challenge in a city that's woefully short on housing.

Meanwhile, there's more and more pressure on local officials to reduce the number of people who are outdoors, particular the number living in tent encampments scattered around the city.

About 75 percent of the people who are homeless in L.A. on any given night are living in tents, cars, or out in the open on L.A.'s streets.

IF THEY BUILD IT, WHO WILL COME?

Mayor Eric Garcetti's plan is to build a "temporary" homeless shelter in each of the city's 15 council districts.

The shelter could take the form of a communal tent, refurbishing existing space, or communal trailers.

The plan pairs that idea with stepped up enforcement — homeless people in the vicinity would be told to either use the shelter, or leave the area.

So far, it's been hard to find a neighborhood willing to take this deal.

He's also said that L.A. could, legally, start arresting people for sleeping outdoors again, now that the city believes it has complied with a legal settlement that prevented them from punishing people for sleeping outdoors while not supplying an alternative.

Homeless people would also be put on a path to permanent housing, though it's unclear how long a person could potentially live in a temporary shelter before being moved.

So while permanent housing is a big incentive for people to get into shelters, it might be a tricky promise.

Meanwhile, LAHSA believes that improving a system for hooking up homeless people looking for shelter with available beds would help fill existing beds.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE VERMIN AND DIRT

LAHSA told KPCC they're looking to increase their regulatory efforts to improve the quality of shelters. They've also stepped up the amount of funding they give shelters to try to provide more quality services.

That said, shelter providers told KPCC the challenges of running a communal living environment that's safe, effective, and appealing is incredibly difficult and requires a lot of expertise and investment — and current funding levels might not allow for that

Some homeless services providers said the city and county would benefit from creating more set standards when it comes to how shelters should be run.

That might mean providing best practices and guidance for ensuring safety in shelters, for example.

Formerly homeless people have been lobbying the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for the same — they say they want some sort of universal ordinance on how shelters should be operated and regulated.