Is LA's Homeless Service System Working? Not For This Man
When the new homeless shelter opened on Hollywood's Schrader Boulevard in March 2019, Halcyon Selfmade was one of the first people to move inside. He's white, transgender, and spends most of his time in a wheelchair because of a medical condition he was diagnosed with at age nine. He has Stickler syndrome, a painful and progressive genetic disease that leads to brittle bones and weak connective tissue.
Hal and his partner moved to Los Angeles a couple of years ago from Tennessee after his transition became apparent. He says he was forced out of his apartment by an intolerant landlord.
"I'm not staying where I'm not wanted," he said.
They'd been living in a tent outside the Hollywood YMCA when they were offered a place at the new "A Bridge Home" nearby on Schrader Boulevard. It was part of a new breed of interim shelters where people could recover from the trauma of life on the street, be given medical services and three meals a day, before being moved into permanent housing.
Hal and his partner were told that within 90 days, they could expect to be connected with a wheelchair-accessible housing unit that they could afford on their roughly $1,200-a-month income.
They moved in.
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But the housing didn't materialize. Ninety days passed, and then 90 days passed again. Meanwhile Hal says he was bounced from one case manager who couldn't find an apartment to another that wouldn't set appointments with him. He says conditions inside the 72-bed congregate shelter were rough at best, and that he didn't feel safe because of transphobic threats aimed directly at him.
Plus, Hal says he saw regular use of hard drugs inside the shelter. Drug use is not allowed on site, but "active substance use" is not grounds to kick someone out of the program. It's the basis of a model of substance abuse treatment known as "harm reduction" that aims to provide a place where people can detox with support.
While Hal fully supported treating addiction as a health concern, and supporting people who struggle with substance abuse, the reality of someone illicitly smoking meth in the next bunk made him feel unsafe.
Finally, after eight months in the shelter, he was asked to leave. Hal recounts an offsite altercation where he claims he was defending himself and his partner from an aggressor. Officially, Hal says he was exited from the program for being a danger to the shelter's onsite staff.
So he and his partner set up camp on the street around the corner from the shelter, just a few blocks from where they'd been before. Despite having gone through the system, and been at the site for more than 90 days, Hal was little closer to finding housing than he was when he first decided to move into the shelter.
"I'm a shoo-in. I'm disabled from birth," he said of his prospects of getting housed. "I have a genetic condition that causes degenerative disc disease. There's no reason for me to have been out here as long as I have." The "Housing First" model, he says, shouldn't be a "giant runaround."
THE GIANT RUNAROUND
Practically speaking, there is a reason Hal has been outside for as long as he has. Even though Los Angeles' homeless service system embraces the Housing First philosophy to end homelessness, its success hinges on having access to a robust supply of subsidized housing. Finding a unit of housing that meets Hal's unique needs is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
"If it's in my price range, it's not accessible. If it's accessible, it's not in my price range. If it's both accessible, and in my price range, it's too far away from where I need to be to get my medical care," he said.
In fact, one of the reasons Hal opted to move into the shelter on Schrader Boulevard is because it was only one block from his doctors at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. With a long list of medications, and complicated palette of medical conditions and drug interactions stemming both from his genetic disability and sex transition, the LGBT Center is likely one of the few places in the entire country where Hal can actually access comprehensive medical care.
Stepping back, it's no secret that L.A. has a shortage of inexpensive housing. It's one of the driving causes behind the region's escalating homelessness crisis. Even for those without Hal's particularly complicated circumstances, the perpetual bottleneck in L.A.'s homeless service system is that the amount of low-income housing actually available is far eclipsed by the number of people who need help.
The result is a homeless services system that staffs thousands to get people who are already homeless "ready" to move into housing, but struggles to rehouse them before more people end up on the street.
The 72-bed shelter where Hal stayed for eight months is a good example of how the system doesn't work as well as intended. In its first 17 months of operation, just 29 people were placed into permanent housing, according to the site's operator. Another 76 people either left the shelter voluntarily, moved into another interim housing facility, or were asked to leave like Hal and his partner.
Those results, experts have told LAist, are largely consistent with other interim shelters across Los Angeles' homeless service system.
DAY TO DAY
Since he left the shelter late in late 2019, Hal has been living on the street nearby in a tent large enough for his wheelchair. He spends almost all of his time in the area because of its proximity to his doctors, and because his mobility is limited to where he can get on public transit using a wheelchair.
But since the "A Bridge Home" site opened last year, those same city blocks are now inside a city-designated "Special Enforcement and Cleaning Zone."
These zones are an integral part of the "A Bridge Home" program, and can be found around almost all of the roughly two-dozen sites now open in Los Angeles. They were conceived by city politicians to coax housed residents and nearby businesses into "accepting" the proposed shelters by promising extra sanitation services and police enforcement to keep other homeless people from setting up camp in the designated area.
The zones stipulate rigorous enforcement of municipal code that allows the city to confiscate unattended items on the sidewalk, plus other provisions intended to dissuade camping in the zone.
It means Hal has to make sure his possessions are never left unattended, often defending them by reciting legal code to police officers who attempt to make him go somewhere else.
"If you don't use very specific language, they will find loopholes to make you move," he said. "And because I know how to speak, I have made them leave me alone more than once."
That daily process of holding onto his few possessions -- which include his wheelchair, medications, and documentation -- is exhausting, and takes time away from efforts spent getting off the street.
But not everybody living outside is as articulate as Hal, and the day-to-day reality is that homeless people's belongings often get seized and thrown away. Consequently, advocates for the homeless are suing the city in federal court over the zones. They argue the zones violate the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Hal's view is that the zones aren't really about "cleaning" -- they're about making homeless people go somewhere else.
"Nobody wants to see us, the unhoused. But this cleaning is not going to make us go away. You cannot wash us away. We are here. We are part of your community. And the sooner you start treating us like the neighbors that we are, the sooner we all get along and everybody's better off."
Hal still hasn't given up hope of finding an affordable wheelchair accessible housing unit that's not too far from his doctors. For now, he says case managers have told him he's on the waitlist for a coveted Section 8 housing voucher. Not that a voucher is a guarantee of finding a unit, but it's something.
This story has been updated to clarify the age when Hal was diagnosed with his disease, and the particular reason he left Tennessee.