LA County’s 211 Hotline Is Meant To Help, But Many Unhoused Domestic Violence Victims Stay On Hold
Jami Taylor was on her eighth day living inside a tent in the affluent Beverly Grove neighborhood of L.A. when we first met. Her dog, Potato, greeted me as I approached the tent. Taylor said she’s tried her best to make it comfortable.
“The entire tent may as well be a giant dog bed,” Taylor said. “Potato could already be in a home, but it’s me that’s holding him back. I won’t make it without him.”
Jami Taylor isn’t her real name. It’s an alias because she’s fleeing domestic violence. She also struggles with addiction. In L.A, almost 40% of unhoused women say they’ve experienced abuse in the last 12 months. The majority of unhoused women across the nation — 57% according to recent data — say domestic violence is why they are unhoused.
Taylor chose to set up her tent in Beverly Grove because it’s been her neighborhood for 12 years. She’s comfortable there. She always felt part of the community. But now that she is unhoused, she feels shut out and faces harassment from some neighbors.
“‘Oh, I bet you think this is a nice place,” Taylor said one man told her. “‘Get the F outta here!’ Seems to be the go to for people in this neighborhood. And he goes, ‘This was the nice me...the next time won’t be so nice.’ I cried.”
Taylor has never found herself unhoused before and she didn’t know what to do. That’s when she called 211 LA, a number L.A. County residents can call when they need to get connected to resources that deal with a variety of issues including healthcare, immigration or crisis services.
211 LA is also one way to gain access to Los Angeles’ Coordinated Entry System, overseen by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. This is a process where people experiencing homelessness can get connected with case managers who help find housing or other services.
“I call everyday,” Taylor said. “I have about 40 different numbers. It’s the same thing every single day.”
What she hears every day is that there are no beds available. Or those beds are available for women who have children.
“Your chances are as good as if you're calling a radio station to win Beatles tickets,” she said.
Less Funds And Staffing Shortages
Taylor’s circumstance underscores the need for proper infrastructure and funding to address the needs of different types of unhoused people across the L.A. region. Official sources say many current systems are woefully unprepared to meet their needs, whether through staffing shortages or lack of funding.
Community Resource Advisors with 211 LA are set by 211 LA’s contract with the County of Los Angeles. There are 48 full-time workers who answer nearly 400,000 calls, chats and texts per year, according to Alana Hitchcock, a spokesperson for 211 LA.
Hitchcock said they are underfunded by its current contract with the county and cover only 77% of anticipated call volume. Callers can sometimes experience hold times of 40 minutes. Hitchcock said wait times in March averaged 6 minutes and said they handled over 20% more calls than what is covered by the County contract, a lot of it due to housing and homelessness calls.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.
Hitchock said 211 LA only has an official role in helping unhoused families, not youth or single adults like Taylor. Unless it's during winter shelter months, operators are trained to give out the number to a homelessness nonprofit based on their location.
But sometimes those nonprofits don’t pick up. Hitchcock said service providers currently answer 23% of call transfers that they attempt. When they do, callers like Taylor are often told there aren't beds available. They have to call back and start the process over again.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Taylor said. “You tell them it works, something must be wrong with you.”
Not Enough Beds
Emily Goodburn, who coordinates the domestic violence program at the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row, said situations like Taylor’s are common.
“There is a huge shortage of DV (domestic violence) shelter beds in Los Angeles,” Goodburn said, adding there’s recently been more coordination to improve the system so survivors don’t have to keep calling, retelling their story to different people, and reliving their trauma.
“We’re trying to figure out ways that we can skip that step so that we can kinda help facilitate finding a match for somebody before they have to go through that,” she said.
Goodburn said organizations that work with domestic violence survivors are trying to get more resources. She also says there isn’t one place to go where providers can see a complete list of beds available on any given night, making it harder to place people.
More Than A Lack Of Resources
L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell said in a phone interview that with the current infrastructure in place, a woman experiencing domestic violence shouldn’t be unhoused for a month. Mitchell admitted there are circumstances that would lead to it being more difficult, like Jami owning a dog or struggling with addiction.
“Part of the other structural work is making sure there are other beds to refer people to,” Mitchell said. “That those nonprofits who didn't answer the phone do have the resources to meet their contractual obligation to answer the phone. To make sure the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is communicating to people the beds that are available. That’s not 211’s role.”
They say everything is available, but when you call it's not. We’ve called several times. I don't know what to do. We’re at a standstill.
Mitchell says money is flowing to solve issues, but only after decades of underfunding. She says the domestic violence world has better infrastructure to help domestic violence survivors.
According to Hitchcock from 211 LA, the County has chronically underfunded the service and crippled its ability to respond. The current contract with the county will end in December.
“My frustration has always been about complaints coming in from lack of resources going to 211,” said L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in response to a question about 211 LA at a media seminar to address homelessness in L.A. County.
“That would be something we dive into,” Barger said. “But having proper resources will be vital so when people call that number they can get it. We don't know who will get the contract.”
Nowhere To Go
On a heavy rainy day, nearly four weeks after our first conversation, Taylor called me, saying she was sitting on an air mattress inside her tent.
“Me and my dog are basically floating,” Taylor said. “All my things are destroyed. And there’s nowhere to go, there’s nowhere to go.”
A few neighbors in Beverly Grove had tried calling to find her a bed with no luck. Residents of L.A. who want to help someone experiencing homelessness should also call 211 LA. Usually a report is taken and they are told someone will be out within a few days, but possibly a week. By that time, the unhoused resident in question may have moved on.
Suzanne Tracht, a restaurant owner who has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, said she’s heard city officials talk about shelter beds.
“They say everything is available, but when you call it's not,” Tracht said. “We’ve called several times. I don't know what to do. We’re at a standstill. I pay taxes. We can't even get [Taylor] into a living space?”
A neighbor in Beverly Grove was finally able to get Taylor and her dog into a treatment facility after tracking down her family and advocating on her behalf. The neighbor said they were frustrated with how unhoused people are treated while trying to navigate their way through the system.
According to experts, getting into shelter is only half the battle. Taylor will have challenges as she tries to reenter L.A.’s housing market.
“People never know how their acts of kindness can be lifesaving,” Taylor texted me from the treatment center.
But many unhoused residents are still spending days, even months, trying to get a bed.