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Housing and Homelessness

Many LA Officials And Mayoral Candidates Bet On Shelters To Solve Homelessness. But Is It The Best Solution?

A large wheelchair ramp leads to a shelter.
Shelters can range from options like this A Bridge Home shelter in Los Angeles to tiny homes to gymnasiums with rows of cots.
(Ethan Ward
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The race for mayor of L.A. is heating up, and tackling the region’s homelessness problem will be a key political issue. Officials are considering expanding shelter options, but many unhoused people refuse to take them.

Less than one-third of unhoused people who responded to a recent RAND Corp. survey said they would move into congregate shelter options, such as temporary winter shelters or bridge homes, that offer less privacy.

Bridges Darkwah, a formerly unhoused person, said he spent two years moving from shelter to shelter. He was at a shelter run by the Salvation Army for roughly six months.

“I mean, it wasn't the greatest, obviously, but like, whatever,” Darkwah said.

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In the gymnasium where he slept, Darkwah said, there were up to 50 cots in one room, close together and uncomfortable to sleep on. He said after dinner in the evening, the lights would go out around 10 p.m., but it would be hard to get rest due to random people having outbursts. Unhoused people were awakened around 6 a.m. to bright gym lights and military-style boot camp shouting, telling them they had to leave.

“You just rollover and hopefully, hopefully, get enough time to just brush your teeth,” said Darkwah.

Shelter experiences vary across the region depending on where someone ends up. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said the shelter where Darkwah stayed, run by the Salvation Army, was a temporary winter shelter location. Tiny homes, or tool sheds as some call them, that come with a door that people can lock are considered shelter. Shelters can also be Project Roomkey hotels and A Bridge Home locations, according to LAHSA.

Other unhoused people complained about food served at shelters and strict curfew rules. Damon, an unhoused man who only wanted to use his first name, previously told LAist he couldn't obtain shelter because of an ongoing medical condition seen as too high risk.

I think we are getting better about realizing shelter is not the best place for everyone and that really the greatest need is more housing that people can live in and live more normal lives.
— Bill Bedrossian, CEO of Covenant House California

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has program standards that apply to all service providers who receive funding from the organization. All shelter options are supposed to be “low barrier” in order to accommodate a variety of people who have different needs. Ahmad Chapman, a spokesperson for LAHSA, said their research also shows that people prefer private shelter spaces.

Bill Bedrossian, the CEO of Covenant House California, a nonprofit that provides housing and wrap-around services for youth facing homelessness, said rules surrounding public funding can often make it difficult to change procedures and policies that take more account for how people actually live. He cited studies that show veterans aren’t good candidates for shelters and would thrive in their own permanent supportive housing apartments.

“I think we are getting better about realizing shelter is not the best place for everyone and that really the greatest need is more housing that people can live in and live more normal lives,” said Bedrossian.

Nathan Sheets, executive director of The Center, a nonprofit in Hollywood that works with unhoused youth, said they ran a Project Roomkey for roughly eight months. He said they learned a lot about trying to find the balance between the person who just needs a bed to sleep so they can be well rested for work or school, versus the needs of someone who is deep in substance use addiction.

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We have to kind of find this happy medium and I don't know that it exists necessarily,” Sheets said, adding that not enough unhoused people are part of conversations about rules at shelters. “I don't think we really asked them. We just started prescribing. And if you don't fit into a box, then all of a sudden you become 'service-resistant' and that's just not true.”