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Housing and Homelessness

The Long And Winding Path To Sheltering Unhoused People In LA

A hand draws a dark wavy line that weaves through a handful of icons representing people. The line creates a chasm between the people. One side of the line is yellow, the other is blue.
Finding shelter for even one unhoused person can be a challenging process.
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad / LAist / Photograph by Fabian Centeno / Unsplash)
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The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) recently shared its plan to reduce unsheltered homelessness over the next three years. One way it plans to accomplish this goal is speeding up the time it takes to move people living in shelters to permanent supportive housing — freeing up beds for those waiting to get into a shelter.

Zack McFarland, 24, is unhoused and waiting for one of those beds. He arrived in Los Angeles from Fresno nearly two months ago after being kicked out by his dad who said he needed to find a job or enroll in college.

McFarland found himself living on the streets near the Walk of Fame in Hollywood for a few weeks before moving to the MacArthur Park neighborhood. He was there for a couple of weeks, but after getting into three physical altercations with other unhoused men in a state of psychosis or just looking to pick a fight, he decided it wasn’t safe and moved again to a park in East L.A.

“I woke up one morning and I literally looked around like, What?,” McFarland said “I literally broke down into tears. I broke down in tears. I was like, what am I doing here? Like, this is not okay. This is not a place I should be.”

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Prior to the pandemic McFarland held down two jobs, but was unable to find work in Fresno as lockdowns eased. He thought he would have better luck in L.A., but so far, nothing has worked out. McFarland said it's hard to look for work when he struggles to keep clean clothes, shower, or even sleep.

“Nights are rough,” McFarland said. “That's if I decide to sleep at night. If you could only understand the feeling of waking up every morning ... and all your stuff is gone. Like, just gone, and you have no idea who took it because you're sleeping in a place that anybody can walk by.”

This experience isn’t exclusive to McFarland. There are roughly 48,000 unsheltered people in L.A. County, according to a 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which deals with scenarios like this on a daily basis. McFarland’s circumstance underscores the importance of creating more options for shelter and speeding up the process to get people into more permanent housing solutions.

The Path To Shelter

A Bridge Home is an interim shelter in Los Feliz operated by People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). It’s located near where McFarland is currently sleeping. Awade Khan-Variba, associate director for PATH’s L.A. Metro programs, said in an email that unhoused people looking for a bed can try two ways: first, through an outreach worker who can give a referral after conducting an assessment; or by calling the county’s 211 LA line to be assigned a caseworker.

a ramp leading to the entrance of a bridge home interim housing facility
A Bridge Home shelter in Los Angeles.
(Ethan Ward

McFarland said he was told by other unhoused people he met that if he wanted to get a bed quicker, he should appear more desperate and make it sound like he’s “hanging on by a thread.” To accomplish this, he said other unhoused people told him to do things like not take a shower for a few days before meeting with a caseworker, or lie about the last time he ate.

“It's like, dang, do I have to really do that to get into a place [and] get a roof over my head sooner?,” McFarland said. “That's crazy to me.”

McFarland said he was in touch with an outreach worker, but she wasn’t associated with PATH and she’s not a caseworker with LAHSA. He said he was told she would get back to him, but he said he didn’t hear back from her or anyone else.

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Many unhoused people looking for shelter are hard to locate when they don’t have a stable place to be or a reliable phone. McFarland has a phone. But he is hard to reach. At the time of publication, McFarland was unavailable on the phone, and if the caseworker tried to reach him, the efforts probably were unsuccessful.