I’m driving to Downtown Los Angeles, and my mind is wandering. Did the cheery radio announcer just slip something about mercury rising in your tarpaulin into her traffic report? Shake head, blink in sun. Of course not. I’m thinking of Raven – who I’m going to see again tonight.
Raven’s situation is all too common in La La Land these days – she lives under a tarpaulin, next to a freeway. She has been living on the streets for most of her life, after leaving a violent home when she was 9.
Until recently I, like most people in LA, have viewed those tarpaulin encampments like the one that Raven lives in with vague sympathy from the safety of my car. But as the months have worn on, they’ve gotten more difficult to ignore. Homelessness has risen by 23 per cent in the last year here – and the desperation is seeping onto almost every street.
Recent figures put the homeless population here at almost 58,000 – with women and families being the fastest-growing demographic. They’re refugees from rising rents and domestic violence, and the streets aren’t an easy place to take refuge. I’m hanging out with Raven and her friend Christine to try and understand what it’s like out here – and I’m learning quickly.
I’m struck by the busy lives these homeless women lead. Nothing is easy on the fringes of society – whether it’s keeping a cell phone charged, or finding somewhere to pee. The smallest tasks take hours to complete when you’re navigating a spread out city with no car, no money and nowhere to get clean. Maintaining your personal hygiene or nutrition takes constant effort, and the lack of shelter mean those on the street are constantly sleep-deprived. Raven tells me people regularly lift up her tarpaulin and walk right in – Christine mentions cheerfully that she found a man sleeping on her bed the other day, then laughs and declares; “I pepper-sprayed him!”
Christine is extra busy because her business is collecting recyclables.
She has the money situation figured out, and hopes to be back in an apartment soon – but gentrification might have other plans, as people like Christine are squeezed out of newly unaffordable long-term housing. Christine is about to turn 50 – and she’s only been on the street nine months. It’s certainly not what she had planned for her life, and she’s still got some fight in her to get out of the situation.
Others aren’t so lucky.
I run into many chronically homeless as I move around various encampments. People who have lost hope, and who the system has failed. It gives me a new perspective on the stereotype of the ‘drug-addicted’, ‘mentally ill’ homeless person – addiction and PTSD are often responses to street life, not the cause of it.
If you’re not traumatised before you experience homelessness, then you’ll almost certainly be during, and after the experience.
The Reverend Andy Bales, who runs Union Rescue Mission on LA’s Skid Row, says homeless women have a 70 per cent chance of being raped in their first few days on the street. It’s a big reason why his mission has an open door policy, and never turns women or families away.
But it’s getting harder, with almost 500 women per night requiring shelter. This time last year, the number was less than 200. Temporary beds crowd the chapel and hallways, as the building struggles to accommodate the need.
Driving back home after another night in the encampments, my own bed, roof and walls take on a new perspective. I’m racked with a mixture of gratitude and a strange sense of guilt.
In some ways, I’ve lost faith as well. How can this happen in the richest state in the world’s richest country? How have measures to curb homelessness failed so abjectly? What is happening with the multi-billion dollar solutions contained in Proposition H and Proposition HHH passed in November last year – but that have yet to provide a single bed?
The frustration and hopelessness of the situation leads people to try desperate and rebellious solutions – and that’s the other part of what I’ve been filming.
In Compton, Elvis Summers is a rock n roll philanthropist and builder who’s trying to house the homeless with his own hands. His empathy for those experiencing homelessness almost cripples him at times.
In a bid to help people off the streets, Elvis makes and distributes ‘tiny houses’, sneaking them into abandoned and disused areas and allowing homeless people to live in them. For many, it’s the closest they will get to having their own home.
It’s an imperfect solution, but a practical and instant one for those on the receiving end, and for those whom the city has very few other plans for.
Watch the full report – Tiny Home Rebel on Dateline, Tuesday 27 June at 9.30pm on SBS.