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L.A. to Offer Housing to 50 'Most Vulnerable' People

Tents are a common sight in the early morning landscape of downtown Los Angeles.
David McNew
Getty Images
Tents are a common sight in the early morning landscape of downtown Los Angeles.
By about 5 a.m., Skid Row dwellers usually rise and move to avoid getting into trouble with the police.
David McNew / Getty Images
Getty Images
By about 5 a.m., Skid Row dwellers usually rise and move to avoid getting into trouble with the police.

Every morning this week, before the sun comes up, a group of 25 or so people has been conducting a survey on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. It's not your typical questionnaire –- ultimately it aims to determine which of the people sleeping on the streets are the worst off.

Hidden behind L.A.'s facade of glitz and glamour is one of the worst homeless problems in the country. The surveys are part of the county's most recent attempt to address the issue.

"Project 50" is oriented around combating chronic homelessness by identifying the 50 people on the streets who are the most vulnerable and then moving them into apartments.

"You can't really solve a problem before you know what it is," says Becky Kanis of the nonprofit group Common Ground, which developed the concept and is now spearheading efforts in southern California.

Kanis, who is director of innovation for the New York-based organization, spends her days trying to change the way people think about homelessness.

"The old approach is really a first come, first serve thing," she says, adding that the problem with that approach is that the people who get the available services usually aren't the ones who need them most.

L.A. County brought Kanis and her team to Skid Row to find the people that would never find them and their services. When Common Ground applied the same technique to New York's Times Square, they found that the number of street homelessness plummeted by 87 percent in two years.

"It surprised us some, too," she says. "We were only shooting for a two-thirds reduction."

The overwhelming majority of homeless people not only want to be in permanent housing, Kanis says, but when they get there, they stick around.

Early in the morning, however, half-asleep amid scurrying rats, piles of human waste and trash, not everyone is eager to be questioned by strangers claiming humanitarian intentions. It's difficult to see, as many of the street lights have been intentionally broken to make drug transactions easier. Some inhabitants are just coming down from crack highs. Others are resistant to talk because they've chosen Skid Row as home in order to disappear — not be included in some public list.

Surveyor Mack Garland pushes on, asking probing questions about health problems and drug use. The answers will be used to create a "vulnerability index," determining who gets housing and who doesn't. To put it bluntly, these questions are meant to identify those most likely to die on these streets in the next year.

Garland also snaps a picture so his group can later locate the 50 fortunate enough to have been determined the most unfortunate and get an apartment.

"You get stuck down here. We're here because we don't accept love and we don't give it," says a man who calls himself "Artist Woods." He's been on the streets for 28 years, he says, ever since he was honorably discharged from the Marines.

It's 5 a.m. If "Artist Woods" and the others sleeping here don't leave in the next hour, the police will remove them before the streets are bustling with holiday shoppers.

Skid Row, after all, is only a few blocks away from L.A.'s downtown core, which is seeing a wave of gentrification. As much as there are humanitarian incentives to clean up the area, there are also economic ones; elegant lofts sell much more quickly, and chic new bars are more inviting without homeless people lingering at their entrances.

Not to mention the price of the alternative "cleanup" method.

"To house someone in jail is more expensive than the Four Seasons hotel," says Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the L.A. Board of Supervisors. He says this project could end up saving taxpayers millions.

Although 50 is a relatively small number, he says that if this program succeeds, it will be expanded to help hundreds left on Skid Row.

"We've been intimidated by the sheer scale of the problem into doing very little," he says, adding that he hopes those days are over starting tomorrow, when the county will release the list of the 50 most vulnerable.

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Ben Bergman