As Downtown LA Grows, So Does Urgency To Fix Skid Row

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From NPR: by  and 

In Los Angeles, more than thousand people sleep on the street in cardboard boxes and tents — just a mile away from City Hall.

This is Skid Row, and compared to the affluent downtown areas that practically surround it, the area is like a different planet. Fifty blocks of sidewalk are jammed with people who live on the street, with all of their worldly possessions crammed into shopping carts and crates.

In the hot midday Southern California sun, the place stinks of urine, human excrement and garbage. Last year, there was a major outbreak of tuberculosis.

A lot of people want to fix Skid Row, but how it’s done is extremely controversial. And as downtown Los Angeles develops, it’s a problem that’s become more and more urgent.

Leah, who didn’t want to give her last name, sells cigarettes along Skid Row. She says she’s seen some changes lately.

“The cops are starting to crack down more, I guess ’cause they want to clean up down here to make it better for people to live,” she says. “But this is Skid Row; it’s always going to be Skid Row.”

But a lot of people — including some with very deep pockets — disagree.

At a recent discussion last month about the future of Skid Row, developer Tom Gilmore said that people need to deal with the fact that downtown is going to continue to develop.

“There will be development in Skid Row. There will be,” Gilmore said.

He says development doesn’t mean reducing services for the homeless, but some disagree; they believe that development will simply force out the people who live on Skid Row. Long-time activists say that there is a real danger that growth in the area will simply ignore the needs of the thousands living in poverty.

But new residents and businesses say they want to play a role in improving Skid Row.

Blair Besten, the executive director of the Historic Core Business Improvement District, helped organize the panel discussion where Gilmore spoke. The business improvement district collects taxes from local property owners, and that money pays for street cleanups and private security patrols.

Besten says the homeless people on Skid Row used to be easier for the city to ignore, but with more people moving downtown, that’s changing.

“A sense of shame is really motivating people now to finally address this issue, because it’s so apparent in the streets everywhere you look,” Besten says.

‘We Need Compassionate People’

On a recent morning, the lobby of the Union Rescue Mission is packed. They have been working on Skid Row for decades.

The Mission feels like a cross between an apartment building and a secure court facility. It provides shelter for about 800 people, split among private rooms and dorms.

The Mission also provides substance abuse counseling and other services. It’s a Christian charity, though non-Christians and non-believers are welcome here. Shelters like the Union Rescue Mission continue to fill up with people in need.

“What I describe Skid Row as is the biggest man-made disaster in the United States,” says the Rev. Andy Bales, who runs the Mission and has worked on Skid Row for almost 10 years.

Bales says things had been improving on Skid Row, but they’ve taken a bad turn since the recession. He says hospitals from the region, and even other states, have been dumping homeless patients on Skid Row illegally, and that jails are releasing inmates without enough preparation. Resources have also been reduced for shelters in favor of other approaches.

Bales says fear had once left Skid Row — but now it’s back.

“[There’s] violence every day; across the street there’s crack cocaine sales,” he says. “And by the self-cleaning restroom on the corner down here, they’re selling heroin. Take that times 49 blocks: That’s what Skid Row is.”

Bales says the answer for this is decentralizing services, and that ideally people should receive treatment and help in their own communities. But he says it can be difficult to convince neighborhoods to accept new homeless shelters, affordable housing or treatment facilities.

“We are often market-driven instead of compassion-driven,” he says. “Of course we need investors, we need all of that, but we need compassionate people who care about the people [who] are potentially displaced. We need to make sure there’s a place for them to go and that place is not just on the sidewalk or a bush in another neighborhood.”

Permanent Supportive Housing

Another source of shelter for some of Los Angeles’ chronically homeless had its grand opening earlier this month: the Star Apartments on Skid Row. The building, developed by the non-profit Skid Row Housing Trust, is beautiful, modern and bright. There are more than 100 apartments where the homeless can stay permanently, turn their lives around and get easy access to a health clinic and other services on-site.

Jude Burns is one of the residents at the Star Apartments. He is only 44 years old, but uses a cane that he says helps him walk through the pain in his spine and feet.

“Sometimes it’s so bad, I can’t even get out of bed,” Burns says. “But then I have good days and bad days. Today’s one of the good days.”

Burns moved in about a year ago. He and the other residents were allowed to settle in before the recent grand opening. But he didn’t always need this type of help.

Burns moved to L.A. a few years back to be closer to his 14-year-old son. He had been diagnosed with diabetes, but he says he had it under control. Then on New Year’s Eve 2011, his son was shot and killed in South LA, an apparently random murder. It sent Burns into a deep depression.

“After my son’s death, my health just started going completely downhill,” he says.

The diabetes got worse; he got pancreatitis, and then came the complications. He needed two surgeries. For a while he bounced around between the couches of friends and hospitals.

“I would say I was in the emergency room at least once every two months,” he says.

After one of his surgeries, his luck changed. A hospital social worker linked Burns up with temporary housing through Lamp Community on Skid Row, and they told him about the Star Apartments.

“Now I got my own place, and my own keys. And man, I’m happy about that. Thankful,” he says.

Burns says it was the first time in three years he had his own stove, his own refrigerator and his own bathroom. And most importantly, Burns doesn’t have to drag himself to the emergency room to see a doctor or a social worker, since there are case-workers onsite downstairs, alongside a health clinic that’s opening with staff doctors and nurses.

“Everything is right here,” Burns says.

This model of ending homelessness is called “permanent supportive housing.” The idea is that the best way to tackle homelessness, as well as handle all the chronic health and mental health problems, is to get people housed first and then work on the other issues — issues which can seem extremely challenging.

“Many people would consider the folks that we’re housing un-housable,” says Marc Trotz, who runs LA County’s Housing For Health program. “They’re too sick, they’re too disruptive, they’re too drug-addicted. And our philosophy is to just flip that around.”

Trotz’s program is helping run the Star Apartments, and they have actually moved staff inside the building. He says that they know a home doesn’t miraculously cure mental illness or long-term substance abuse issues, but that it’s almost impossible to address those issues when someone is homeless.

He calls Skid Row a “health disaster zone,” where the population is stuck in a cycle that revolves from the street to hospitals, jails, maybe treatment centers or shelters — and then back to the street.

“[You] can do that for 5, 10, 15 years and just steadily decline in health and die, essentially,” he says.

Trotz and the county want to break that cycle by creating buildings like the Star Apartments throughout Los Angeles County. According to Trotz they’ve created 700 units in the county so far, with a goal of 10,000 by 2018.

Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says experience has shown that permanent supportive housing works.

“The research is very robust. It shows that about 85 percent of the people who are placed in this housing remain there one year later,” Culhane says. “Even among the people who exit, many of them are exiting to other planned arrangements. Only a few percentage is actually returning to homelessness.”

Culhane says these programs frequently save government money, too, by reducing ER visits and time in jail.

Some shelters worry that the focus on permanent supportive housing will shortchange emergency services for the majority of the homeless. And at its current rate, the county is well behind schedule on meeting its goal of creating 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing.

But Star Apartments resident Jude Burns has one word for his unit: “A blessing.”

JDSA Attends Central Florida Leadership Forum

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Advocacy drives change.  And change was all abuzz last week at the Central Florida Regional Leadership Forum in Orlando, Florida.

Hundreds of advocates and over 150 business and community leaders gathered to connect their shared values with a shared future. The event, was presented by the Central Florida Partnership and sponsored by the Orlando Regional REALTOR Association, in partnership with the Central Florida Foundation and MetroPlan Orlando.  JDSA received a special invite, along with a host of other community partners, who spoke on updating their business plans to help Central Florida’s “family of communities” move toward a more prosperous future.

Dee Allsop, Ph.D., CEO and Managing Partner of Heart + Mind Strategies, released the findings of a multi-phase research project to better understand the hearts and minds of residents of Central Florida. Specifically, as they relate to the values, priorities and future of the region.

Click on the link below to view the report, Understanding the Values and Priorities of Central Floridians

A 2005 myregion.org’s initiative, entitled, “How Shall We Grow?” was what helped commission this latest study to better understand what, exactly, has changed over the last ten years.  “With new developments and business centers being constructed across the Central Florida Region, it’s important for us to know if and how these dramatic changes to the economy have shifted the priorities and values of Central Floridians.” said, Jacob V. Stuart, President of Central Florida Partnership.

Getting the public engaged to create social capital is a top priority for Mark Brewer, President and CEO of the Central Florida Foundation, who called last weeks Forum, “a pivotal moment in the history of our community.”

The Central Florida Partnership serves nearly 4 million people throughout 86 cities in 7 regional counties: Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, and Volusia.  We were proud to have been in attendance and are already engaged in working and Just Doing Something…Anything! with the leaders of each county.

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Ugliness of human trafficking is coming out of the shadows

Human trafficking was, until recently, the biggest nonconversation we had. Hushed-toned talk, relegated to dark corners and dingy alleyways, helped this human-rights crisis flourish below the radar. But dialogue about the fastest-growing crime on the planet, with more people enslaved now than any time in human history, is finally beginning to resonate.

So why the long silence?

Human trafficking is uncomfortable and uncomprehended. “Stranger danger” is a devil we know. A phrase we understand. We talk to our kids about kidnapping and date rape, thinking of the villain as singular — a lone anomaly that strikes — an incident to be avoided. Not the beginning of a nightmare to a life of bondage.

But if we realized our kids were being exported, while others were being imported, we would have cried foul sooner and much louder. It’s a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. How do you explain to the concerned volunteer who canvasses neighborhoods, lakes and wooded areas for a missing person to consider searching shipping containers instead?

Domestic abuse and homelessness are easier stories for the media to tell. Human trafficking? Not so simple.

It’s modern-day slavery manifested into forced labor, with prostitution, immigration, child abuse, smuggling, drugs, money laundering and organized crime all thrown together. A local reporter recently told me, “It’s a complicated, time-consuming topic. It would take an entire newscast just to explain what it is.”

Think it doesn’t happen here? Think again. All 50 states have reported incidents, and Florida is one of the top three destination points for trafficking worldwide. More than 20 million people are trafficked across the world with almost a quarter of them enslaved for sex.

It’s a $30 billion a year corruption that touches every one of us whether we know it or not. Get your nails done and it may be from a technician who’s not there by choice. The bracelet you just bought may have been made using a 10-year-old boy with little to no hope for tomorrow. Recently, a 14-year-old girl from Cocoa Beach was discovered, drugged and held captive by a man advertising her online as an escort.

We live in a celebrity-obsessed society that dominates what’s relevant. If there’s not a pretty face telling us we should worry, then there must not be anything to worry about.

Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and George Clooney are all well-known advocates for familiar social causes. But human trafficking is so buried most aren’t aware of the celebrities who help give it a voice: Mira Sorvino and Jada Pinkett Smith.

We know more about abused animals, thanks to Sara McLaughlin’s commercials, than we do about Ricky Martin’s testimony on human trafficking in front of Congress. And while it’s helpful for big names to bring insight to big problems we may not otherwise notice, it’s troubling so many wait for their favorite famous face to tell them where to focus.

It’s good news this discussion is becoming broader. Nonetheless, I’m concerned about our notorious short-mindedness. Our intolerance is often too temporary. Outraged one minute, apathetic the next. We jump on bandwagons because it’s cool to be part of a trendy subject.

But this is not merely a hot topic. It’s human beings entangled in daily horror.

Consider this well-known quotation: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” So what can you do? Talk about it. Your voice, added to others, helps bring human trafficking out of the shadows and into the light.

Welcome to the conversation. It will save lives. It will give voice to the voiceless and our collective persistence will bring freedom — one life at a time.

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