Going behind the scenes of LA’s Skid Row with Pasadena’s Rev. Andy Bales
As CEO of Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles, the nation’s largest homeless services organization, the Rev. Andy Bales is acclaimed for devoting his life to solving the problems of LA’s most intractably poor citizens. Yet, most people don’t realize that what drives Bales’ passion for the cause is the fact that his own father grew up homeless during the Great Depression.
As he walked through downtown’s Skid Row at dusk on a late November Thursday evening, Bales, a resident of Pasadena’s Villa Parke neighborhood, provided a highly personal, behind-the-scenes tour of the beleaguered area that went far beyond a rundown of its history or its current problems. What has kept him going since his arrival at the job more than seven years ago — after starting his career in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, and five years spent working with homeless programs run by Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Church — is knowing there are solutions and pathways to a better life for those willing to reach out for help.
“When a man goes through our recovery program and graduates in one year, he has a 70 to 75 percent success rate,” says Bales, 54. “A woman at our center for women and families at Hope Gardens in Sylmar has an 85 percent success rate from the minute she walks in the door. Just getting out of being surrounded by what goes on on Skid Row streets makes a world of difference. A life is transformed in our program, followed by a job, and then a home after that is what works best, and it gives us hope that a couple people at a time reach those goals here.”
The mission reaches far more than a couple of people at a time, in fact. The giant facility provides safe beds and meals for 800 people a night, and the programs offered address more than mere food and shelter. The full one-year recovery program requires 400 hours of classes toward completion of a general equivalency diploma (GED), as well as job and life skills in the learning center and 20 hours of individual counseling with the chaplain. The 19 classes offered cover topics like overcoming addiction and dealing with anger, grief and loss, and there is a physical education program for keeping physically fit.
Participants learn how to work jobs throughout the mission by volunteering in various departments before taking on apprentice positions and saving up money to find their own homes. Along the way, they also have access to the mission’s medical, legal, dental and mental health clinics. But even with all that help available for hundreds of people at a time, Bales worries daily about the constant need for more.
“We’re still seeing 1,500 chronically homeless people within a few blocks of the mission,” he notes wearily. “There are too many families living in their cars or in hotel rooms. And the most frustrating thing is that there are forces getting in the way and keeping us from really making a difference with those remaining people.”
One size does not fit all
LA’s Skid Row is unequivocally the most deplorable homeless sector in the nation, says Bales. Fueled by some of the most heartless NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes in the nation, past attempts to provide homeless services at diverse locations across Los Angeles County have failed, leading government officials to group the vast majority of services into a several-block radius of downtown.
As a result, thousands of homeless people wind up concentrated into one area, leading to massive public health problems, ranging from trash and waste to rampant drug dealing, heroin overdoses and all the crimes that go along with them. In the course of a 90-minute walk through Skid Row that Thursday night, one could see the behavior of those trapped on the streets grow darker, with fights and robberies seeming to occur in sync with the darkening of the night sky overhead.
What’s truly frustrating for Bales is the fact that he and others on the front lines of the battle have not been able to make as significant a dent in the number of homeless since the recession hit and several misguided factions began to interfere with their work.
“We worked hard and managed to get the number of Skid Row homeless down to 600 people from the normal peak of 1,500, but now we’re back up to about 1,200,” says Bales. “The recession slashed the government’s ability to pay for many other services and housing, and then homeless activists and the courts kept making the existing problems worse.”
Some of Bales’ biggest frustrations include the coin-operated public toilets that have sprung up in the neighborhood over the past few years. Intended to provide a dignified replacement for dangerously filthy porta-potties, they’ve been hijacked for use as heroin shooting galleries and brothels for quickie acts of prostitution. Bales is astounded that some activists are calling for even more of these expensive units to be built when existing ones can’t be used safely for their intended purpose. Another concern is the seemingly unshakable hold drug dealers have on the neighborhood.
Bales says anyone who spends any time observing the area knows exactly who its drug kingpin is: a thug who spends his days giving orders while playing dominoes in the notorious San Julian Park. Bales can’t fathom why police — whom he is quick to credit for doing excellent work on most neighborhood and homeless issues — don’t just lock up the drug lord and shut down his operation. He places much of the blame for what’s happening on activists and judges, who have teamed up for rulings giving homeless people the right to protect even obvious trash from being disposed of, leading to much greater filth on city streets.
Beyond that, Bales is surprisingly exasperated with what many others have seen as a solution: permanent supportive housing.
“It’s effective for the fortunate few who obtain an apartment, but all of the arguments about how it’s a cheaper way to solve homelessness are not true,” he says. “It requires a tremendous amount of capital investment to provide the apartment, like $48 million to house 150 people. This building cost $27 million and houses 800 every night. So it’s not as cost-effective.
“The number of people on Skid Row has tripled since permanent housing was focused on, because when you bring all the resources to focus on a few, you leave the other 80 percent struggling with homelessness out in the cold,” Bales adds. “While it’s helped a fortunate few, it leaves many more out in the cold, and there needs to be a multi-pronged approach. There’s no one size that fits all, or silver bullet.”
No single solution
One person who admires Bales’ work but believes permanent supportive housing can indeed work is Bill Huang, director of Pasadena’s Department of Housing. He proudly touts that Pasadena’s foray into this effort is so far paying off.
“We use the ‘housing first’ methodology, taking chronically homeless persons and putting them right into permanent supportive housing with services tied to it, as opposed to finding them shelter, then transitional and then permanent housing,” says Huang. “We know there are 904 homeless people in Pasadena from our last count, and we’ve identified the ones who are most likely to die, specifically, by name. Often, they have one or more of these three characteristics: physical issues, mental issues or drugs, and sometimes they have all three.”
Huang notes that since implementing the program, which hinges on a survey that ties factors together into what is known as a vulnerability index, the city has managed to house 28 of Pasadena’s most chronic homeless persons. He believes the greater expense noted by Bales is offset by the fact that many other costs associated with homelessness are mitigated, such as the massive expenses incurred when homeless people seek medical treatment through emergency rooms rather than the more traditional and preventive care supplied by the permanent housing programs.
On a broader level, Huang was also eager to remind people of the extensive services provided by the local, privately run Union Station Homeless Services, and that Pasadena’s cold weather shelter has begun its winter operation. The shelter is open on nights it’s forecast to rain or when temperatures go below 40 degrees, and will open every night in January and February before going back to a weather-activated basis in March before closing in April.
The shelter was nearly shuttered due to limited city funds, but Huang’s own teenage daughter, Rebecca, helped save the day by organizing a fundraising drive with friends that brought in $28,000. That sterling example of private concern producing publicly helpful results is one way forward that fills Bales’ heart with hope, as he reminds us that government can’t be expected to handle it all on its own.
“I’d say all of us are responsible for this mess of Skid Row,” says Bales. “None of us can hide from our responsibilities, so I don’t say government or the church. Everyone in society should think about their brothers and sisters and the suffering in the street and there are many solutions.
“When supportive housing people were writing off missions, saying we’re archaic, I wanted to speak up and say we’re still needed,” Bales concludes. “Recovery is still needed. We’re one of the solutions. We help people overcome the things that cause them to become homeless, build skills and help them find jobs to be productive. We’re part of the solution, but no one strategy is the end all of solving homelessness.”
For more information on Union Rescue Mission and how to help its work, visit urm.org or call (213) 347-6300.
For information on Pasadena’s own Union Station Homeless Services, visit unionstationhs.org or call (626) 240-4550.
The Pasadena Bad Weather Shelter is located at the gymnasium of Pasadena Covenant Church, 539 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena.