Just as rain started falling last Friday evening, Alicia Porcho prepared for intake inside the Long Beach Rescue Mission’s new winter shelter set up in a warehouse at 702 W. Anaheim St. The 12,000-square-foot building, once famous for housing Jesse James’ West Coast Choppers motorcycle shop, officially opened its doors to homeless clients on Dec. 1.
“The first day we only had about 20 clients… but after that, we started to get more as it got colder and later in the month,” said the part-time manager for the shelter. “The majority of these people do have some sort of income, and so they’ll usually come later, in the middle of the month or the second week of the month… We’ve actually had quite a few people.”
The building’s red floor is now lined with rows of cots, and a storage room is filled with more than 200 bundles of blankets. But to many people, the full scale of homelessness in the Long Beach area remains hidden.
“Sadly to say, the homeless become invisible when you’re on the streets because you don’t realize how many there are,” said Chaplain Robert Probst, associate director of the Long Beach Rescue Mission who filled in for the mission’s CEO Jim Lewis this week. He added that only clients picked up in buses at the shelter’s designated sites are admitted to the shelter and no “walk-ins” are allowed.
Porcho said the shelter regularly takes in about 100 clients per night, which is just a little below the shelter’s limit. The shelter, which remains open until March, hasn’t had to turn clients away due to reaching capacity so far, she said, but that was the case last year at the former shelter site in North Long Beach. “We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Porcho said.
In California, which has the largest homeless population in the country, there were 130,898 homeless people sheltered or unsheltered on a single night in January this year, representing a 3.7-percent drop from the count last year, according to a report released on Dec. 10 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
On the local level, however, winter shelters, food banks, charities and government agencies continue to be stretched thin as the need for services continues to rise in recent years, according to statistics and homeless-services providers.
A homeless count conducted in January 2011 by volunteers and the homeless-services division of the Long Beach Health & Human Services Department found that there were 4,290 men, women and children experiencing homelessness in Long Beach, representing a 9 percent increase from the count conducted in 2009. The increase, according to the City’s homeless-services advisory committee report, is a “trend that is consistent across the Southern California region.”
The face of homelessness, according to the City’s report, has changed over the years due in large part to high unemployment brought on by the lingering economic recession. Long Beach had an 11.2 percent unemployment rate as of November statistics, which is higher than the rates of Los Angeles County, California and the United States.
Joining the ranks of those experiencing homelessness, whether living in temporary housing, in motels, in shelters or on the streets, are senior citizens or disabled persons on a fixed income, veterans returning from war, single parents with children and families displaced by foreclosures.
HUD requires that the Long Beach Continuum of Care, a jurisdiction of several local homeless-service providers, including some 15 non-profit agencies primarily funded by the federal government, conduct the citywide survey every two years in order to better understand the city’s homeless needs and to better allocate local and federal resources. The next biannual homeless count, which is the sixth such survey, is set to take place Jan. 24.
Elsa Ramos, coordinator for the city-operated Multi-Service Center located at 1301 W. 12th St., where volunteers meet on the day of the count, said it’s important to note that the census is just a “snapshot” of homelessness and can change from day to day. However, she said to get a more accurate calculation, the survey is conducted at the end of the month, when people typically run out of resources.
Ramos said that more than 300 volunteers are needed this year to canvas the city’s 52 square miles that are broken up into 47 map segments. Sometimes, the homeless are hard to locate, she said, but surveyors are told where to find certain homeless “hotspots” in the area.
“Homeless people are very mobile, but they tend to reside in very inconspicuous locations,” Ramos said. “We do make sure that we are counting individuals residing inside of shelters, [and] we do have a large population of folks who are pretty much along the LA River bed and in certain pockets around the city. We have outreach staff [members] that are very acclimated and aware of these locations to provide that information to folks that are being deployed… We know where people are known to camp; sometimes at parks or particular locations where people are a little more hidden.”
During the holiday season, families are especially in need, whether homeless or not. According to statistics, this year the Salvation Army Long Beach Citadel provided for the most requests for assistance in five years, filling a total of more than 10,000 grocery orders in 2012, which is over 10 times more than the amount in 2007, not including Operation Christmas and seasonal assistance, which represents more than 30,000 bags of groceries. Last year, the Salvation Army provided services for a total of 14,831 people compared to only 3,618 people in 2007.
On Dec. 17, the Long Beach Citadel began its five-day Christmas distribution, where members of the Citadel who pre-registered for “holiday assistance” will receive food and toy distributions. The Salvation Army is also geared up to serve more than 1,000 families through the Angel Tree Toy & Joy Center, Adopt A Family and Christmas at The Reef Restaurant.
Gail Crandell, social services coordinator, said she has seen more families asking for assistance on a regular basis, and the gap between the wealthy and those living in poverty in Long Beach is widening. Crandell said she has taken 15 calls from homeless families in just the past two weeks. “One of the big problems is that there are more and more [homeless] families,” Crandell said. “I’m taking a new call a day … They’re calling because they want to make a nice Christmas for their children … It’s great we can give them toys and food … [but] where will they go and what will they do?”
Winter shelters, primarily funded by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which provides funding through HUD, don’t accept families. However, Christina Lyon, program manager for the shelter, said case managers often direct homeless families to the Long Beach Multi-Service Center, where they are either given vouchers to stay in a motel or provided with temporary housing assistance.
She said LAHSA is trying to focus more on temporary housing and other support services to help families to transition off the streets. “We’ll get them to the right place they need to be,” added Probst. Families seeking assistance at winter-shelter locations are connected to 2-1-1, the county’s free information and referral line, as part of LAHSA’s family transitions project.
Dora Jacildo, executive director of Children Today, a non-profit that provides childcare and family services, said homeless families, including moms with children who often have been affected by domestic violence, go unnoticed by the public. However, more awareness needs to be focused on helping family members transition from the “trauma” of homelessness into society, she said.
“What makes you homeless does not mean that you just don’t have a house,” Jacildo said. “For our families, we have the greatest opportunity to impact their future. If the children can move into a stable environment, a child at such a young age has an ability to be resilient when they go to school and be with their peers and function like any other child.”
Despite the wide range of care offered through a multitude of services, including assistance for drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment, government funding to support the winter shelter program was cut back, according to homeless-services officials.
Peter Griffith, spokesperson for LAHSA, said via email that the Long Beach Rescue Mission’s program is operating for 91 days compared to the normal 105 days for the 2011-2012 period, primarily due to overall “reductions in funding available for the county-wide 2012-13 winter shelter program.” He said the mission’s funding level was $328,750 in 2011 compared to $293,020 this year, representing a reduction of $35,730. Lyon added that the Rescue Mission’s beds were cut from 200 down to 140 this year.
For more information on volunteering for the Long Beach homeless count and other services, visit longbeach.gov/ health/fss/homeless_services or call (562) 733-1147. For information on volunteering to the Salvation Army, call (562) 426-7637. For more information on the Long Beach Rescue Mission, visit lbrm.org or call (562) 591-1292.