When Linda A. got sick in July, she lost her job and was forced out onto the streets of Los Angeles, with her ailing husband and two young daughters in tow.
Since then, it has been a constant struggle to survive, much less find a school for her children, medical attention for her husband, Charles, and a job for herself.
"We had to sleep in parks and churches--all of us," said Linda, who asked that her last name be withheld. "We were out on the street, and there was nowhere to turn."
Though they have since found temporary respite at a Mid-Wilshire shelter, Linda and her family are part of what social service workers and government officials say is a disturbing homelessness trend among families. Officials say the number of such families is growing at a rate that far outpaces the growth of the overall homeless population in Los Angeles County.
The problem is especially critical in Hollywood, the Wilshire and Pico areas and other parts of the Westside, according to advocates for the homeless.
In those areas, even middle- and upper-middle-class families can't buy a home because of the high cost of real estate, and many find it hard to pay for an apartment's security deposit when their paychecks stop coming. And there is no room and long waiting lines at shelters that do accept families.
Linda, 34, discussed her family's plight last Wednesday from her room at the Gramercy Place Shelter, which provides individual units for 11 families and one unit for three single women. The same day, the Coalition for Homeless Families With Children was holding its inaugural meeting a few miles away in Hollywood.
The new group, which met at the Roosevelt Hotel, was organized by the Northwest Local Planning Council of the United Way Metropolitan Region. Its purpose: to address the many needs of homeless families in its district, which consists mainly of Hollywood, and the Wilshire and Pico areas in Los Angeles and West Hollywood.
"There is certainly a need and a demand to do more, to provide more, to offer more and care more and problem-solve more in meeting the needs of homeless people in our community," said Patricia Occhiuzzo Giggans, chairwoman of the local planning council and executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women.
United Way started forming the coalition a year ago to address such issues as access to health care, family and street violence, education and employment in the district, Giggans said. Because homelessness of families touches on so many of those issues, the planning council decided to focus on homeless families as a means "to bring our creative energies together," she said.
More than 100 people attended the meeting, many of them from area shelters, homeless advocacy groups, Los Angeles and West Hollywood city governments, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and area hospitals and religious organizations.
The coalition members pledged their cooperation in identifying the most basic needs for homeless families, such as increased shelter space, access to medical care and job training, and gaps and overlaps in existing services. They agreed to meet again in January.
A Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition already exists to serve people in West Los Angeles, Venice and Santa Monica, an area considered to be second only to downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row as a regional magnet for the homeless, according to John Suggs, coordinator of the beach communities' coalition. Suggs said another one is definitely needed on the eastern fringes of the Westside.
Many families teeter on the verge of homelessness in the areas east of the beach communities, and many parents already are forced to live with their children right on Hollywood Boulevard and parts of the Wilshire corridor, according to Gary Yates, chairman of the Coordinating Council of Homeless Youth Services in Los Angeles.
Yates, an administrator at Childrens Hospital in Hollywood, is a 20-year veteran of building coalitions among child welfare groups and homeless advocates. During his keynote address, he warned that coalition members need to remain committed through times of scarce funding and when the tension inherent in coalition maintenance gets overwhelming.
One clear gap in services for homeless families, Yates said, is in job retraining. He said many workers who have lost their jobs need help getting back into the job market and finding stable employment without losing their housing in the process.
Councilman Michael Woo told the coalition members that efforts are under way in Los Angeles to address the pressing need for more affordable housing, such as setting aside redevelopment money for low-income apartments. Woo also said he has proposed creating a "deposit guarantee" program through which poor families could borrow money to pay security deposits on an apartment.