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This winter, twice as many homeless families sought emergency shelter

March 30, 2009|Jia-Rui Chong
  • Alitha Chism, 28, reads a bedtime story to her children Friday at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown L.A. The family was evicted after Alitha?s husband Amos, in back, lost his job and their apartment went into foreclosure.
Alitha Chism, 28, reads a bedtime story to her children Friday at the Union… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

The number of homeless families in Los Angeles County seeking emergency shelter over the winter nearly doubled this year compared to last, according to figures from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

By the end of this year's winter shelter program, which wrapped up this month, 620 families had sought vouchers for motel or hotel stays. Last winter, there were 330 families.

The increase appears to be occurring at shelters all over the county, including a more than tenfold jump from 4 to 43 families at a Culver City shelter run by EIMAGO, an affiliate of the Union Rescue Mission.

"I think the economy has been really hard on families," said Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Homeless Services Authority. "There are many triggers for homelessness: an eviction, an increase in rent, the loss of a job, a health tragedy, domestic violence. A lot of people are living very close to the edge."

The joint city-county agency funds many shelters year-round, but has an additional budget of $4.3 million for winter shelters from Dec. 1 to March 15. The winter shelters, which are considered a last resort, provide on-site beds for individuals and vouchers for families.

The number of individuals seeking shelter this winter increased too, but only about 4% countywide. At the four winter shelters affiliated with the Union Rescue Mission, there was a 14% increase in individuals, compared with a 631% increase in families.

The Rev. Andy Bales, the mission's chief executive, speculated that foreclosures were probably throwing more families onto the street than individuals. And recently laid-off individuals were probably more likely to find a friend or family member to take them in, he added.

"When you bring the whole family into a house, the welcome wears out sooner," he said.

Neighbors of the Burbank winter shelter were not happy with the increased numbers, and the city is considering whether to host the shelter next year, said Mayor Dave Golonski. While neighbors had many concerns about the shelter -- including worries about sex offenders, which the shelter has tried to resolve -- they were also upset that more people than anticipated were walking through residential and commercial neighborhoods into the shelter at night, he said. Shelter residents had been expected to travel by shuttle bus.

About 100 people showed up at a March 19 public hearing about the shelter, Golonski said.

"We all know we're facing some extraordinarily tough economic times . . . and people expressed a desire to help the homeless," he said. "But the neighborhood contingent continued to express concerns about the impacts on their particular neighborhood."

Since the winter program ended, agencies have been scrambling to help individuals and families find other places to stay.

The mission has kept open 120 of its winter shelter beds downtown to accommodate individuals from other shelters that closed, Bales said. Several winter shelter families are also staying there in mobile tents.

The mission has placed 22 of the 117 winter shelter families in permanent or transitional housing. The rest may be seeking shelter with other providers or may be out on the street, mission officials said.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

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