Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest and former nun, has provided aid to Skid Row’s homeless population and to Downtown garment workers for over three decades. A staunch advocate for the poor, Callaghan began the Las Familias del Pueblo center, Skid Row Housing Trust, and Union Station Homeless Services. Here, she speaks with TPR about the status of Skid Row’s street population, shares her frustration at Los Angeles’s loss of housing, and calls on City Hall to back up its promises with funds.
"In 1986, we had about 6,767 affordable units on Skid Row for Skid Row people, and today we have 3,652. That is a catastrophic loss of affordable permanent housing.”
"City Hall in LA doesn’t seem to give much apparent thought to the human dimension of gentrification and dislocation of the poor.”
Reportedly, nearly 40,000 individuals live on the streets and in shelters in LA County today. Could you put these numbers in context for us? Is LA’s homelessness problem worsening or improving, in your opinion?
Alice Callaghan: Nobody really knows how many homeless people there are in the county, because we don’t have enough shelters to be able to actually count. Those are estimates, and I have no idea if they’re accurate. New York, for instance, has a better idea of its homeless numbers simply because it has so many shelter beds. In LA, how many people are in the parks and sleeping at the beach?
I can speak to the number of people on Skid Row. I think the most significant change is the permanency of the sidewalk population. In 1986, we had about 6,767 affordable units on Skid Row for Skid Row people, and today we have 3,652. That is a catastrophic loss of affordable permanent housing. It is not going to be replaced anytime soon, if ever. We’re looking at the growing sidewalk population being permanent for the foreseeable future
Could you characterize that population now residing Downtown and on Skid Row?
The population is more male than female. A lot of people live on general relief or social security disability checks. If anything, those continue to go down, not up. Welfare checks are $223 a month now. A few decades ago, they were three-hundred-and-something dollars.
In fact, the amount of money for welfare is so low that many people don’t even bother to claim it, because you have to do so much. There’s a form you have to fill out every month. You have to have an address to receive the form, you have to be able to mail the form in, and you have to be able to communicate with your social worker. None of those things are very possible for homeless people. The disability checks are a little easier, if they’re dealing with social security. Some of those people will do direct deposit so they don’t have to have an address.
It’s a pretty impoverished community. There’s a high amount of mental illness. How much caused the homelessness and how much was caused by the homelessness is open for speculation.
It’s a very difficult population to get off the sidewalk. For a 30, 40, or 50-year-old man who has no work history and very little school history, the reality is that they’re not going to be put in a suit, have somebody type up a resume, and go get a job. We all know people who are fairly well educated that can’t get jobs!
If people could afford to be housed on a general-relief check, then people would be off the sidewalks. It was very short-sighted of the city to lose that housing. The city could have done something—it could have protected the permanent affordable housing on Skid Row for traditional residents. That certainly came up in countless policy documents. But the city chose laissez faire economics instead. As a result, we now have a permanent sidewalk population that has nowhere to go.
Downtown’s demographics and skyline have changed dramatically in recent years, undergoing a significant spurt of growth. How has new development impacted Skid Row and what further changes do you expect?
We will continue to see laissez faire development. Where developers see opportunities, they will continue to develop at will. There’s no pledge coming out of City Hall to use every tool at its disposal to preserve even the little bit of remaining affordable housing units that we have. In fact, City Hall in LA doesn’t seem to give much apparent thought to the human dimension of gentrification and dislocation of the poor.
The city sends out its expensive police force every day to hound the homeless, to try to get them out of public view. They’ve recently announced they don’t intend to jail them. A few years ago, housing them in jail cost $128.94 a day, or $47,000 a year.
They’re talking about not putting them in jail, but where do you put them? There’s certainly no housing being built for them in Pasadena, South Pasadena, Santa Monica, Echo Park, or any other area. The police will continue to be sent out—that is our homeless policy in LA—and keep moving people around from this street to that street. There will be a street that doesn’t have homeless on it for months, then suddenly is full of homeless people. Police are simply re-arranging the population. The services are here and have no reason to leave. I see the homeless staying right where they are.
Given the recent demise of redevelopment in California, put in context the support Skid Row services received from CRA-Los Angeles. Could you describe how that support was targeted and what impact it had on the constituencies you have served for so long?
My hero at the city is Ed Helfeld, former administrator of LA’s CRA. Without Ed Helfeld, we never would have had the plans developed in the 70s to preserve housing on Skid Row, fix it up, make it affordable, and retain it. He is the genius who understood that unless you dealt well with the Skid Row area, the rest of Downtown development would be significantly hindered.
Ed Helfeld and his staff set up and hired the director of SRO Inc., which purchased housing and preserved it for its present tenants. He prioritized fixing up the neighborhood and improving the social-service network that would enable people to survive in the housing. He came up with the idea of creating buffer zones around the Skid Row area that would allow activity that wasn’t threatening to either side.
Then we moved into the 80s. I think that term limits were one of many things that contributed to the problem. Suddenly nobody was interested in planning, and certainly not in preserving the very thoughtful plan that had been developed by the redevelopment agency—although it was cited and renewed for countless years. There were no advocates at City Hall or anywhere else. It was a significant loss.
The only good news was that while Ed Helfeld was still at the redevelopment agency, such a significant effort was made to save hotels, a lot of which went into the hands of non-profits—whether SRO Inc. or the Skid Row Housing Trust. Had that large amount of housing not been saved during that time, LA Skid Row would have been gone long ago, as is the case in New York, Chicago, and other cities.
Clearly a residential housing boom is underway in Downtown Los Angeles, yet you’re talking about an absence of housing. Can you connect the dots for us?
There’s an absence of affordable housing for people whose total income is a $223 general-relief check. Nobody in the private or public sectors really builds housing for people with that income. That’s why preserving the SROs on the Row was so critical. That’s what the redevelopment agency understood in the 70s and early 80s.
The city of Los Angeles’ Operation Healthy Streets is currently in execution. Is it helping your constituency in a meaningful way?
The police come by a lot to talk about their grand plans and their largess. They want me to know how wonderful it is that they’re not going to arrest people anymore for being homeless. But of course they’re going to continue to cite them. Homeless and certainly mentally ill people don’t deal with their citations. That allows the city then to either arrest them for outstanding warrants or to use the threat of arresting them for outstanding warrants to force them away from gentrified public sidewalks, which is not what the police are admitting to. The police say they’re not arresting them specifically for being homeless, but you can bet they’re still arresting them.
The city wanted us to participate in a series of meetings to talk about what to do with all these people now. I pointed out the obvious, which was that it was absolutely ludicrous to talk about getting people off the sidewalk when you were offering no alternative. I think that it is terrible for people to sleep on the sidewalk. I think it is terrible for the people sleeping on the sidewalk to be sleeping on the sidewalk. But until and unless you can offer them a reasonable alternative, you cannot move people off.
We don’t need to have the large tents that are up right now. When we went into the courts to stop the city from arresting homeless people for sleeping on the sidewalks, it was never a part of the lawsuit that people could have sofas and all kinds of furniture out there. It’s the police that, on certain streets, have allowed tents and other structures to stay up all day—to create a Skid Row version of Calcutta. Then they invite the press to go on tours of the slum that they create and lament that no other part of the city would tolerate such a hellhole. They say to the judge, “Look what you created. You allowed all this.” And of course, the judge didn’t. They should simply tell the homeless to take down the tents and pack their stuff up during the day.
LA Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes downtown and Skid Row, is touting the creation of a “homeless czar.” Could you comment?
A homeless czar to do what? You want to say, “It’s about the housing, stupid!” People are homeless because they don’t have affordable housing. If you don’t have housing, then it’s absurd to be gathering people together to talk about the homeless problem. It’s a little late. The city willingly allowed the housing to be destroyed, and now it wants to hold meetings? Maybe they’re going to ship the homeless somewhere—put them on a boat!
At this point, we have to make life more livable for those on the sidewalks. We need better bathrooms. Instead of arresting people for feeding those on Skid Row, we need to make that easier.
Mayor Garcetti has spoken about an LA homeless service upgrade. Are you hopeful about what may emanate from City Hall?
No. In fact, to worsen matters, many of the remaining 3,652 units will no longer be available to Skid Rowers but will go to the homeless of Hollywood and other places. Under the new LA County/United Way partnership’s Project 50’s Coordinated System, units on Skid Row managed by nonprofits must rent from a waiting list comprised of homeless throughout the county. The waiting list can be over 1,000 homeless people and the intake process can take 45 days. Only those deemed the most severely mentally ill or infirmed get housed.
Was Mayor Garcetti too optimistic when he committed in a recent press conference that homelessness was going to end in LA?
He didn’t offer any programs! The mayor of New York announced a 10-year, $41-billion affordable housing plan that included creating partnerships with private developers, reforming zoning and using every tool at his disposal to actually make a reality of what he was pledging. There was nothing coming out of LA’s City Hall, other than, “Trust me, I’m going to take care of it.”
Obviously the mayor’s not, because I don’t hear any $41-billion affordable plan. I don’t hear any pledge to reform zoning, along with building and housing codes, to protect the housing units and tenants in rent-regulated buildings. I don’t hear any incentive programs to encourage landlords to restrict rents. All I hear is breezy poetry. That’s ridiculous.
Alice, you are an episcopal priest and a former nun. What originally brought you to Skid Row, and what about the living conditions you found inspired you to take action for decades?
Before I came to Downtown LA, I started the meals in the park that still go on in Pasadena, as a way of trying to understand what was needed by the street population. A lot of street people showed up—a lot of lonely people from the few hotels that were in Downtown Pasadena.
Then we decided to open up a storefront. We called it Union Station because it was on Union Street. Somebody gave me the $100-a-month rent that was being charged at the time. Now it is a large shelter. But when I started Union Station and ran it for a decade, it was more my style: a street-level, one-room walk-in to serve the homeless.
While I was in Pasadena running Union Station, I was also friends with the Catholic workers and spent a fair amount of time Downtown on LA Skid Row. When I was ready to move on, the immigrant families had just started to move into the Skid Row area. My good friend Jeff Dietrich at the Catholic workers suggested that I work with the families Downtown.
You’ve now run Las Familias del Pueblo for over 30 years. Could you describe the evolution of Las Familias, its mission, and the impact it has had on the population served?
We first started on Skid Row as a center for the families just moving there at the time. Really impoverished immigrant families crossing the border would arrive Downtown, where some of the buses and cars bringing people over the boarder would stop. If you had no family and no money, you would say, “Where’s the cheap lodging?” They would be directed to the hotels in the Skid Row area. In the early 80s, owners liked to rent to immigrant families because they could get more money from them than they could get from the guys living on a general-relief check.
Hundreds and hundreds of families began moving into the Skid Row hotels. That’s who we first came to serve. A year after we opened the center, we decided that, although there was worse housing in other parts of the city, the problems on Skid Row were such that it was simply an unacceptable place for women and children to live. We began a program of relocating families, hotel by hotel, out of Skid Row. Initially, we did it in a way analogous to what churches were doing at the time by “adopting” recently arrived Vietnamese boat people and helping get them housed.
Very quickly, the redevelopment agency stepped in and said it had an interest in getting the families out of the area. The CRA picked up a fair amount of the relocation cost of every family. We spent four years moving over 1,500 women, children, and men out of 21 or 22 hotels on Skid Row, and making sure those hotels did not re-rent to families. We met with the owners and said, “If you re-rent to families, we are obviously going to be very concerned about the condition of your hotel. We’ll call in the fire department, along with building and housing people, and they will make you comply with all the codes. Our families will take you to court for the conditions in your hotel.” At that point, it no longer became economically advantageous to rent to immigrant families.
Having moved families out of the area, we didn’t want to leave our center in the middle of Skid Row so that they would have to come back. We relocated to 7thStreet, across from the flower market. It’s technically still on Skid Row, but in a very different neighborhood. We then realigned our programs to serve garment workers. Now our families didn’t so much live Downtown, but they worked Downtown.
Over the years, we incrementally improved our programs in response to the needs of the families. That is how we came to run our first grade/kindergarten charter school. Our local 9thSreet school was terrible. We spent years trying to improve it, and finally when the charter option came along, we said, “Why don’t we just start a school for our kids?”
When our children graduate from first grade, we enroll them in a really good magnet school—Brentwood Science Magnet. We fill out the applications and go through the process to get families there. Because it’s a magnet school, they have to pick families up regardless of where they live—throughout Westlake, Pico-Union, and South-Central. They’re taken to Brentwood Science Magnet, and Brentwood Science Magnet brings them back here for our afterschool program. If you get kids in a good school but don’t give them the support of an afterschool program, then they’re likely to fail.
When they’re in fifth grade, we meet with all the parents and help them get applications in to really good junior high schools with high schools attached, usually the Alliance charter schools.
Even though we only offer kinder/first, we watch our children until they get into college. We’re still a one-room center, after 32 years, with one full-time staff person. Our after-school staff is comprised of people who came here as children and who are now in high school or college.