When homeless shelters close for the season, it may be to a sidewalk near you
Story by Gary Walker
Photos by Maria Martin
Five o’clock, for some people, is happy hour — time to relax after a day at the office and contemplate an evening full of possibility.
For others, 5 p.m. ends another day of nomadic wandering with a meal, a shower and a bed, at least for the night.
That scene plays out seven nights a week at the Westside Winter Shelter, housed in the West L.A. National Guard Armory a few blocks south of high-end shops and restaurants on San Vicente Boulevard.
“It’s my saving grace,” says 60-year-old Kevin Powell, a former U.S. Marine who has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for years. “It’s been a blessing in disguise. Being here has given me time to reflect on my life, and I’ve decided that I don’t want to be homeless for the rest of my life.”
But this and 13 other regional homeless shelters operated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will close for the season on March 31, putting people like Powell back on the street until December. The shelter was originally scheduled to close March 1, but rain
and unseasonably cold weather prompted a month’s reprieve.
On Feb. 28, the skies turned dark early and the winds blew cold, prompting a longer-than-usual line of men and women who consider themselves lucky to sleep next to strangers on one of the cots placed just a few feet apart from each other across a large auditorium.
Shelter occupants are typically required to vacate the armory by 7 a.m., unless there’s rain. The Westside Winter Shelter is designed to accommodate 160 beds. This season the average occupancy has been 87%, but much higher when it’s cold or wet.
“When it rains, we run the shelter 24 hours. We don’t ask anyone to leave so they can stay out of the rain,” says West Los Angeles Winter Shelter House Manager Eric Carr. “We’ve had almost 200 people here the last few nights.”
Inside, people are always on the move, roaming back and forth between rows of cots, greeting old acquaintances. Diners gather in clusters at small tables while others eat alone.
Sitting quietly by himself on a green military cot after dinner, 53-year-old Horace Brooks arranges his belongings in a backpack before settling in for the night. He’s been homeless since his release from jail after stealing a bicycle in 2015.
“I try to move around and use the resources that become available to me, but it’s not always easy,” Brooks says.
Shelter users weren’t yet aware the armory would remain open another month, leaving Brooks unsure about where he’d sleep the next day.
“Nothing is certain when you’re homeless. If it rains, I won’t have a dry place to stay,” says Brooks, who has arthritic knees.
Powell, who is originally from Oklahoma, has unsuccessfully sought housing through the Veterans Administration. He hopes to get into bridge housing, but first must undergo a 90-day rehabilitation program. This time, Powell says, he is determined to stay clean. But when the shelter closes, he’ll be sleeping outside again.
Darlene Longheart, 62, a former cafeteria employee at Santa Monica College, is staying at the shelter while her husband, an Army veteran, recuperated from surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood.
Through a series of “misfortunes” she declined to discuss, Longheart lost her job many years ago and wound up on the streets. Like so many others, finding housing is her primary concern.
The shelter is a familiar place for her.
“There are people in here who I saw 12 years ago,” Longheart says.
This is the first night at the shelter for Johnny Gray, 44, and Andy Serrano Lopez, 20. They met at the Venice Beach Hostel and were referred to the armory. Both say they are musicians, describe themselves as friends and appear to be in good spirits, smiling and joking with others despite their circumstances.
“I’ve been out here two months, and so far things aren’t going how I thought they would. The money that I brought out here has run out. But I’m hoping that things will turn around soon,” says Gray, who is from Texas.
Serrano Lopez says an acquaintance stole his money and returned to Mexico, leaving him stranded in Venice.
“I’m not sure what to do next,” he says.
Longheart, however, is confident the she and her husband will eventually find housing.
“I have to believe that. If I don’t …” she trails off, shrugging her shoulders.
Carr says he’s “seen it all” in the five years he’s run the winter shelter, and knows what it means to people like Brooks, Longheart and Powell.
“Without this shelter, there would be a lot of cold, wet people this weekend,” he says.
A bevy of social service providers visits the shelter once a week to offer guidance on everything from employment to mental health services. Tonight, because they ex-
pected the shelter to close, county workers roam with clipboards to inquire about emergencies and answer questions about housing and social services programs.
Volunteers ask shelter occupants if they need backpacks or sleeping bags, provided by the nonprofit Hope Mill. Others stand behind long, white tables covered with clothing and toiletries. Some hand out ponchos, clean socks and shoes.
The Venice salon Paper Scissors Rock sent two stylists to the armory to give free haircuts. Stylist Andrea Regina asks Richard Riedel what kind of haircut he wants as she ties a blue smock around his neck and torso.
“Oh, just a trim, I think,” Riesel replies with a smile, as salon owner Deb Kennedy and stylist Nicole Amaral work on other clients.
At a time when voters have approved building 10,000 units of housing through city initiative Proposition HHH and $355 million annually for 10 years in increased homeless services through county Measure H, those without shelter still remain on the outside looking in — both literally and figuratively.
On March 2, LAHSA allocated $2.5 million to expand bridge housing countywide for women, the demographic that has increased the most in homeless counts in recent years. According to LAHSA, there has been a 70% uptick in the number of women becoming homeless between 2009 and 2016.
Beginning April 1, four bridge housing providers will add 188 beds at different locations.
LASHA Commission Chairman Noah Farkas and Vice Chair Wendy Greuel did not return calls for comment on the agency’s funding plans for future housing, temporary or permanent.
In the pages of The Argonaut last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin called upon city leaders to join him in creating more transitional housing and eventually less reliance on shelters, which he said can at times “feel like prisons and become permanent warehouses for people.”
In the meantime, stopgap measures like the winter shelter are what exist for the longtime homeless like Brooks.
“There are so many places where you’re not welcome. I have to constantly move around because people don’t want you near their home or their business or around their kids,” he laments.
“But where are we supposed to go?”