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Charitable Groups, Social Agencies Battle Homelessness in Los Angeles 


Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the United States, with tens of thousands of people living on the streets or in temporary shelters. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, charitable groups and social agencies are doing what they can to deal with a stubborn problem.

Local officials say more than 80,000 people in Los Angeles County have no regular housing. Here in the run-down section of the city called Skid Row, survival on the streets is a daily challenge.

Deena has lived the streets for three years.

"It's cold. It's cold. It's not nothing to brag about," she said. "It's just the position I got myself in."

Last night, she slept on the sidewalk, but some evenings, Deena sleeps at a local shelter. The Los Angeles Mission is one of several religious charities that offers a meal, a bed, and counseling for the homeless.

Herb Smith, the mission's president, said, "L.A. does have by count the largest homeless population in the country. This particular geographic area of Skid Row has always been the area where homeless tend to concentrate."

Many on the streets have long-term problems, including addictions to drugs and alcohol, or mental illness.

Jorge Espinoza is a Los Angeles Mission chaplain. He knows what it is like on the streets - he was an addict and once homeless himself.

"I was in and out of prison," he said. "The last time I was facing 15 years to life that they wanted to give me with the habitual criminal label. They hit you with that one and they'll lock you up and they throw the key away. So I prayed, and I said, I need help."

His prayers were answered. Instead of prison, was allowed to enter a rehabilitation program. Missions and secular charities such as the Weingart Center offer food, shelter and more comprehensive help for those who are ready.

"Our primary mission is to provide transitional housing for the homeless, so we have a 611-bed facility throughout 13 different programs," said Greg Scott, president of the Weingart Center Association.

The programs range from mental health counseling to adult education.

Sharon Spira-Cushnir works for Chrysalis, a non-profit group that helps the homeless find jobs.

"They learn how to do a resume, how to do an interview, where to find job postings," she said. "If they need it, they can get interview clothes, they can get emergency food. They get bus tokens so they can go to their interviews, and they get themselves jobs."

Deborah Clifford was homeless and is now working as a street sweeper.

"You know, it's hard, but when you're determined to do something, you've just got to stay focused, and that's what I'm trying to do," she said.

Stanley Joseph was also living on the streets, dependent on alcohol. Now sober, he works as a janitor.

"It's not a lot of money, but I manage well. I have a room that I stay in. I eat well. It's great. I feel good," he said.

The homeless are often victimized by others on the streets. They keep close watch on their meager possessions, stored in grocery carts, plastic bags or baby strollers. An increased police presence has cut crime in the neighborhood, but some critics accuse police of using heavy-handed methods.

Captain Andy Smith says his officers walk a fine line between enforcing the law and acting as social workers.

"These poor souls down here, especially women that are living in tents out here, are in a terrible situation for anybody to be in," he said. "So we do everything we can to get them into housing."

"We do everything we can to get them into drug treatment, and try to help these poor souls down here get off the streets, get off the streets, out of these boxes, out of these tents, into some real housing," he added.

Paul Tepper of the Weingart Development Corporation says the root problems are poverty, the soaring cost of housing in Los Angeles, and the lack of a social safety net for the very poor. He says the missions and other charities are helping.

"It's as if you cut your hand at home. The first thing you do is clean the cut and put and Band-Aid on. That's the role of emergency shelters, to help people one by one to deal with the crises of their lives," he said.

He says new government programs at the state and local level are also helping, but Los Angeles needs more affordable housing and better coordination in its social services. He says every level of government needs to be involved in solving the problem of homelessness.

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