“Live from skid row, it’s Tuesday night!” Pastor Dan shouted, beginning two hours of Christian music and prayer for worshipers arrayed on metal chairs in the spacious, white-walled chapel at the Union Rescue Mission.
Once the playful service ended, worshipers folded and stacked their chairs and began to unfurl cots. There weren’t enough for everyone.
“Blankets and sheets on the floor,” the resident concierge at the chapel doors told latecomers who had waited outside for admission. “Blankets and sheets on the floor.”
By lights out, 1,300 people were bedded in the five-story building in the heart of skid row, women overflowing into the chapel and men on mattresses on the floor of the day room.
The crush of bodies at the Union Rescue Mission is a snapshot of the deficiencies in L.A.’s shelter network.
The county has one of the nation’s largest homeless populations, but its ratio of shelter beds to homeless people is among the nation’s lowest. There is no overarching shelter policy and no budgeting process to fund more shelters when homelessness increases. With rare exceptions, public agencies in Los Angeles do not build and operate shelters.
Instead, contractors operate facilities that range from a few cots in a church storage room to hundreds of bunks lined end to end in converted industrial buildings. They compete for a pot of local and federal money that has been shrinking in recent years.
“We do not have a standard for temporary subsistence housing,” said City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, chairman of the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee. “I don’t think we have ever admitted that shelters are a permanent part of our society even though they’ve been here for as long as history has recorded.”
Even as L.A.’s homeless population has surged in recent years, spurring voters to approve two tax measures, officials have de-emphasized shelters in favor of building new permanent housing and providing rental subsidies for market-rate housing.
Many L.A. officials say shelters do little to alleviate homelessness, arguing that they cost about the same as permanent housing and provide only brief respites from the streets.
So they have worked to reshape the shelter as a staging area where people stay briefly on the way to permanent housing. New funds have been directed toward bulking up housing and case management services at existing shelters rather than adding new beds.
As a result, there is now only one shelter bed available for every four homeless people — one of the nation’s lowest shelter bed rates, according to a Times analysis of federal housing data.
By comparison, there are about three shelter beds for every four homeless people in the nation’s 402 homeless services areas, the data showed.