September 14, 2021
Housing Not Shelters:
Criminalization, Shelters, and the Dangers Faced by Women in Skid Row
The dreadful state of homeless shelters in Los Angeles is nothing new. Shelters have long been spaces that perpetuate housing instability, poor health, and violence against unhoused individuals. This is especially true for women who find themselves in shelters. The city of LA and its public figures have promised to address the ongoing housing crisis time and time again, but have never measured up.
Mindful of the legacies of housing discrimination, segregation, and exclusion that are largely responsible for the disproportionate number of unhoused Black individuals, we call on the city of LA to prioritize housing policies that provide long-term, dignified housing solutions to members of the unhoused community. Because, as the number of unhoused individuals—and especially unhoused women—continues to grow, the shelter system will continue to be inadequate and harmful to those who find themselves in it.
Los Angeles is in the midst of the deadliest housing crisis it has ever faced. An immediate, humane end to this is possible, yet the city refuses to take the path that offers dignified housing to unhoused communities and has opted to offer shelter options instead. Why? The homeless industrial complex (consultants who get exorbitant fees, new “studies” that are commissioned for political cover, and marginally qualified people who don’t understand the causes and solutions of homelessness put in positions of authority) is big business. It’s a situation that feeds and sustains itself by occupying space and swallowing resources from longer-lasting and more dignified housing solutions that would truly solve the problems they supposedly exist to address.
Now, the city council and mayor of Los Angeles have passed an ordinance which will hyper-criminalize the unhoused. 41.18 makes it illegal to sit, lie, or sleep in most areas around the city of Los Angeles. We’ve been here before, during the Safer Cities Initiative. 41.18(d) was one of the most frequently used tools by the LAPD. It was the gateway to numerous illegal searches, seizures and arrests. In the first three years there were 27,000 arrests, 36,000 citations in a 25-30 square block area, home to 15,000, predominantly low-income and unhoused, people. The use of this “tool” disenfranchised an entire community and created a community filled with trauma, fear and anxiety. Residents still suffer from the impact of that criminalization.
This new and broader way to criminalize marginalized and unhoused people for being outside will lead to more folks being pushed into shelters and temporary housing, or to accept the alternative of being incarcerated. 13 of the 15 Los Angeles Councilmembers voted “yes” on 41.18, with Joe Buscaino and Mark Ridley-Thomas at the forefront of the effort to pass the ordinance. Even Councilmember Kevin De Leon of District 10, where Skid Row is located, voted yes on 41.18. This effort to pass the ordinance pushes resources and focus away from creating permanent supportive housing as a solution for houselessness, and into criminalizing those who remain outside, only maintaining the cycle of homelessness.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the efficacy and necessity of shelters in Skid Row for unhoused women in Skid Row. There are currently fifteen (15) active shelters in Skid Row. Of that number, one is specifically for women, while two have a floor dedicated for women.
There are approximately 41,000 unhoused people in the City of Los Angeles. LAHSA’s 2020 homeless count estimates around 2,500 unhoused women in Skid Row. Between 2019 and 2020 the number of women experiencing houselessness in the city increased by 25%. Black women make up 9% of the female population in Los Angeles, yet represent more than 30% of all unhoused women.
We often hear phrases such as “down-on-their-luck”, or “beggars shouldn’t be choosers” in reference to unhoused individuals. These assertions are loaded with judgement, and charge unhoused persons with creating the barriers to housing that they experience. It suggests they are in the position they are in because of bad choices or bad luck.
Encouragingly, many more people are expanding their understanding of national and state-wide policies and how these impact and change peoples lives. We now know that homelessness has very little to do with old myths such as substance abuse, the closure of mental health asylums, or people just choosing to be homeless because, “hey, the weather’s good in LA!”
We are much better informed, and now—because of the work of organizations such as LA CAN, along with (well-overdue) admissions from elected officials, the Mayor of Los Angeles and LAHSA—we know that homelessness is caused by housing availability, housing affordability and poverty.
We also know that race and gender play a role in who is mostly affected by these phenomena. Case in point: Skid Row. A disproportionate number of Black people are unhoused and living on the streets of Skid Row and the number of women who call Skid Row home is on a sharp incline.
Since people in Skid Row are not there simply because of bad life decisions, but harmful, racist, and discriminatory policies, the inclination to assume that people should accept sub-par housing options is unfounded, unjust, and categorically unfair.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
The pandemic has exacerbated existing gendered barriers to housing and services. Economic hardship emerged as one of the most negative effects of the pandemic within our community. Circumstances which before could have been described as indecent and inhumane, can now be described as life-threatening. In a time when the ability to maintain hygiene and cleanliness has become not only humane, but critical, service providers continue to fall consistently short of meeting the needs of their constituency. Shelters are theoretically meant to serve unhoused communities, and offer protection, and this has not been the case.
Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw insufficient response to the needs of unhoused women in Skid Row. So many remained on the streets, vulnerable not only to the violence and substandard conditions of living outside, but also to increased exposure to the coronavirus. Lacking access to fresh food and water, menstrual products, healthcare, support services, washroom facilities, and safe spaces, Skid Row residents were left desperately seeking ways to survive. According to LA County Public Health, 89 shelters or “homeless service settings” are experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19, which creates fear and anxiety for those living in close proximity. Many vulnerable people were left outside unable to shelter in place without running water, protection from the environment and vulnerable to COVID-19.
We watched throughout the year as the same women remained outside, searching for answers and viable housing options. We watched as city officials remained recalcitrant to provide solutions.
Instead of housing, shelters have continuously been pushed as the answer to the crisis that we are in. Then came a new administration and an opportunity for unhoused residents to shelter in hotels and motels at no cost to the City of LA. A glimmer of temporary hope buzzed through Skid Row. Safety, respite, sleep. If only for a few months. Dignified, private living space, to help keep unhoused residents safe. After the extremely limited number of spaces in the temporary Project Roomkey were exhausted, city officials offered only that the vulnerable unhoused instead occupy shelters.
SHELTERS: A PERFECT REMEDY?
Shelters are currently being offered with frenzied vigor, particularly for women. But, if you listen to women in Skid Row, most shudder at the thought of staying in a shelter and will give an extensive list of reasons as to why these are not suitable environments for women, especially those who have experienced trauma (which is the majority) or have compromised health (again, an overwhelming number).
“[The shelter staff’s] whole goal is to control through intimidation…They talk to you short, they don’t wanna be bothered, they’re overworked and they’re mad. I’ve seen one girl in a security outfit follow a lady outside and hit her… I’ve seen security drag a lady out of Downtown Women’s Shelter.” (quote from an Unhoused Woman living in Skid Row.)
Alternatively, shelters should be thought of as spaces of temporary refuge in times of emergency or disaster. Shelters come into play when natural and manmade disasters threaten the immediate existence and safety of one’s home. Hurricanes, extreme heat, and flooding are instances in which shelters are most critically supportive.
The City of LA approaches shelters as a housing solution for unhoused communities. Following Mayor Eric Garcetti’s declaration of a shelter crisis in 2018, LA City launched a number of initiatives to fund emergency shelters. Subsequently, the City included a $20 million Crisis and Bridge Housing Fund in the 2018-2019 annual budget that provided funding for the purposes of establishing an emergency shelter, or “bridge home,” in each city district. Under the city’s A Bridge Home (ABH) program, bridge homes provide unhoused individuals with shelter and supportive services that they can access 24/7.
Bridge housing intends to act as temporary housing that assists unhoused individuals to transition into permanent housing. The ABH program was intended to last for three years under the assumption that the City would build more supportive housing units. However, there has been no progress in transitioning unhoused individuals over from temporary into permanent housing.
El Puente was the first bridge home opened under the new city initiative and serves a total of 117 residents. LAist reported that in two years, only 37 of the 117 El Puente residents have successfully moved on to permanent housing. Of those left, a number have moved on to other shelter facilities, returned to their families, or voluntarily left the shelter. All of these indicate that the city’s bridge home program has not only fallen short of connecting unhoused residents with permanent housing opportunities, but has also failed to provide essential supportive services. In fact, the lack of supportive services at El Puente is made evident by the eight residents that have been arrested and incarcerated, and the 12 individuals hospitalized for greater care.
Since the inauguration of the ABH program, 23 bridge homes have been built in council districts across the city. Low transition rates into permanent housing have been seen across many ABH shelters. A consistent trend of funding temporary housing programs only to see unhoused people back on the street, suggests that emergency and temporary shelters are not working. Instead, they act as illusionary solutions to the ongoing housing crisis. Continuing to fund the construction of shelters perpetuates an unsupportive system that leaves people trapped in the homelessness cycle, offering no way out. Rather, funding should focus on building and maintaining forms of permanent supportive housing, places where unhoused individuals can seamlessly transition to, from bridge housing.
Our continued interaction with women in our community brings about the same conclusion – not one of their stays in shelter ever lead to housing. One woman had this to say of her experience with shelters: “It was pretty rough…During my stay, they were supposed to link you up with a case manager to help you get outta there, but my whole time being there they never linked me with anyone; they would just give me the runaround.”
Preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, the conditions of shelters in Los Angeles left much to be desired. With poor systems of regulation in place, and lacking standards of practice, Los Angeles shelters have been described by their residents as dirty and uncomfortable, to the point of being inhumane. In addition to these conditions, women in shelters are vulnerable to experiencing violence. From accounts of abuse suffered at the hands of fellow residents, to instances suffered at the hands of staff, many women have been unsafe inside of shelters.
“I don’t think that they [security guards] really did their job… They talked to the people at the shelter as if they were nothing. They felt that they can speak to us any way… They yelled at us and talked to us down, but wanted us to respect them… Because we were in a homeless shelter we had to just take it.”
Shelters are recognized for their impermanence and inability to truly solve the crisis of houselessness in Los Angeles. Despite this, we have seen a continued effort to push funding into shelters as if they were the only solution in sight. Women in Skid Row continue to name permanent supportive housing as their number one need, and city officials continue to ignore their needs.
LAHSA distributes over $400 million in funding annually. LAHSA’s guidelines embody three main philosophies:
- Housing First: recognize shelter as a critical component for the success of other interventions;
- Harm Reduction: collaborate with clients that may be using substances instead of punitively barring them from shelter or services; and
- Trauma Informed Care: use a compassionate lens to “rebuild a sense of control, personal empowerment and reduce re-traumatization” (LAHSA, 2019, p. 2)
LAHSA’s minimum program requirements for organizations seeking funding includes a list of program participants’ rights that shelters must demonstrate an adherence to.
While LAHSA funding standards and requirements aim to diminish the harmful practices experienced by those in homeless shelters, this allocation of funding only provides a temporary solution. LAHSA’s funding scheme perpetuates a common-place conflation of shelter as housing, yet according to trends (such as that of ABH) and according to testimony from Skid Row residents, shelters do not provide the stability, safety, and wellbeing of permanent housing.
Therefore, long term solutions to the inequities faced by women in shelters must focus on permanent and supportive housing interventions that work to match unhoused individuals with stable housing opportunities. Thus, LAHSA funding for temporary shelter only offers a momentary opportunity of relief for women and families. Funding directed to the homelessness crisis should instead target opportunities for placing unhoused individuals into permanent housing.
So why are shelters being given as a viable housing option? The answer to this lies in development plans across the city of Los Angeles. As DTLA, Echo Park and Venice draw in more monied residents and investment, those lacking money are seen as a stain on the streets, an eye sore that must be removed. Placing people in housing that matches their needs would take too long, so forcing them into immediate shelter gets them out of sight and severs the connection to where they once enjoyed community.
Once someone is removed, police have powers to enforce stay-away orders, making it a criminal offense to return “home”. Does segregation and exclusionary zoning come to mind?
This “solution” to homelessness, is not a solution for unhoused individuals; it doesn’t provide a home—it simply shifts and displaces communities. The only communities that welcome this solution and reap the benefits are business owners, developers and gentrifiers. Those without resources who would benefit greatly from the steep resources available to address homelessness are given an awful, harmful and extremely disruptive deal.
- Utilize federal funding, commandeer hotel and motel rooms to accommodate unhoused women in Skid Row.
- Include voices from the unhoused community and collaborate with those in tent encampments in designing any and all housing projects. Allow people to choose where they want to live and prioritize the services they want and need.
- Provide permanent dignified housing, or publicly-owned housing on city and county-owned land through a Public Trust.
- Do not place unhoused communities in areas prone to environmental pollution. Provide access to healthy spaces that will act as a counter to the harsh conditions many unhoused residents have been exposed to.
- Address the needs of individual people through more consistent and intentional outreach, rather than offering standardized solutions. Listen to what people say and what they mean
- Repeal 41.18. Any action that steers Los Angeles away from addressing and humanely fixing its housing crisis is a deadly step in the wrong direction. The only outcome these laws produce is a continuation of systemic abuse and targeting of Black and Brown, poor and marginalized communities. House keys to permanent housing is the only solution, not handcuffs.
Dignified housing means a place where residents can expect to be respected. It means a place where people do not have to worry about the violence that they may face during their stay. It also means a place where people can expect to stay for the long term. The rules and regulations, curfews and hours of shelters provide little comfort of stability or longevity. Many shelters require residents to report to their doors by 7 pm for check in, and that residents be up and out of the shelters by 7am.
Offering no place to stay throughout the day, knowing that folks do not have housing they must return to the streets for the daytime hours, shelters still push people out. For women who face risk of violence in shelters and in the streets, this constant movement only increases vulnerability. Women also found that shelters often lack appropriate space for storage of their items for the duration of their stay. Of 32 women that we interviewed in Skid Row, 18 carried their personal belongings around with them, 4 had to get rid of items due to lack of storage, and one reported that the shelter had thrown their items away.
Shelters are not housing. Shelters are emergency responses and not a real solution for the crisis of houselessness in Los Angeles. By continuing to push for shelters, failing to pursue other housing solutions, Los Angeles officials fail to address the needs of its unhoused residents. From redlining, racism, criminalization, and gentrification, Los Angeles has a history of pushing people into houselessness, and a history of leaving people outside. Women, in particular, face increased violence and insufficient access to personal and hygienic needs. As we continue to see a steady increase of women, particularly Black women, losing housing and living in the streets, special care and consideration must be given to this population. We do not need a continuation of shelter programs which fail to get people permanently off of the streets. We need real housing solutions.