When Pamela Walls hit rock bottom, she turned to her friends and family for support and resources for her son and her. But they were not able to help, and she became a victim of homelessness in Los Angeles.
In 2004, Walls found herself with no roof over her head and no place to turn. She was sleeping on park benches, under freeway bridges, in alleys, behind trash dumpsters and on the streets of Los Angeles. Time was just passing her by.
“Society sees homeless people as things, not people,” Walls said.
She remembers people walking past her on Skid Row, without taking a moment to notice her. “People ignore us,” she said.
While Walls eventually made it off the street, thousands continue to wander throughout Los Angeles County. Almost 47,000 individuals and families are homeless in Los Angeles County, according to the 2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, which was conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and released on May 4. That count shows a 6 percent rise in the county’s homeless population from 2015.
The total in 2015 – 44,359 – showed a 12 percent surge from just two years prior. The 2015 results played a major role in pushing Los Angeles County to create a plan to address the intensifying crisis. The county’s homeless initiative will be broken into three phases, the first of which is slated to start on June 30.
The county started its homeless initiative in August 2015, when it brought together different departments across all sectors in an effort to develop a set of strategies. Those recommendations were presented to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors on February 9, and the board unanimously voted to approve the 47 recommended strategies, setting the county on a multi-year, hundred-million-dollar fight against homelessness.
“The crisis has worsened in recent years, finally prompting greater action by city and county officials,” said Jerry Jones, attorney and director of public policy at Inner City Law, an agency that provides legal services on Skid Row while combating slum housing and strategies to end homelessness. “The homeless initiative is a comprehensive response that incorporates many proven strategies to help people get back on their feet. With adequate resources, this plan can begin to reverse the worsening crisis.”
The goal of phase one is to ensure that 3,500 people will no longer be homeless and 2,000 more will be prevented from becoming homeless, according to the county plan.
Phase one of the homeless initiative will focus on homelessness prevention programs for families, subsidized housing to homeless disabled individuals pursuing Social Security Insurance, training for first responders in the decriminalization of homelessness and enhancing the emergency shelter system, among other strategies.
“The homeless initiative provided an opportunity to listen,” said Leticia Colchado, an administrator in the Chief Executive Office of Los Angeles County who helped lead the formation of the plan. “We listened to the experts in the field and we listened to the those who had previously experienced homelessness, and together, we were able to develop the most comprehensive set of strategies to combat homelessness.”
But the current amount of subsidized housing does not fill the need, according to LAHSA. Because of this situation, individuals like Walls struggle to find and maintain affordable housing in Los Angeles County.
The homeless initiative has been implemented to get homeless individuals and families off the streets, out of temporary shelters and into permanent housing with services to help better their lives. The key to making the homeless initiative successful is to find more available funding to implement all 47 recommended strategies, a task the county is working on.
What happened to Walls is becoming more and more common. More than 31,000 homeless individual and families are living in unsheltered environments, such as on the streets, under bridges, in tents or encampments, every night in Los Angeles, according to LAHSA.
“As a service provider, we know permanent supportive housing is the best model for ending chronic homelessness. It pairs housing with services critical to keeping a woman housed, such as healthcare and case management,” said Ann-Sophie Morrissette, director of communications and policy at the Downtown Women’s Center.
The Downtown Women’s Center sets an example of how to use this model.
“Since the Downtown Women’s Center began providing permanent supportive housing in 1986, we’ve been successful in ending the cycle of homelessness for hundreds of women,” Morrissette said. “Ninety-five percent of the women housed here stay housed permanently.”
Walls experienced homelessness for five years, during which she was separated from her son and bounced from city to city before ending up on Skid Row. She struggled with pain, loneliness and hopelessness.
Walls assumed she would receive assistance from service providers to help her through this difficult time and to overcome being homeless. Instead she received intimidation.
“Homeless people are like flowers that need to be watered with respect and encouragement, not intimidation,” she said.
Walls wanted to change this experience. She wanted to let people know that homelessness is important.
“I choose to fight against the mistreatment of homeless people,” Walls said. “If a homeless individual is not fighting for support, services, or housing, this individual will fall to the wayside or worse be left behind.”
Today, Pamela Walls is living in her own apartment in Los Angeles, and she says she is loving life. She has been reunited with her son, who is attending college in Arizona. She has been auditioning for roles in upcoming television commercials, series and movies, along with singing in her church choir.
She plans to also keep using that voice as an activist for the homeless people in Los Angeles.
Courtney Schlott wrote this story as part of the Journalism for Social Change online course.