Last Tuesday the L.A. Times reported that the Skirball fire, which recently roared through the wealthy Bel Air area of Los Angeles, may have been started by people cooking food at a homeless encampment in a nearby canyon.
The news adds another layer to the story of California’s fires, which Governor Jerry Brown claimed last week represented “the new normal” in our climate-altering world. “This could be something that happens every year or every few years,” he said. California is “this wonderful place—but a place that’s getting hotter.”
Some in the area described those in the canyon as “survivalists” or “illegal campers,” people who simply refuse to live in homes. It is a description that fundamentally ignores the realities of homelessness in Los Angeles today: As reported in America earlier this year, the number of people on the streets here increased 23 percent between January 2016 and January 2017. Roughly 58,000 people were on the streets, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country’s homeless population.
This year the country as a whole saw an uptick in its homeless population for the first time since 2010.
Similar increases are occurring throughout the state, and this year the country as a whole saw an uptick in its homeless population for the first time since 2010. Larry Hurst, director of social services for St. Vincent de Paul in Los Angeles, finds many factors at work. “The supply is just not keeping up with the demand,” he says. Also, wages are not keeping up with prices, as landlords respond to the high demand by raising rents, sometimes by incredible amounts.
Paradoxically, this growth in homelessness is happening at the same time that, at a national level, Hurst finds more work is being done to coordinate services so as to most effectively help people living on the streets. In the last year Los Angeles County has passed two propositions to finance thousands of new low-cost housing units and to provide services for the chronically homeless, which the LA Times called the “key to finally ending homelessness in Los Angeles.” As that money starts to flow, Hurst is hopeful that the situation of people in the area will improve. “There’s some funding that’s been rolled out [already], but it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
“If I can recognize where I feel a little homeless for whatever reason inside myself, then it kind of helps me be able to talk to that person.”
Los Angeles seminarian Deacon Spencer Lewerenz, whose Beloved Movement partners with other organizations trying to connect homeless and non-homeless Angelenos, finds the main issue today is not funding but a lack of meaningful relationships. “There are more and more resources,” he says. “And it isn’t helping.”
“My experience is there’s a lot of bitterness and despair among the homeless population because they feel like nobody cares,” Lewerenz says. That includes the agencies offering services: Some living on the streets tell Lewerenz they have stopped seeking help because of the way they’re treated. “If the resources are there but you’re being treated like less than a person and you’re being interrogated and you’re being treated like you’re a criminal, which is what happens, then you’re not going to be able to receive those services,” he explains.
Pope Francis’ 2015 document “Laudato Si’” is widely thought of as his environmental encyclical. Yet one of the most striking parts of the document is its insistence that climate issues and social issues are indivisible. “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social,” the pope writes, “but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (No. 139).
An “integral ecology,” he argues, begins at the level of relationship: “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (No. 230).
For Lewerenz and Beloved Movement, this comes down to people being present to one another in the humble truths of who we are. “The term we keep using is ‘our common homelessness,’” he says. “If I can recognize where I feel a little homeless for whatever reason inside myself, then it kind of helps me be able to talk to that person.
“And that’s where I think the real transformation is going to happen.”