Homelessness in Los Angeles

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development gave the greater Los Angeles area $73 million in grants, but it won’t be enough to solve the crisis.  Homeless service organizations are reporting an increase in homeless families, and are struggling to make do with limited resources.  Parts of this story were featured on Annenberg Radio News; click below to listen.

Additional information:

Programs in South L.A. receiving funding


Programs in South L.A. receiving funding

from the new HUD grants:


39 West Apartments

Funding: $175,000.00

Run by: A Community of Friends


Figueroa Apartments

Funding: $210,433.00

Run by: A Community of Friends


Pearl Center, The

Funding: $246,780.00

Run by: His Sheltering Arms


Ready, Willing and Able Program (a)

2008-09 Funding: $93,310.00

Run by: Project New Hope


Saraii Village

2008-09 Funding: $90,395.00

Run by: The Shields for Families


South Central Drop-In Center

2008-09 Funding: $387,743.00

Run by: Special Services for Groups



TCLC Training Center & Child Care Programs

2008-09 Funding: $157,436.00

Run by: Testimonial Community Love Center


Women and Children First

2008-09 Funding: $136,216.00

Run by: California Council for Veterans Affairs


Art in Leimert Park hit by recession

"The recession has taken a toll on everybody in this area. People don’t come here the way they used to. At times I make just $10 the whole week. I might soon have to close this shop down if I can’t make the rent," said owner Kwame Sarpong.

Leimert Park Village, once known as the best place to pick up authentic African objets d’ art, is reeling under recession. A few years back, rising rents forced many local artists to move their studios elsewhere, and now the bad economy promises to change a little more of the character of this art hub. With fewer buyers willing to invest in artworks, memorabilia stores are resorting to discounts and other creative means to lure customers. Similarly, artists in the area are looking to diversify their trade to keep the orders from drying up. 

When Sarpong set up shop here six years ago, people would come in droves to buy clothes, jewelry and home décor items. "Now, they come, they see, they like it but they don’t have the money to buy," he said. Many of his customers have lost their jobs and art is the last thing they want to buy, said Sarpong, who started the sale as a desperate effort to reduce his inventory. "I want to get rid of these things. I was doing this because I loved it. But now there is no hope in this. I don’t think I will get into retail again. People just don’t have the money to spend," he said.

That probably explains why shoppers are scarce, even on a Saturday afternoon. A few steps away from Kumasi, a group of elderly men enjoy a leisurely smoke under a tree. Among them is Bilal, manager at the store, Sika, which sells African sculptures, handcrafted jewelry and clothes. "Sales have fallen by 75 percent over the past year," he said, adding, "If we get 10 buyers a day, we’re almost doing well."

In an effort to stay afloat, Sika introduced a small corner for hair braiding about a year back. It also added Obama memorabilia to its wares, exactly like the neighboring store, Gallery Plus. Laura Hendrix, co-owner of Gallery Plus, said Obama memorabilia did well during election, but that could not help boost sales at the store, which fell by 40 percent in the last two years. These days Hendrix brings in just one or two high-priced items if at all, and offers more discounts. "I sometimes get stuck with the more expensive items and have to reduce prices to sell them," she said. Besides actively emailing her customers about the best deals in her store, she plans to generate interest by having speakers come in and talk about collecting art. "We used to have these talks earlier and then we stopped. But now I would like to start again, to get more people inside the door," she said.

Like art stores in Leimert, artists in the area are innovating to keep the bills from piling up. Aziz Diagne, an artist from West Africa, who once owned a studio in Leimert Park Village and still has many of his paintings displayed at restaurants in the area, said his income has dropped by more than 70 percent. A professional painter for the past 20 years, Diagne occasionally dabbles with carpentry. In the past, he also made a business out of buying used items like computers, shoes, clothes and furniture from garage sales, and selling them for a profit in Africa. "That’s the business I may have to depend on now. I did it for pleasure back then, but now the need is desperate," he said.

Diagne also planned to start a career as an art teacher in Leimert Park, but the steep rents in the area were a deterrent. "Before you make a commitment of paying $2,400 as rent, you need 40 students, but even that is difficult these days," he said. The economy has taken a toll on his art shows too and he finds it difficult to gather money for advance payments for exhibitions. "If artwork was selling, I could make more money than a drug dealer. But now people have other priorities," he said.

Like Diagne, Crenshaw-based painter Kenneth Gatewood has cut down on travelling to art shows outside California. "It’s too big a risk to incur travelling and shipping expenses and not make any money. I don’t do shows at new places these days. Only if I’ve had success at a place before, do I consider going there again," he said. Though he specializes in watercolors, Gatewood has diversified into ceramic painting to generate more sales.

The recession has hit not just artists like Diagne and Gatewood, but musicians as well. Leimert-Park based jazz musician Cornell Fauler, who used to play at restaurants in Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, is now facing a foreclosure on his home. Even the freelance work that occasionally came his way has dried up. Some of his musician friends have taken to teaching music in schools and others are doing business in real estate. But Fauler does not want to give up yet. "I am thinking of starting a band. That will increase my chances of finding work," he said.

Passionate artists like him are keeping the faith even in these tough times. Bilal sums up the mood well. "This (Leimert Park) is the center of black art–painting, music, design, philosophy–it’s a very vibrant neighborhood for the arts, and if it dies, we’ll lose something very valuable. We’d hate to see this go away," he said.

Economic Recession has Quinceañera boutiques in unfamiliar predicament

But the economic downturn is forcing families to cut back on expenses, putting a damper on the excitement and – for these establishments – on the big profits.

The quinceañera is the traditional Hispanic rite of passage celebration for young women. Basic expenditures include the dress and accessories, cakes, invitations, party-room rentals and decorations, and music and entertainment. Many quinceañeras also rent limousine services for the night – all of which adds up to thousands of dollars. According to Hearst Digital Media, which in 2007 launched its own quinceañera Web site, misquincemag, as many as 400,000 young women have quinceañeras in the United States every year. In 2006, on-line, party-planning Web site Partyspot reported the average cost of the celebration at $8,000.

But recently, those figures have dropped. Quinceañera specialty boutiques, such as Precious Bride, are not only feeling the pinch from families spending less, they’re also seeing less customers overall.

"During the weekdays, no one comes in anymore," said Carolina Osorio, sales associate at Precious Bride.

"On weekends, we were packed, but now, we only get a few customers. There’s not much to do," she said.

The shop has been in business on Whittier Boulevard for more than 12 years but has never faced such a grim sales period. Management has been forced to cut back prices and reduce staff in efforts to stay in business.

Dresses, for example, range in price from $200 to upwards of $1,500. Those that cost $800 two years ago are now $400. Still, people are being frugal.

"She wanted a $700 dress, but we can only afford a $200 one – same for the shoes. We’ve had to cut down on expenses," said Alfonso Mendoza, who’s preparing for his daughter’s quinceañera.

As recently as 2007, there were five sales associates on staff at Precious Bride. Now, it’s down to Osorio and another worker. She said she used to work a 40-hour week, but her hours gradually fell to the point she was asked to work Sundays only.

"We’re thinking about shutting down once our contract expires," she said.

Just a few blocks up the street at Casa Gastelum, the situation is just as bleak.

"We would sell merchandise everyday, but now, we’ll go an entire week without selling anything," said Carmen Gonzalez, a sales associate at Casa Gastelum.

Like Precious Bride, it’s failing to break even or make enough money to pay rent, and it’s the duration of the economic downturn that has management desperate and concerned.

"When someone walks in here, we’re not letting go of them until they buy something," said Gonzalez.

One of the few customers to stop by, Irene Dominguez, said she is organizing a very simple party for her daughter.

"My husband can’t find a job," she said. "Sometimes he works only three days a week so there’s no budget to throw anything too expensive."

Gonzalez said they want to keep the establishment open but may not have a choice.

"We can wait it out until our contract is over and close, or we can move to another location," she said.

But across town in West Los Angeles, things aren’t much better. Alba Sandoval, manager at Elizabeth’s Bridal, has seen her profit cut in half over the last year.

Her boutique specializes in bridal and quinceañera accessories such as mementos, invitations, rosaries, and silverware.

Sandoval said customers walk into her store asking for "the simplest of everything."

"I see fewer customers coming in, and those that do buy are buying less," she said.

The extent and severity of the economic bust is seen not only in the way in which families are being forced to cut back expenses on an often lavish, centuries-old, semi-religious tradition, but also in how a highly-profitable specialized business is subsequently being driven into bankruptcy.

"It’s never been this bad," said Gonzalez. "I just don’t know what we’re going to do.

"For many of these businesses on Whittier Boulevard, the party may indeed – if only temporarily – soon be over.

Nonprofit helping LA’s neediest finds it, too, needs assistance

Amid the most profound and startling economic downturn in recent memory, with major banks and businesses going under and waves of layoffs sweeping through almost every sector, one South Los Angeles business is seeing more clients than ever.

The clients are flocking in droves from Skid Row and other parts of South Los Angeles to the small office building on the corner of Fifth Street and Main Street.

“Clients,” as non-profit Chrysalis calls those who seek its aid, are low-income and often homeless individuals who look to the organization for help in finding jobs. But as the economy’s state worsens, the organization’s ease in finding its clients work—and the type of people seeking those jobs—is changing.

For years, the core of Chrysalis’ clientele consisted of Skid Row squatters, but now staff members say they are seeing clients who were only recently evicted due to apartment buildings that have gone into foreclosure. Others have been laid off in the onslaught of job cuts this year.

Since the worst of the nation’s economic woes have taken effect, the number of clients seeking help finding jobs has skyrocketed. This year alone, Chrysalis reported a 14 percent increase in the number of people seeking help compared to last year.

Fewer jobs harder to find

“One woman came in who lost her condo,” said Michael Graff-Weisner, Vice President of Client Services. “We’re used to seeing people who walk in off the street, but now were seeing people who have been foreclosed on.”

The U.S. Department of Labor shows that California is tied for third in unemployment rates nationwide at 7.7 percent. Los Angeles has seen its own unemployment rate rise more than two and a half percent this year, one of the higher increases in the country.

For an organization tasked with helping place at-risk people into the job market, a gain in clientele may just mean a little more work for Chrysalis’ staff. But Graff-Weisner said there’s another problem.

“It is taking a lot longer to place people in jobs than we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “It’s taking us on average about 48 days to find someone a job, which is a lot longer than it used to take.”

At other times in the non-profit’s history, it has taken an average of half that time to find someone a job. But the staff maintains that motivated clients can still find jobs as easily as before.

“It’s about wanting to get off the street and saying, ‘I’m done with it,’” said Linda Wallace, a Chrysalis retention manager.

That’s what happened to Thomas Tophia, who after more than 20 years of drug abuse and gang involvement is now a full-time substance abuse counselor at the Phoenix House rehabilitation program. Tophia spent more than 12 years in prison, and had given up hope of finding a job — until he came to Chrysalis.

“There is no question about it, I would still be on the street if it wasn’t for Chrysalis,” said Tophia, standing in a tailored suit in front of a banquet hall of wealthy donors at an annual Chrysalis fundraiser. “Now I’m working full-time and am engaged to be married.”

Tophia is currently undergoing training to become a certified addiction specialist, though he started out at Chrysalis Enterprise’s Chefmakers.

At Chrysalis, the top sectors for job placement at their downtown office are warehousing, maintenance and janitorial work, construction, general labor and retail—all of which have experienced difficulties in the recent year. The office in Santa Monica offers similar job placements.

Neediest hit hardest by economy

Each year, Chrysalis gears up for an influx of temporary retail positions around the holidays offered to clients from businesses like Macys, the Santa Monica Promenade and the Farmer’s Market.

But with the retail industry bracing for what is expected to be the worst holiday shopping season in decades, Chrysalis is expecting a substantial drop in the amount of clients it will get hired this year around the holidays.

“There’s still some time before we start talking to our regular customers about placing our clients, but my assumption is, we’re not going to be able to place as many,” Graff-Weisner said. “I imagine, sadly, that the trend we’re going to see this holiday season is going to carry with us for a while. I don’t see it becoming easier to find jobs for quite some time.”

Last year, 1,545 individuals were successfully employed with the help of Chrysalis – 59 percent in an outside position and 41 percent through Chrysalis Enterprises, a transitional job program, in which Chrysalis actually employs the client, allowing the client to work for one of the many public works contracts awarded the non-profit, while gaining the skills needed for outside employment.

While Chrysalis hopes to achieve the same success this year, the organization’s executives are unsure.

Chrysalis’ challenging future

There’s even another aspect to the hardship Chrysalis faces this year. As a non-profit, almost all of its spending power comes from donations, usually from businesses.

But according to Chrysalis officials, people and business aren’t able to give like they used to. The average cost of the program is $2,300 per client each year, and while that is less than what most government programs cost, it’s still a significant expense.

Alan Long, President of Sotheby’s International Realty for Southern California, donated personal funds to Chrysalis three years ago for the construction of a new building. He also encouraged Sotheby’s to contribute thousands each year for a 5K/10K race through downtown to promote awareness of homelessness problems.

“This year they told me we just couldn’t do it,” said Long. “When the race got pushed from one year to another, and our company’s books turned over, I knew it would probably be difficult to find that kind of funding. Sure enough, we had to sideline the race for a little while.”

The success or failure of Chrysalis in the coming months and years may prove to be an informal economic indicator, detailing the strength and weakness of the South Los Angeles job market, unemployment rate, and homelessness in the region.

But in this tough economy, where more people are finding themselves without jobs and fewer companies are hiring, it goes without saying that staff members at Chrysalis have their work cut out for them.