Los Angeles’ Skid Row has been home to thousands of homeless Angelenos for decades, but downtown development has started to squeeze the area one longtime resident described as “a giant outside insane asylum.” The city is hoping that a new 102-unit housing complex for the homeless that opened Wednesday can help alleviate the resulting tension between the area’s destitute outsiders and the new-money lofts and restaurants popping up nearby.
At ground level, the Star Apartments building holds the new headquarters of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services agency that works on homelessness issues, called the Housing for Health division. The building also holds a gym with a track, a library, a garden, and art studios for residents, according to the Los Angeles Times. Residents pay 30 percent of their income — meaning they pay nothing if they have no income — with city housing funds subsidizing the remainder of the rent cost.
102 prefabricated apartment units are stacked atop the Housing for Health headquarters like children’s blocks. The final product is a modern, eye-catching structure. Seen from the street, the apartments jut out at improbable-looking angles from the ground floor facilities. The interior facing views from the apartments look over a concrete valley strung with cable-edged staircases.
More important than the aesthetics is the good the facility will do for its residents and for Skid Row as a whole. It is three times more expensive to leave homeless people on the street than it is to simply give them housing. The stability that a home provides makes it far easier for homeless people to regain their footing socially, economically, and often medically or psychologically.
This approach to ameliorating homelessness is known among advocates as “permanent supportive housing.” The federal government has begun emphasizing permanent supportive housing in the formulas it uses to divvy up funding for state and local housing authorities, signalling that the largest financial player in the fight against homelessness is putting its weight behind the idea. But despite the evidence that permanent housing with supportive services is not only effective but a cost saver, many cities around the country continue to criminalize homelessness, raise ordinances that make it harder to help the homeless, and experiment with policies that simultaneously raise money for the homeless and push panhandlers out of downtown areas.
In Los Angeles, officials hope to further smooth the Star Apartments’ residents’ reintegration into society by locating key wraparound services directly below the beds where they will sleep and kitchens where they will cook for themselves.
With an estimated 5,000 people living on the streets in Skid Row, the Star Apartments have had to be selective over the past year since the building was ready for occupants. “We want to target the people who are costing the taxpayer the most by not being in housing,” Skid Row Housing Trust executive director Mike Alvidrez told Marketplace last year. That means people who are most prone to ending up in emergency rooms and jails.
The Times interviewed one Star Apartments tenant named Bill Fisher who ended up homeless thanks to health problems and “the death of his life partner” at the age when people with mailing addresses start to get flyers from the AARP. “If somebody had told me 10 years ago I’d lose everything and end up homeless, I’d have said you’re nuts,” Fisher told the paper. He has “decorated his studio apartment with art projects, including antique sheet music, his guitar collection and an orchid suspended from a palm frond.”
The promise the building holds for people like Fisher is not invulnerable, however. Even successful permanent supportive housing programs can be undermined by bureaucratic disputes over funding and jurisdictional lines, as a community of formerly homeless families at the border between Atlanta and Fulton County learned recently when they were forced to relocate by County officials.