MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
As we just heard, one issue Los Angeles is grappling with is a huge homeless population, perhaps the largest of any major city in the country. A new study finds that thousands of the areas homeless people are avoiding, crime-plagued areas such as Skid Row, they're seeking better, safer lives in affluent neighborhoods away from the heart of the city.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In Beverly Hills, Fanny Williams holds out a paper coffee cup hoping the well-dressed shoppers on Rodeo Drive are feeling generous.
FANNY WILLIAMS: Ya'll help me out, Sir, please? Thank you, God bless you, have a blessed evening. This is really hard. I really don't like asking people for anything. But I mean, sometimes you need help you just have to break down your pride and, you know, ask for help, because I need it.
DEL BARCO: Maybe she'll get enough for a burrito and a night's stay in a cheap motel, but Williams has learned not to count too much on the kindness of strangers.
WILLIAMS: A lot of them are stingy too. I see Angie Dickenson, the one who played Police Woman, throwed me out one dollar. Stingy.
DEL BARCO: Williams is 55. She leans on a crutch and suffers a nagging foot injury from being hit by a car. Since she lost her job at in ice cream shop, she's slept in doorways and the occasional shelter. Even in Beverly Hills, being homeless isn't easy, but Williams says it beats trying to survive LA's Skid Row.
WILLIAMS: It's hell down there. Not for me. If I'm going to be a bum or whatever, let me be a Beverly Hills bum.
DEL BARCO: And then there's Lee Banks, a Vietnam Vet. He's also down and out in Beverly Hills.
LEE BANKS: Everybody's got their own little spots they go to and all. It's a safe haven.
DEL BARCO: Banks has been homeless for 18 years. In his past life he was married with kids.
Does your family worry about you being out here?
BANKS: Kids don't know I'm out here. When they come to visit me, I got a friend in Marina Del Ray that's a real estate agent and I use a condo. They think I live there. I don't want them to know what's going on. It would make them feel bad.
DEL BARCO: Banks has a few perks. Like a brand new backpack and a thermal sleeping back he got from friends. He also has a small TV stashed away, which he watches with his buddy Dennis Hamilton.
DENNIS HAMILTON: We got it hid. It's only a little black and white five-inch TV.
BANKS: There's a plug in the side of that building, so I just plug it up, they don't mind.
DEL BARCO: What do you watch?
BANKS: Oh I like to watch FEAR FACTOR, it's my number one show. I like to see what those people will eat and do for the money.
DEL BARCO: In Los Angeles, being homeless with a TV set isn't as rare as you'd think. We found Willy Gonzales out in Venus Beach channel serving on a portable television.
WILLY GONZALES: I love SEINFELD. I love Kramer.
DEL BARCO: Gonzales sleeps in a spray painted van. Sometimes the police tell him to move along but he says it wasn't always this way.
GONZALES: Before I hit the street I was living in Beverly Hills so I know what it is to go to Spago's and I know what it is to eat from the trash.
DEL BARCO: The Argentinean immigrant says lost his job driving a limo but he kept photos of himself posing with celebrities.
GONZALES: James Caan, Harrison Ford, I used to drive for them.
DEL BARCO: And they can't help you out now?
GONZALES: I didn't ask for help. I think I never been homeless before so I think this is something good. It's training. It's good to know how it is to live on the street. People don't realize it could happen to anyone.
DEL BARCO: Up the Pacific Coast Highway, 44 year old Herman Flores has set up camp in Malibu Canyon, above multi-million dollar homes with a gorgeous vista of the Pacific Ocean, he's hidden. Very hidden, under a tree covered with branches, which he clears away to reveal a blue pup tent. This is where Flores sleeps after long days working as a gardener and day laborer for the rich Malibu Residents.
HERMAN FLORES: (Speaking in Spanish)
DEL BARCO: It's peaceful and beautiful here, he says, so far away from people, no one bothers me. He says it's better than the shelters where people are violent, dirty and drugged-out. For some, being homeless is more of a lifestyle than a burden.
HAPPY IVY: My name is Happy, the voice of freedom. My name is Happy Ivy.
JOY IVY: I'm Joy and this is Life, our daughter.
DEL BARCO: The Ivys sing and live out of an old school bus, camping sippee style in Venice Beach, Hollywood, and in the Valley. They share their cramped quarters with their pets.
IVY: Two dogs.
IVY: A cat.
IVY: Two mice.
IVY: And a rat. There's the rat. That's Squeaker.
DEL BARCO: Their main source of income is Happy's disabilities checks. From here, Joy home schools Light, who's 13.
IVY: I don't consider myself homeless.
IVY: Home free if you don't mind. Home free.
DEL BARCO: Joy says instead of staying at roach-infested motels, they prefer living the way they do, every once in a while getting a room to shower and watch TV.
This is your choice, right? And there's some people, it's not a choice necessarily, to be living without a house.
IVY: Yeah. We couldn't afford to live on the beach any other way. And that's the fact of it.
DEL BARCO: The Ivys have a cell phone with pre-paid minutes and a wireless laptop computer. In LA, it turns out, even some of the homeless are connected. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.