KCRW's SamaritansLos Angeles County is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat homelessness. Yet the problem is getting worse. Why? Well, part of the answer is simple: LA's severe shortage of affordable housing. But that's not all there is to it. For more than a year KCRW reporter Anna Scott followed a woman named Christine Curtiss through LA's homeless services system to find answers. Listen to Christine's journey in the four-part podcast "Samaritans."
Los Angeles County is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat homelessness. Yet the problem is getting worse. Why? Well, part of the answer is simple: LA's severe shortage of affordable housing. But that's not all there is to it. For more than a year KCRW reporter Anna Scott followed a woman named Christine Curtiss through LA's homeless services system to find answers. Listen to Christine's journey in the four-part podcast "Samaritans."
Anna speaks with Liam Dillon of the LA Times and Matt Levin of CalMatters, who co-host the podcast "Gimme Shelter," about homelessness amid the pandemic, projections for the future and what local and state leaders are doing to try and prevent a worst case scenario. This episode was produced with help from Ray Guarna.
With most long-form pieces of journalism, for everything you include there's at least one thing you leave on the cutting room floor. Often more. With limited time to tell a story, it's impossible to share every noteworthy fact, interview, or anecdote. That was certainly the case for me while putting together my podcast Samaritans. The series chronicles a year in the life of a woman named Christine Curtiss as she enters and navigates LA's homeless services system. It's an intimate story, and as I was putting it together my primary goal was to put listeners next to Christine, to provide a rare look into what it's like to live on the streets of Los Angeles, and to be on the receiving end of the county's street outreach efforts. To that end, I minimized interviews with experts and politicians, except when it was absolutely necessary. But one interview that I was only able to use a small portion of in the series was especially great. Gary Blasi is a public interest attorney who has advocated for decades on behalf of people experiencing homelessness in LA. He's a retired UCLA law professor and a former president of the National Coalition for the Homeless. For journalists in LA, he's also a go-to guy if you want a critical take on how the city and county are handling the homelessness crisis. The LA Times features hundreds of quotes from him on this topic over the past two decades. There are few people with such deep on the ground and institutional knowledge of homelessness in Los Angeles. Here, I share a little bit more of our conversation that didn't make it into the podcast. Anna Scott: You've worked on this issue for...how long has it been? Gary Blasi: I started working on the issue of homelessness in L.A. in 1983, which was about exactly the time that word [homeless] began to be used with regard to anybody except people who were the victims of natural disasters. Before that, people said epithets of various kinds. What's that like to have worked on this for almost 40 years and see where we're at now? Blasi: Well, it's very frustrating. Because the situation has gotten so much worse. And that's largely because the things that were producing large numbers of homeless people back then are still at play. And many of them are much worse than they were — affordable housing and the lack of income. For most people the fundamental issue is: they just don't have enough money to pay the rent. There are two reasons for that, obviously, on either side of the equation. We tend to focus on housing because that's concrete and easy to think about. But just in terms of income...the last resort program for people who don't have any other source of staying alive is general assistance, or general relief, provided by the county. When I started working on this in 1983, it provided $221 a month, which was enough to stay off the street for a whole month. It's still $221 a month. One thing that's been interesting working on this story is [that]people around [Christine's] immediate situation, like her friends or even a neighborhood cop who tries to help people who are homeless in the neighborhood — no one is impressed with the system. Then when elected officials talk about it, they make it sound like it's so much better than anything we've had before. There is a disconnect there. Blasi: I think at the policy and political level, a really big problem is facing the facts. People can have different opinions, but we ultimately have to agree on what the facts are. I had the unhappy experience of being invited to a meeting where basically the spin that was to be put on the  homeless count was discussed by everybody at the management levels of all of these entities. It was really quite depressing because nobody ever asked: is there anything we're doing wrong? Anything we could do better? The entire focus of the meeting was: so what can we blame? And they agreed on: let's blame the affordable housing crisis — which is not wrong, except that we've had that for 30 years and we're gonna have it for another 20 years. It's basically just skipping out on your obligations. Your obligation is to do something with this [Measure H] money that the voters have given you to actually make life better for a significant number of people. And to be fair a significant number of people have been helped, but not nearly as many as they claim, and not in the sort of sustaining way that will be necessary to keep those people from going back to the streets. Listen to the rest of the series below: Episode 1. 'It'll Get Done When It Gets Done' Episode 3: 'Back and Forth' Episode 4: Homecoming
Christine Curtiss has a lot of friends. That's one of the first things I learned about her after we met last year. To spend an afternoon beside Christine on a Mid-City bus bench was like sitting with a beloved neighborhood old-timer. All day, neighbors stopped by to chat and drop off food or supplies like blankets, flashlights, and batteries. For Christine, this bench was like her porch. At the time, Christine was one of nearly 60,000 people experiencing homeless in LA County. For more than a year, I checked in with her and chronicled Christine's journey through LA's homeless services system. Today, KCRW launches the first episode of Samaritans, a four-part podcast series about homelessness in Los Angeles. Christine at a bus stop on Sunset Boulevard earlier this year. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz for KCRW. If you're wondering: why would I want to listen to a depressing story about homelessness when I'm already dealing with a global pandemic, the protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd, and institutional racism? Well, you should listen because Christine's story shows us the failings of a system, but some ways in which it works, and the power of empathy in an increasingly harsh world. Before I met Christine, I saw her sitting on Pico Boulevard, usually with headphones on and a baseball cap over her short, blonde hair. I live in Mid-City too, just a mile east of the bus stop where she spent her days. My in-laws live here too, which is how Christine and I were first introduced. My father-in-law, Bill, used to see Christine on walks to his pharmacy and they became friendly. Because I report on housing and homelessness for KCRW, Bill asked me if I knew of any way to get Christine formal help. It was the beginning of 2019 and I pointed him to a new website run by LA County and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency. The site allows users to request social services for people experiencing homelessness. That was when I got the idea to go speak to Christine myself and document what happened when we tried to get her help. Christine on the street in Mid-City. Photo by Bill Aron for KCRW. Following her experience in such an intimate way has been revelatory. It has uncovered answers to big, policy-oriented questions I had, like: How can it be that Los Angeles is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat homelessness, yet the problem is getting worse? I mean, going into this, I already knew that the heart of it was LA's severe lack of affordable housing. While reporting this series, I also saw firsthand the dysfunction in how LA deals with homelessness, and how a history of inaction by local government plays a role in the current crisis. But getting to know Christine and her world has been eye opening in another way too. It has attuned me to how deeply some people in Los Angeles want to help their unhoused neighbors, and the power of radical empathy. The heart of Christine's story is her friendship with a woman named Kym Moore. Kym is a retiree who got to know Christine a couple of years ago while walking her dog and became Christine's most persistent advocate. It's a story about what can happen when we look out for the vulnerable among us, when we embody the kindness of a Samaritan. And who couldn't use a little kindness right now? I hope you'll listen. Kym Moore, left, became an advocate for Christine, and helped her along the way. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz for KCRW. Listen to the rest of the series below: Episode 2: 'That Is The System' Episode 3: 'Back and Forth' Episode 4: Homecoming
Los Angeles County is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat homelessness. But why is the problem getting worse? For more than a year KCRW reporter Anna Scott followed a woman named Christine Curtiss through LA's homeless services system. She found answers. Christine on Pico Boulevard. She was homeless for seven years in and around Mid-City before receiving social services. Photo by Bill Aron for KCRW. Episode 1: 'It'll Get Done When It Gets Done' In the first episode of Samaritans, we meet Christine Curtiss, and learn about her past and what her everyday life is like on the street. She has a community of friends in Mid-City, Los Angeles who look out for her. One of them enlists the local government in helping Christine. But getting help doesn't necessarily mean getting housed. Christine not long after she became homeless in 2012. Photo by Bill Aron for KCRW. Episode 2: 'That Is The System' In the second episode of Samaritans, Christine comes face-to-face with the life or death consequences of living outdoors. Christine Curtiss, left, in front of the Hollywood shelter she moved to last year, with her best friend and advocate Kym Moore. Photo by Bill Aron for KCRW. Episode 3: 'Back and Forth' In the third episode of Samaritans: For the first time in more than seven years, Christine sleeps indoors, in a bed with a roof over her head. But her new situation doesn't last long. Christine at a "bridge housing" shelter for women in Hollywood. It's one of several that LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has opened around the city. Photo by Larry Hirshowitz for KCRW. Episode 4: Homecoming In the final episode of Samaritans, Christine moves into a new women's shelter. But her future is still uncertain.