DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. Homelessness here in Los Angeles has gone down by 5 percent according to the city's annual count that was released yesterday. The one area where numbers increase, though - the unsheltered homeless, up 32 percent over the past two years. In 2016, reporter Gloria Hillard reported on the dangers women face unsheltered on LA's skid row, and she recently returned.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: What has changed on skid row since I was here two years ago? The one thing, the sidewalks have disappeared, hidden beneath sagging tents and what spills from them - bicycle tires, condoms, blankets, stuffed animals and hypodermic needles.
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HILLARD: So now everyone walks in the middle of the street, dodging the cars that speed up just to get through this place. One woman, tall with blond-gray hair, is moving quickly, headed to a daytime shelter down the street.
DEON JOSEPH: As fast as she can to the mission and get inside, where it's much safer.
HILLARD: That's LAPD Officer Deon Joseph. It's 10:30 in the morning.
JOSEPH: Now there's no difference between day and night.
HILLARD: Joseph has been working on skid row for 20 years, but it's never been this bad.
JOSEPH: Whenever I see a new face, especially a woman, I tell them the rules. Don't borrow money from anybody because once you do that, you are bought and paid for. There was a woman here who was forced by the Grape Street Crips to give up her entire Social Security check every month to be able to stay on the block.
HILLARD: A few feet away, a woman in a bright pink T-shirt is trying to clean up the litter in front of her tent. Fifty-seven-year-old Debra Williams says she's trying to keep it like a house. She's been here five months.
DEBRA WILLIAMS: And five months too long. I'm trying to get out of here. I know it's too old to be down here, but things happen.
GEORGIA BERKOVICH: They are you or me, divided by circumstance.
HILLARD: Georgia Berkovich is with The Midnight Mission.
BERKOVICH: It's a catastrophic illness in the family that depleted their savings. It's victims of domestic violence who would rather live on the street than be with their abuser.
HILLARD: Berkovich says one of the circumstances increasingly impacting women is the lack of affordable housing. Of course, one never imagines they'll end up on skid row, she says.
BERKOVICH: First you'd stay with some friends. Maybe you'd stay with some family. And maybe you'd wear out your welcome and say, well, you know what, we'll just go stay in our car.
HILLARD: The next step, she says, is usually a shelter. But most of the shelters are full, so you get a tent.
BERKOVICH: But now the drug dealers and pimps take over your tent. Now you're doing things that you swore you'd never do.
HILLARD: Many of the women on the street pull suitcases behind them. Fifty-one-year-old Joyce Robles is one of them. She wears a heavy camouflage jacket, and it's a very hot day.
JOYCE ROBLES: My husband passed away about three years ago.
HILLARD: She's been living on the streets for two.
ROBLES: I've been raped. I've been stabbed. I've been gang - you know, it's been hard out here for me.
HILLARD: You can guess how long people have been here by the anger or despair on their faces, their clothing, the way they walk. The two young women coming out of the Downtown Women's Center had none of the telltale signs of homelessness.
CAT GREER: We just got here from Louisville three months ago.
HILLARD: Cat Greer and her partner, who is deaf, were dropped off at the downtown Greyhound station blocks away. They hadn't even heard of skid row.
GREER: We still can't find a place to live. There's no way to find a place to live together.
HILLARD: They feel lucky a shelter took them in. They insist it's only temporary. As I said goodbye, I hoped that was true because here, they say, with each passing day, leaving is less of an option. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "OOBLECK")
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