KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The number of homeless people in the U.S. has gone up for the first time since 2010, so says the federal government's annual report on homelessness. And a lot of that increase has been here on the West Coast, namely in Los Angeles. The economy here is booming, but that means the cost of housing is going up and a lot of people just can't afford a place to live.
One place to see this crisis is LA's Skid Row. It's where thousands of people congregate because it's where all the services are - the shelters, the meals, the temporary housing and some permanent housing if you qualify. And now in that same part of downtown, there are also high-rises and fancy lofts and expensive restaurants, places most unhoused people can't afford. This week we went to the Downtown Women's Center. It's a place where women can use computers, grab clean socks and do crafts and have lunch. And we met Joryelle Marage.
Hey, how's it going? How are you?
JORYELLE MARAGE: I'm good. How are you?
MCEVERS: Joryelle is 27 years old. She was born in Belize. She came to the U.S. with her family as a child. And then eight years ago, she moved to LA.
MARAGE: When I came to LA, I had the dream of becoming a fashion designer because I love art. I love drawing. And one way to do that was to get into the industry. But because of my lack of experience, I had to go the roundabout way. And I was trying to find a way to get into school.
MCEVERS: And so then what? What...
MARAGE: Well, it never worked out. So I'm still struggling to get into school now.
MCEVERS: For a while she lived with her sisters and her mom. And then she met a guy. They got a place. They had a couple of daughters. But then she says he abused her, and she went back to live with her sisters. And they got a place together.
MARAGE: Eight hundred dollars, dude. And it was just a room - just a room and a bathroom and a kitchenette, not even a full kitchen. This is disgusting. But we made do. We made do.
MCEVERS: This was, like, 2013 - 800 bucks. You probably couldn't get anything for 800 bucks now if you tried.
MARAGE: Probably not, probably not.
MCEVERS: Now a one-room apartment is about $1,800 a month. Back then, Joryelle couldn't keep the $800-a-month apartment.
MARAGE: After I lost that place, that's when things started steamrolling just downhill 10 times faster than what it was.
MCEVERS: And about a year ago, Joryelle ended up here on Skid Row. Her daughters are still with their father. She comes to the Women's Center during the day to catch a meal and charge her phone. And the rest of the time, she's in the street.
MARAGE: I'm three months pregnant, so that's hard. That's equally hard sleeping out on the street on a chair with just a sleeping bag. But I was able to get another blanket last night, so I wasn't as cold (laughter).
MCEVERS: It was chilly last night.
MARAGE: It was - that was - that's an understatement. I was cold. I was freezing. But I'm here. I made it through the night - so counts for something, right?
MCEVERS: Joryelle's daughters are 6 and 4. She visits them when she can.
MARAGE: But at the end of the day, when I see my girls tear up because I have to leave and leave them there, it breaks me down because they don't understand it. As much as I tell them that once I get a place, we're going to be together again - it's already been almost a year - it's getting to them. I don't know what else to do. I'm stuck here waiting on people who are supposed to be calling me. Oh, you're my next emergency case. It's been three weeks, and I'm still waiting - pregnant on the street and waiting.
MCEVERS: She's the next emergency case, she says, for a program called PATH. It provides interim housing for men and women, and it has about 200 beds. The thing is, LA now has tens of thousands of homeless people. Joryelle Marage says being housed will help her get things going again.
MARAGE: I want to be not so much comfortable, but I want to be able to have a form of comfort. If I had that form of peace, I might be able to draw again. I might be able to focus more on my career.
MCEVERS: For now, one good thing she says she has is a crew on the street, people to look out for her and her stuff. It's about eight or so people, and they all sleep on the same side street together.
So where's your chair?
MARAGE: That would be the burgundy one he was just sitting in.
MCEVERS: That's your chair.
MARAGE: Yes. There used to be a couch back there, but the rats - I can't deal with the rats. Jesus, I can't deal with the rats. So I kind of stay up higher off the ground instead of closer to the ground. It is - it's not the best place to be, but as far as the peace of mind that I get being around people in the same situation with some form of support, it helps a lot. Thank you so much. It was very nice meeting you.
MCEVERS: Nice to meet you, too.
That was Joryelle Marage in downtown LA. And here in the studio with me now is Gary Blasi. He's a professor of law emeritus at UCLA. Welcome.
GARY BLASI: Thank you.
MCEVERS: So what did you think of Joryelle's story?
BLASI: Unfortunately it's a story that I've heard hundreds of times with variations. It's important for people to listen to individual stories because everybody's story is somewhat different. But having talked to lots of people, there's a lot of common themes.
MCEVERS: So I think one interesting thing, too, about her story is that it's not just one thing that gets you to that place, right?
BLASI: Well, the thing that almost all homeless people share is that they were really poor starting out, and then it just takes one or two things to push you over the edge and into homelessness. That can be one episode of a domestic abuse, or it can be being evicted because the landlord wants to use your apartment for some other purpose. It can be any one of a number of things. But everyone ends up in the same situation as Joryelle and her crew on Skid Row.
MCEVERS: Yeah. And as we know, the price of housing here in Los Angeles is just going up and up and up. There are just not enough affordable places for people to live. What is LA doing about this? What's it doing right?
BLASI: Well, it's doing a few things right. One is that the voters have done everything they could do. They passed by 75 percent a bond that will raise about $1.2 billion over 10 years to build supportive housing. The county voters have approved a sales tax increase that will add about 350 million a year for various kinds of services. The problem is that we're starting from a very bad place, and we've neglected this problem for decades. And now we're playing catch-up.
MCEVERS: Wow. And what is LA doing wrong?
BLASI: Well, LA's doing many things wrong. Mainly it hasn't for decades addressed the incredible shortage of extremely low-income housing. So homelessness is mainly caused by the imbalance of extremely poor people and their numbers and the price of housing. So for example, in Los Angeles, that single room of the kind that Joryelle lived in cost now the entire monthly salary of a person working full-time at minimum wage if they spent all of that on housing. And we have a huge number of extremely poor people here, and we have a safety net that's badly broken.
MCEVERS: LA obviously is a place where this problem is very bad. Do you think it's possible for it to be solved?
BLASI: Oh, we know exactly what we need to do in order to end homelessness in Los Angeles. It's a question primarily of political will and leadership and a recognition that we have underspent on this part of our society for a very long time and it will take some considerable resources to get back to where we even were 30 years ago.
MCEVERS: Well, Gary Blasi, thank you so much.
BLASI: My pleasure.
MCEVERS: Gary Blasi is a professor of law emeritus at UCLA and an expert in homelessness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.