Homeless women and children flooding LA shelters

Union Rescue Mission is one of the few shelters for women and children in L.A. County.
Union Rescue Mission is one of the few shelters for women and children in L.A. County.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Homeless shelters on Skid Row say the number of women and children showing up on their doorsteps has spiked, overwhelming their resources.

In an average month, downtown shelters take in 15 to 20 homeless families. So far this month, there have been 45, said Christopher Callandrillo, director of programs for the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. The agency's most recent homeless census showed a 55 percent jump in the number of homeless women from three years earlier. 

"We've called emergency meetings, we're not sure what to do," said Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, which shelters the most women and families in downtown Los Angeles.

Bales said the Mission set up 180 extra cots in its guest area and at times has had to place another 30 inside the chapel to accommodate the flood. For the first time in its 125-year history, the mission has more women and children — 653 total— than men sheltered in it's Antelope Valley family facility and main building on Skid Row.

"We're running out of space," he said. 

Inside the downtown shelter's common room, Maria de Toscano sat with her three kids — 11, 10, and 7-years-old. 

De Toscano arrived at the Mission about two months ago, after moving from Laredo, Texas in April. She said she was fleeing domestic violence and seeking a fresh start near the ocean with her kids.

"I didn't tell them 'we don't have a house, we don't have nothing,' I just told them we were going on vacation," she said. 

De Toscano said she found a pair of jobs, working at McDonald's and as a telemarketer, but quickly realized she couldn't afford rent. When the money for a motel ran out, she headed to the Union Rescue Mission on advice from a pastor she had met.

Despite her predicament, she said life here is better for the kids than it was back home.

"If we as mothers try our best, they're going to live better like that than being with both parents in that situation," she said.

On a recent Wednesday, a mother fed her newborn a bottle in the shelter's entryway, squatting by the glass security booth. On the fourth floor, the hallway filled with the cries of a young baby, as mothers sped along, pushing strollers, off to run errands.

Bales said many women he sees lately in the Mission are there fleeing domestic violence. Another possible explanation is downtown L.A.'s uptick in crime, which may be frightening women who normally sleep on the streets and driving them to seek shelter.

Callandrillo, of LAHSA, said the agency is offering funding to service providers for crisis housing and will prioritize women and families.

"There's a county policy that families are not to be left on Skid Row. It's not an appropriate place for children," he said. "It's an absolute priority."

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in an email he's well aware of the problem.

"Despite successful efforts to reduce the number of homeless women and children in L.A. County 6,000 are still seeking shelter on any given night," he wrote. "Which is why the Board of Supervisors is asking the governor to declare a state of emergency."

Such a declaration could free up millions of dollars normally spent on things like earthquakes, wild fires, and floods for homeless shelters.

Governor Jerry Brown's office told KPCC that no such declaration is in the works.