For nearly two decades, the Rev. Andy Bales has been on the front lines of the homelessness crisis on downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
“A huge section of L.A. is an absolute horror story for those people who are suffering on the streets,” Bales, who is chief executive of Union Rescue Mission, says. “Skid Row is the biggest man-made disaster in the United States by far. Nowhere else will you find 5,000 people living on the streets in a 53-square block area.”
Founded in 1891, when Los Angeles was still a dusty little town, Union Rescue Mission is a nonprofit working to house people experiencing homelessness, providing meals, shelter, recovery programs and services to thousands each year.
Homelessness in L.A. County has been increasing for years, with a 12.7% uptick in 2020 alone. The annual homeless count couldn’t be completed due to the pandemic this year, but experts expect numbers to have risen significantly — including Bales.
“We’re in the worst place we’ve ever been in,” he told the Los Angeles Times about three months ago.
Skid Row has long been considered the epicenter of the ongoing crisis, and Bales has experienced the neighborhood’s hazards first hand. In 2014, he got a serious infection there that required amputation of his leg.
“I stepped in human waste on Skid Row and got flesh-eating disease,” the reverend says. “The right leg, I can directly attribute from working on Skid Row.”
Earlier this year, he lost his left leg too. But his focus is on the struggles he sees outside the mission’s doors, and the overall lack of solutions, especially for shelter.
“There are not enough beds for everybody by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “We have no excuse for leaving so many people out on the streets for so long.”
Bales attributes the continuing crisis to a lack of urgency.
At last count, pre-pandemic, there were about 66,000 homeless people in L.A. County, but there were only about 20,000 shelter beds and 30,000 permanent housing options for those on the streets, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, for which the area of care excludes Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach.
On average, about 227 people become homeless each day in the county, while fewer — 207 — exit homelessness, the agency says. And that was before COVID-19.
In April, a federal judge ordered the city of Los Angeles to offer shelter to all those unhoused on Skid Row by fall. The city and the county both appealed U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter’s order, and on May 13, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily froze Carter’s October deadline.
Bales applauds the judge’s order, saying, “Here we have a judge proposing a roof over everybody’s heads on Skid Row, immediate — what we’ve been praying for for so long.”
Despite all the challenges, Bales says he’s still positive about possible changes and improvements, even on the streets that disabled him.
“I still have great hope in that dream that one day there won’t be one precious human being left on the streets of Skid Row,” he says.