"So there there are more people on the streets of Los Angeles than there have ever been. ... We probably went from 16,000 shelters in L.A. County to about 8,000 [beds]."
This is the current "state of the streets" report from the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. In America's second-largest metropolis, he is a fixture on its Skid Row. Rev. Bales even lost a leg to a flesh-eating bacteria that he blames on these very streets.
Now there's an even more daunting challenge for Rev. Bales, Skid Row and the homeless community across Los Angeles County. It's the coronavirus pandemic.
There have have been 54 confirmed COVID-19 deaths among L.A.'s homeless. But more are dying as shelters scale back or close due to virus fears. With 8,000 fewer shelter beds, the street population is surging, and the tragic toll -- overdoses, heart attacks, fatal accidents -- is spiking.
"Deaths on the streets from complications of homelessness have gone up 32% -- 1,348 so far this year, when the count was about 931 deaths, precious human beings, by this time last year," Bales said. "So we're on course to hit 1,400 deaths and, again, it's the most tragic barometer of how many people are actually on the streets, suffering on the streets."
Amid the pandemic, the Union Rescue Mission has tried to maintain its programs including meal services and shelter.
But last spring, 11 staff members got COVID-19. Gerald Shiroma, a former homeless resident who worked as a Union Rescue van driver, died of the virus. More than 140 people sheltered at the Mission also got sick.
That prompted the shelter to impose strict quarantine measures and slash the number of available beds.
"It's our congregate living that has been deeply affected [at] downtown Union Rescue Mission," Bales said. "And we've actually -- we had to reduce from 1,000 beds down to about a third, 333 or so. And we're gradually climbing back up -- to 337 at last count -- but it's a long, gradual climb."
After several months of no new infections there, some 30 homeless residents who came to the Rescue Mission tested positive for COVID-19 this month. The Mission is looking for hotel rooms and other options to provide shelter and curtail the virus' spread.
"We've been trying to keep our promise," he said. "We never turn away a woman who comes to our door. We never turn away a family who comes to our door. We rarely have to refer a man out. But it's been the most challenging it's ever been to keep that promise."