By Esmeralda Ortiz and Samantha Silva
The homeless population in Boyle Heights and nearby neighborhoods has declined in the last year, but continued to grow elsewhere in Los Angeles. That’s led to a budget proposal from Mayor Eric Garcetti that aims to reverse the worsening situation.
Mayor Garcetti wants to spend $138 million in city funding to combat homelessness citywide in the next fiscal year. Doing so could reduce and prevent homelessness in Los Angeles County, including in Boyle Heights, his staff says. Skeptics of Garcetti’s budget proposal say it assumes funding sources that aren’t assured.
The Council supports spending $1.87 billion over the next decade on an ambitious plan to house most of the area’s homeless, and Garcetti’s proposed expenditures would be the first money spent under the plan. The Council also voted in late June to put a $1.2 billion bond measure on the November ballot to address the city’s homelessness crisis.
There are many different reasons why people become homeless. Three local Boyle Heights residents tell their life stories, which include family troubles, health issues and injustices.
A 59-year-old man on the street with health issues
Wearing an old and dirty shirt, while lying on a rocky surface with blankets under him, Jose Solano, 59, explains how he went from earning a living to living under a bridge at Hollenbeck Park. As he tells it, when he was diagnosed with kidney problems seven years ago and told he would eventually need a transplant, he lost hope and decided to give up everything he owned.
Solano, who was born in Mexico, has three daughters, now 14, nine and eight, whom he hasn’t seen since he isolated himself from the world. He said he left them to save them from pitying him.
“I retired and gave everything away,” Solano said. “My female friend left me, I gave all of my things away and I went to sleep at a park.”
Beside him was a market cart loaded with goods, including blankets, tortillas, containers with food and personal belongings. Socks were hung on the cart to dry. He said volunteers at the Parish of Santa Isabel on Soto Street supply him with these things.
He feels he’s still alive because of his faith in God. “Years have gone by, and I feel better than before,” he said in Spanish. “Before I couldn’t walk, and now I can walk. I feel good. I feel spiritually healthy and physically healthy.”
A single mother of five
Fanny Ortiz, 41, says that in the midst of a Child Protective Services investigation set in motion by allegations by her former husband, she had to leave her home and lost custody of her children.
She was one of the “hidden homeless,” people who have a place to sleep and are out of public sight, but who needed permanent housing.
Without custody of her children, she ended up living in her vehicle for one night and then sought refuge at her mother’s home for one month. Seeking moral support, she then lived in her older sister’s home for 10 months and with her younger sister for one year. She still managed to work at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
She tried to keep herself busy to avoid over-thinking and being sad, but eventually, she couldn’t help but break down.
“I would work overtime, go to school and go running, but the loneliness would hit me when I would do my laundry, because I only had one load, and I miss doing the things – cooking for them, taking them to school – so I told myself, ‘It’s OK, and it’s not always going to be like this. It’s going to change,’” she said.
All that had been going on was not only difficult for Ortiz, but also her kids.
Two years after being displaced, she’s now living with her children in an apartment at the Boyle Hotel- Cummings Block near Mariachi Plaza.
“It has been a process,” she said. “My son just started having friends in the past year.”
Ortiz now has an ordinary routine at home, where she cares for her daughter, who has special needs. She gets paid for doing that by Home Supportive Services and no longer works for the transportation authority.
“The only reason I didn’t give up was because I had my kids,” she said. “I wanted to show them that they could still be kids and they could enjoy their youth.”
“I used to exercise a lot (and) go to school, but I stopped because my life changed completely,” Ortiz said. “My life wasn’t what I thought it was. Everything in life changes, and if anything is constant, it’s change.”
A local teenager experiences homelessness
A high school student shouldn’t be worried about not knowing where to go when the final bell of the day rings. She should be able to go somewhere called home.
Over Fourth of July last year, a Boyle Heights teenager we’ll call “Mary” did not spend time with her family, nor did she celebrate because she had to pack and move out of their apartment.
Mary and her family got evicted from their apartment due to a rent dispute.
At the time, she was living in the San Fernando Valley, but her roots were in Boyle Heights. So when she became homeless, she was torn apart from her old life, leaving behind friends and those who were like family to her.
“I looked at my room, and I had to take everything down,” said the 17-year-old student at Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School. “It really hurt me to see my mom’s stuff put away – everything. It really hurt.”
She moved with her two younger brothers and her mother into a shelter home in Boyle Heights, where they stayed for six months. They all slept in the same room and shared food and the kitchen and restroom with others.
“It was very hard for me to adapt to the shelter,” Mary said. “I hated it. There (was) no freedom, we (had) to come back at a certain time (and) you could not be outside without a guardian.”
While homeless, she had to take on the role of a parent to her younger siblings, whom she would babysit after school.
“I was trying to be the strong one, not to cry in front of them,” she said. “They (would) ask me, ‘Where’s our house? What happened? Why did we lose it? “That would hurt me,” she continued.
“It would tear me down so, so bad. I wouldn’t even know how to respond to them. It was really bad. I was just trying to stay strong.”
People didn’t know Mary was homeless because she didn’t want pity from anyone.
“I would hide it,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to feel bad or make fun of me because it would hurt me. I didn’t want anyone to know my situation. I just kept it to myself.”
The family moved in late February to a home, which they’re renting, and receive Section 8 subsidized housing to help pay the rent. Mary says she’s happy the family found a home, but the experience of being homeless changed her view of the world.
“I feel more free,” she said. “I go home (and) I’m happy knowing that I have my bed to rest in, and I have my own space. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Mary also appreciates the little things more. “I am more grateful for things,” she said. “I really appreciate how we went from something bad to a better place. I always tell myself that I always have to be strong no matter what situation because good things come.”
Esmeralda Ortiz is a Senior at Méndez High School. Samantha Silva is a Senior at Roosevelt High School. They are both student journalists at Boyle Heights Beat.
All photos by Ernesto Orozco