Lourdes was 69 years old when I first met her in 2012. She was living next to a bus stop on a busy four-lane street in front of a supermarket. Lourdes had claimed the spot three years earlier, after she was rousted from her encampment in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Before that, she’d lived in her 1973 Toyota, but it was eventually impounded because of overdue parking tickets.
Lourdes was one of the folks we call “chronically homeless.” She’d been surviving on the city’s margins for 20 years after losing her low-cost housing because of gentrification. When she couldn’t find another affordable place to live indoors, she found another way to survive, making do with disability benefits as she struggled on the streets with scoliosis, arthritis and hearing loss.
But just because she didn’t have a lot doesn’t mean she didn’t cost a lot. She cost us taxpayers a heap of money, as she circulated in and out of psych wards and jails. Mind you, Lourdes never sought these services. Her crime was to live in public places, and this was our response.
Before I met her, Lourdes had been approached by several outreach teams offering food, warm clothes and temporary shelter. But in exchange they asked her for a lot of personal information, which she was unwilling to share. Besides, she had one goal: to have a permanent home of her own. No one was offering that. But then one day I took her a housing subsidy voucher application with her name on it, and we had something to start with.
Lourdes began her journey home slowly and cautiously, often overcome by fear and distrust. It took daily visits for three weeks for Lourdes to trust me enough to provide the information required for the application. Applying for an identity card at the DMV involved a whole day of anxiety and panic. Getting six months of bank statements, a Social Security card, and SSI income verification swallowed up another week’s efforts.