By MATT SANDERSON
ECHO PARK — Barry was covered with feces and injured after a car ran over his leg while he slept near the Auto Zone on Alvarado. “We didn’t want him to die in the street. It was cold,” said Gabrielle Taylor with the City Attorney’s office. But after Barry was treated for his injury, he was soon back sleeping on the streets of Echo Park by New Year’s, looking thinner and worse than before.
The story of Barry, who was known for sitting in a wheelchair outside the Rite Aid drug store, was one of several shared by city officials, business owners and residents during a forum held last week to discuss homeless issues in Echo Park. Andrew Garsten, president of the Echo Park Improvement Assn., which hosted the forum, said Echo Park has seen an uptick in homelessness in the last year, especially at 101 Freeway at Alvarado Street, the Clinton Street staircase as well as in neighborhood parks and other locations.
Officials did not say how many homeless people are living in Echo Park, but migration from Downtown’s Skid Row is playing a role in the neighborhood’s rising number of street people, one official said. Officials discussed the challenges of housing and caring for the homeless as well as cleaning up their encampments.
“My point for a topic like tonight’s is knowledge equals empowerment,” Garsten said after the meeting. “To empower people living there.”
Ryan Bell, director of community engagement at People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), which will be conducting an annual homeless count later this month, notes that the region’s homeless population has gone down since the economic downturn in 2007 and 2008, when it was upwards of 60,000. The current official number is about 30,000, but he added that the actual number is most likely higher with people “hidden in cars” and “couch-surfing.”
Bell told the audience of about 20 people gathered at Williams Hall last Thursday night that most of the persons living on the streets used to be equal cases of those suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems. Now, what his organization mostly finds are those with mental illness.
The mentally ill living on the streets are frequently the victims of “patient dumping,” where hospitals release homeless patients back to the streets rather than to the care of family, a homeless shelter or an alternative solution. Barry was mostly likely involved in patient dumping, said Taylor of the City Attorney’s office.
Many officials described the lengthy process that can take months to clean up homeless encampments on public property, including parkland, sidewalks and freeway underpasses. Encampments in alleys adjacent to homes and some, just outside bedroom windows, take priority, said Adam Bass, field deputy for District 13 City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.
Bass said that the city needs to increase the amount of affordable housing to deal with the homeless problem.
“It won’t solve the homelessness facing us today, but as a legacy, will help solve it in the next 10 to 15 years,” Bass said. “We’re working on a long term solution.”
As for Barry, he is now being assisted by social workers and being cared for at a skilled nursing facility, Taylor said.
“We’ve contacted his family and hope to lead him on a better path and protect him.”
Matt Sanderson has been a journalist, photographer and digital media producer for nearly eight years. A native of Rhode Island, he received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of New Hampshire and moved to Los Angeles in 2012 through a job transfer with Patch.com/AOL.