Down And Out in L.A.

  • They are technically not homeless people, but their living quarters make a mockery of the sentiment that there is no place like home. For the past two months Yolanda Gonzales, her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter have resided in a dilapidated two-car garage in Lynwood, Calif. Patches of dirt blotch the linoleum floor, electrical wires snake along bare walls, a door opens to a reeking kitchen dominated by a blackened stove. At $300 a month it is, alas, almost a bargain. "Nothing is affordable," says Gonzales, 42, whose daughter is on welfare and whose son-in-law lost his job as a handyman. "We had to settle for this."

    So have many of Gonzales' neighbors. In Los Angeles County, which has an estimated street homeless population of more than 30,000, a growing number of the poor are the not-quite-homeless, forced to live in garages, automobiles, even tool sheds and converted chicken coops. The Los Angeles Times estimates that as many as 200,000 stay in some 42,000 garages that rent for $200 to $600 a month. Constituting a new, anomalous demographic stratum, this group is made up mostly of Hispanic working poor, many of them illegal immigrants fresh from the Mexican border. Says William Baer, associate professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California: "We've got a squatters' settlement in the backyard of the city."

    Other cities, like New York and Detroit, face a similar problem, but it is most acute in the Los Angeles area. Steep rentals and a dearth of public housing have combined with a surging population to push people into makeshift shelters. Some fear that, given the fact that poverty is slowly increasing in the U.S. while the quantity of low-cost housing is shrinking, the L.A. trend may be the wave of the future for the nation's working poor.

    In Lynwood (pop. 53,000 and 70% Hispanic), authorities have received more than 300 complaints about garage dwelling in the past eight months. In nearby South Gate, where some 4,000 garages provide shelter for 20,000 people, about 900 families have been evicted from backyards in the past three years. But a severe crackdown, officials agree, would only leave the unlucky completely homeless.

    For others, however, a garage might seem luxurious. Jim Bird, 38, is living in his yellow 1975 Plymouth Fury in a parking lot in Studio City. A divorced former homeowner from Riverside, Bird is one of some 5,000 automobile dwellers in the San Fernando Valley. Unemployed, he could not afford a home when he last worked, at $5 an hour. Says he: "There is just no way you can pay rent with that."

    "It's the deposit that's killing the working poor," says Mary Lee, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "You're talking about $1,200 even in the cheapest neighborhoods." The waiting list for public housing approaches 17,000, according to Leila Gonzalez-Correa, executive director of the Los Angeles housing authority, and the monthly turnover is only about 180.

    As squalid as the garages may be, the truly dispiriting news is that things could be worse. As Lawyer Lee puts it, "It is deplorable that you should have to live without basic human services. But it's a helluva lot better than being on the street."