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While Homelessness Escalates In Los Angeles, A Push For Veterans Got Him Off The Street


More than a hundred thousand homeless Americans have been moved into housing over the past decade. And overall, homelessness has been going down. But in some of the nation's priciest cities, it's on the rise. Five years ago, we profiled a Los Angeles man who got his first apartment after living on the street for more than 20 years. Pam Fessler has this report on how he's doing.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: James Brown is the kind of person you remember. He wear sunglasses all the time, even inside. He's charming and has a quirky sense of humor. When he started to show me his new East Hollywood apartment five years ago, he stopped when he saw my microphone.

JAMES BROWN: OK, wait a minute. Since this is radio, no one can actually see what's going on. And they can only go by what they're hearing. All right.

FESSLER: He went on to describe a small, somewhat drab one bedroom as some place far more spacious and splendid.

BROWN: Now we're going to proceed westward here towards the kitchen area.

FESSLER: And let's face it - for Brown, it was splendid. After more than 20 years sleeping on pieces of cardboard in back alleys and the doorways of LA businesses, he was so grateful when he finally got housed he sent handwritten thank-you notes to those businesses for letting him sleep on their property.

Hello. How are you?

BROWN: Pam Fessler.

FESSLER: Yes. Mr. Brown, how are you?

BROWN: It's been quite a few years, hasn't it?

FESSLER: Today, Brown is still in the same apartment. He's a little thinner and more frail. He just turned 60, but he easily walks up the four flights of stairs to his unit - although on the day I dropped by, we had to sit outside on the hallway floor to chat because his apartment was being treated for bedbugs.

BROWN: Well, you know, I found that it wasn't an easy transition, believe it or not.

FESSLER: Brown says it has been great having his own place where he can shower, watch TV or get something from the refrigerator whenever he wants.

BROWN: Just living space, privacy.

FESSLER: But he says it's also been hard at times, things as simple as keeping the bathroom clean or figuring out how to make new friends. He still takes the bus downtown to Skid Row to visit friends he made years ago living on the street.

BROWN: It's just the old gang. What can I say? I mean, we went through a lot of experiences together. We were homeless together. We slept in the same alcove together.

FESSLER: And he says that's what's so upsetting. There are even more people living outside today. As a veteran, Brown benefited from a big government push to get homeless veterans off the street. But others haven't been so lucky. There are now 58,000 homeless people in LA, 23 percent more than last year.

RUDY SALINAS: We feel like an assembly line that's getting faster.

FESSLER: Rudy Salinas is with Housing Works, the nonprofit that's been helping Brown. He says they're not only seeing more homeless people on the streets of LA but older ones in very poor health.

SALINAS: The thing that we have to focus on most quickly, right away, is not getting their income turned on or finding a landlord but it's stabilizing them in a medical home.

FESSLER: So they don't die before getting housed.

And Salinas says it's getting harder to find affordable places around here. Brown's apartment is $1,300 dollars a month. He covers part of it with his Social Security disability benefits. The rest is government subsidized. Salinas says it costs another $6,000 to $8,000 a year to support Brown but that it's still a good deal.

SALINAS: Folks don't often consider that a person like James, if allowed to stay on the streets long enough, becomes incredibly expensive.

FESSLER: Now he and others are waiting to see what happens with the $1.2 billion Los Angeles voters have agreed to spend on new housing for the homeless. The plan's already running into some opposition. James Brown says it's pretty frustrating, even when you have a roof over your own head.

BROWN: Everybody's working like hell (laughing) to end homelessness and yet somehow, somebody's still out. And I just don't know what the answer is.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.