Surge in Latino homeless population 'a whole new phenomenon' for Los Angeles

Timoteo Arevalos never imagined he’d end up here, loitering for hours on a bench at Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, using his backpack as his pillow.

He used to have a government job, but the recession hit and he was laid off. He then tried to scrape by as a dishwasher, but last fall his hours were cut and he couldn’t pay his rent.

Now, he is part of a rising number of Latinos who are living homeless in Los Angeles. Recent figures released by the county show that Latino homelessness shot up by 63% in the past year, a staggering number in a county that saw its overall homeless population soar by 23%, despite increasing efforts to get people off the street.

Nearly every demographic, including youth, families and veterans, showed increases in homelessness, but Latinos delivered one of the sharpest rises, adding more than 7,000 people to the surge.

“I would say it’s a whole new phenomenon,” said County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district saw Latino homelessness go up by 84%. “We have to put it on the radar and really think outside the box when we consider how to help this population.”

Homeless officials and outreach groups say Los Angeles’ rising rents and stale wages are the main drivers pushing many out of their homes.

According to a study released by the Homeless Services Authority, renters living in Los Angeles are the most cost-burdened nationwide. More than 2 million households in L.A. and Orange counties have housing costs that exceed 30% of their income.

Latinos are particularly at risk, with many working up to two to three low-paying jobs to make ends meet. Those lacking legal status are more vulnerable these days as they struggle to find work and avoid public assistance, which they fear could flag them for eventual deportation.

“It’s like they live with one foot on a banana peel and the other one step from homelessness,” said Rose Rios, who runs Cover the Homeless Ministry, a South Los Angeles non-profit that feeds people in the streets, many of them Latino.

After Arevalos lost his government job, he lived off his $70,000 savings. When that dried up, he struggled to find a good-paying job. Eventually he settled for a dish washing gig, but when the restaurant cut back his hours last fall, he lost his Pico Rivera studio apartment.

Now, he receives $900 in unemployment, enough for food and clothes, but not quite to cover rent and bills. Most days, he sleeps in a secluded alley in Pico Rivera, not far from the roar of passing trains and cargo trucks. To bathe, he goes to Roosevelt High School’s public pool.

“I’m frustrated and sad,” Arevalos said. “Having to go up and down and starting over takes a lot out of you.”

Countywide, an estimated 20% of Latinos live below the poverty level. Their average household income is about $47,000.

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Chris Alexakishousing