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From Homeless to a Home in San Pedro

Strategies to get people off the streets

By Hunter Chase, Reporter

For the past five years, Shirley Guss has been living in an apartment building in San Pedro. But for 25 years prior to that, she did not know for certain where she would be sleeping from one week to the next. She has lived in Harbor City, Long Beach and Wilmington, on the streets, with friends, in hotel rooms and even in an apartment, which she lost.

Guss made the move that finally stopped her constant moving when Harbor Interfaith helped her acquire a Section 8 housing voucher, which enabled her to make the San Pedro apartment her home.

In order for the county of Los Angeles to know who needs housing or other services, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority annually counts how many homeless people are in each city and community.

The purpose of the count is to collect information that enables officials to understand their numbers, needs and locations of the homeless population. The idea is to supply assistance more efficiently — delivering resources that are relevant to real problems, in amounts commensurate to their need and to locations where these problems exist. The latest was on Jan. 22 and volunteers gathered to partake in the homeless count. I was one of 63 volunteers who met at the Harbor Community Police Station. Once there, after receiving instructions and supplies, my three-person team headed out to count how many homeless people lived in a specific area of San Pedro near White Pointe Nature Preserve.

My team did not see a lot of homeless people, we only counted a total of 21. Even then, I only saw one person outside of his car, the rest were inside their vehicles. Part of the reason for this was that it was cold and we were in a more affluent neighborhood.

Amber Sheikh Ginsberg, the head of the Council District 15 Working Group on Homelessness, was on Gaffey Street with Councilman Joe Buscaino. She was not sure how many people she saw. Buscaino was doing the actual counting. Normally, the encampment in that area consists of 30 to 60 people.

LAHSA’s 2019 homeless count recorded 36,135 homeless people in the City of Los Angeles and 58,936 homeless people in the County of Los Angeles, according to LAHSA’s website. This was a 16 percent increase from 2018 for the city and a 12 percent increase for the county. That same count recorded 616 homeless people in San Pedro. The city will be opening a bridge home shelter later this year in San Pedro with 100 beds and the county plans to open a shelter in San Pedro with 40 beds in a few months. Neither will come close to meeting the needs of the community.

Cheryl Gutierrez, the manager of a building in San Pedro that is all Section 8 housing, said she was homeless herself for three years. She lived in her car during that time. She is now retired and manages the building full time. Much of her time is taken up cleaning up the trash of the tenants in the building.

“I don’t feel like I should have to pick up people’s trash,” Gutierrez said. “They’re just the same in this building as they are in the street.”

The building is dirty because of the tenants, Gutierrez said.

Harry Vedder, a tenant of the same building and a former homeless person, has had a different experience with his fellow tenants.

“People here are really helpful,” Vedder said. “Everybody really tries to help each other here because we know everybody’s in the same situation.”

Everyone does things to help out in the building, Vedder said.

Vedder does maintenance on the building and helps Gutierrez clean out the rooms after tenants move out or are evicted.

Gutierrez and Vedder were both referred to the building by Harbor Interfaith. However, all the tenants she has had problems with have been referred by Harbor Interfaith.

Many of the tenants struggle with substance abuse. Of the 18 units  in use, six of the units’ tenants do not have an issue with substance abuse.

Gutierrez herself struggled with substance abuse in the past, but said she was able to overcome her addiction by herself.

While Gutierrez is highly critical of many of the tenants in her building, she still considers herself an advocate for people without a home. She said the system of Section 8 works for those who want it, but those who are unwilling to accept it should not have a place in the building.

Gutierrez became homeless after her mother died in 2012. She and 10 of her adult relatives, including five of her children and five of her nieces and nephews, lost their home after Gutierrez’s mother’s death. They all eventually found housing, including her nephew, who will soon be moving into a unit in Gutierrez’s building.

Vedder is a veteran who owned his own business prior to being homeless. Both of his parents died from cancer around the same time, which was the catalyst to his losing his home.

“I was left without any family, so that really spiraled me out of control,” Vedder said.

He was in the army for eight years and he did two tours in Iraq. After losing his parents, he was homeless for 10 years.

Harbor Interfaith and the military helped Vedder find the apartment he has lived in for roughly three years. He has lived his entire life in San Pedro.

“I have a lot of established roots here,” Vedder said. “So it would be really hard to pick up and just leave.”

Guss has been living in the Harbor Area for 30 years, but was unfamiliar with San Pedro, so she was reluctant to move there when she was first offered housing there.

“We get comfortable,” Guss said. “Then, when it comes to giving us a place to stay, we want to stay right here in our area.”

Ginsberg said a thorough and accurate homeless count is important because it gives you an idea of what is going on with homelessness locally. Later in the year, LAHSA will release the results for cities, then a few months later for the local communities.

Kathleen Martin, site coordinator for San Pedro’s portion of the homeless count, said organizing the count was an incredible amount of work, but it was worth it.

“Doing this was one of the most rewarding things I think I’ve done,” Martin said. “I was so grateful to have the leadership of the community to help pull this off.”

Lots of people stepped up and contributed, Martin said.

Most teams took less than two hours to survey their area. The average departure time was 9:15 p.m. and most returned to the police station around 10:30 p.m., with a few coming in around 11:30 p.m. My team was last. We did not arrive until 12:40 a.m.

My team received two maps of territory to cover, but this was not the reason for our late arrival. Some teams received as many as four maps. The central area of San Pedro was covered by Harbor Interfaith and it took several hours. It was very densely populated.

“It’s not the amount of maps, it’s really the territory and the density of the area,” Martin said.

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