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LA Combats Homelessness Which Is Up 12 Percent From 2 Years Ago

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Homelessness has become such a big problem here in Los Angeles, city leaders have announced a $100 million plan to get people off the streets. Josie Huang from member station KPCC has this story.

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JOSIE HUANG, BYLINE: Nowhere is LA's homeless crisis more glaring than downtown in Skid Row.

WILLY ROBERSON: They call me Rock Bottom. They call me Rock for short.

HUANG: That's Willy Roberson's street name. He's been on and off the streets for decades. And he says he's never seen so many encampments on the sidewalks.

ROBERSON: Right there, look. And then, when you turn that corner, have you walked up there and looked down that street? No? Right there. Come on.

HUANG: We weave through rows of tents and people gathered on the sidewalk. At one point, a car speeds by and clips the curb in front of us.

ROBERSON: Look at that. Look at that. All up on the curb, going the wrong way. You know they high.

HUANG: Addiction, mental illness, poverty - they've been problems downtown for years. But because few people lived here, few people noticed. After World War II, many residents and businesses moved to the suburbs. But in the 2000s, developers began to turn old office buildings and warehouses into residential lofts. And professionals and young families started to trickle back. Just several blocks from Skid Row, writer Alisa Rivera, her husband and their 8-year-old son, Nathan, enjoy a new playground

NATHAN: It's awesome.

HUANG: They moved downtown seven years ago. Rivera says there's a small-town vibe.

ALISA RIVERA: When you walk down the street, you're greeted by name. And everyone knows my son. You know, they're calling out, hi, Nathan.

HUANG: But Rivera says living downtown has gotten a lot tougher recently. The number of homeless people in the city has gone up by 12 percent in just the last two years. Officials blame stagnant wages and high rents. Rivera says panhandlers have gotten more aggressive. Drug dealing is more visible. So is mental illness. Recently, a woman on the street who was flailing her arms accidentally hit her son, Nathan.

RIVERA: Then, the woman got very agitated and started screaming at us and following us down the street.

HUANG: Nathan wasn't hurt. Rivera's more worried about how these kinds of encounters don't seem to faze them anymore. She's thinking about moving.

RIVERA: It's sort of like this is his normal, and I don't like that.

JOSE HUIZAR: If we don't do something more about homelessness, we won't have those families remain in the area as we would like them to remain.

HUANG: City Councilmember Jose Huizar leads LA's homelessness committee. It was created this year as residents lobbied politicians to find more housing and mental health assistance for homeless people.

HUIZAR: I'm almost happy that gentrification, revitalization is happening. Otherwise, there probably wouldn't be any attention on homeless individuals, and the conditions we see there would continue to exist.

BRENT SMITH: If you want to live in a particular area, you have to deal with what goes on in that particular area. If you don't feel that you can deal with that, then you need to move out.

HUANG: That's Brent Smith. He's an advocate for the homeless who used to be on the streets himself. He says the new downtown boutiques and bistros nibble away at the edges of Skid Row.

SMITH: It's a situation where you say the homeless is taking over the sidewalks. But you've got these little coffee shops doing the same thing, you know? They got their little tables sitting out, and so you have to walk around them.

HUANG: A, quote, "evil gentrifier" is something downtown resident Alisa Rivera never set out to become. She calls herself a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx. But when she thinks about the gap between rich and poor downtown, it makes her uneasy.

RIVERA: If you have any kind of consciousness at all, you would be uncomfortable with that, I think.

HUANG: Downtown is getting so trendy that Rivera says it won't be long before her family gets priced out. For NPR News, I'm Josie Huang in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.