Community advocates, faith leaders and members of United Way of Greater Los Angeles alongside the homeless held a candlelight vigil on Tuesday, Dec. 3, near the Freedom Church in Chatsworth to call attention to the recent deaths of two women who were both “unhoused” seniors.
The two women were known only by their first names. Cher, 61 died from hypothermia — her heart stopped from the extreme cold. Janet, in her mid 60s and who suffered from dementia, was hit by a car while crossing the street.
Both died over the last two weeks. Those who knew them didn’t know how to reach any of their possible family members.
The vigil for them was held prior to a meeting of the Chatsworth Neighborhood Council to urge solutions for the growing numbers of homeless in their community.
Under specific discussion at the meeting was a proposed project using funds from Measure HHH that voters approved in 2016 from Affirmed Housing, a homeless housing the developer. The developer seeks to replace a car lot near Topanga Canyon and Devonshire Street with a housing development for unsheltered residents. The project has received pushback from residents who take issue with the location and don’t want it near their homes or a local elementary school.
LA Councilmember John Lee himself hasn’t been supportive of the location, and said he had other sites in mind. But going through the process of changing sites could be three years down the line.
Pastor Kathy Huck and the others at the vigil said the homeless situation is dire, with hundreds of people like Cher and Janet dying on the streets in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles without so much as a mention.
Pastor Kathy knew both Cher and Janet through “About My Father’s Business,” her outreach homeless ministry. With a group of volunteers she regularly visits surrounding Chatsworth encampments, passing out clothing, sleeping bags and backpacks. “I’m just trying to keep them alive until they can get housed,” she said.
Pastor Kathy described both women as “sweet,” saying they were doing the best they could under their very difficult circumstances. They didn’t have the money to afford rent anywhere and didn’t have any other options but to live in harsh conditions outdoors.
“Janet used a walker and a back brace. She was staying in an SUV with another woman who let her rest there and she had a tent by the Orange line in an encampment but that whole area was swept away. Those in cars and RVs are often threatened to be towed and they have a hard time finding areas where they can safely sleep in them.”
She said that Janet attended various community meetings and she wanted to be present.
Women like Cher and Janet are often extremely sleep deprived, Pastor Kathy said, are told they can’t loiter, and are forced to push their meager belongings in shopping carts along sidewalks night and day to avoid harassment. They try to sleep where and whenever they can, but are vulnerable to illnesses and dangerous situations — not as much from other homeless, but from the cruelty of those who aren’t homeless.
“More crimes are committed against the homeless than by the homeless,” Pastor Kathy maintains.
Janet, Pastor Kathy said, had slept for a short time in a tent and accidentally wet herself. She left the tent in search of a place where she could get cleaned up and change clothes. The pastor described Janet’s dementia as appearing to be “mild,” in its beginning stages.
She said everyone should be concerned and help to keep their “neighbors off the streets and safe.”
Pastor Kathy knows that many people don’t regard those like Cher and Janet — who are living in tents under freeway overpasses, living in cars and RVs, are huddled in makeshift encampments or pushing shopping carts— as “neighbors,” but said, “they are and should be respected.”
Advocates also choose to use the term “unhoused” because of the heavy stigma they believe that is attached to referring to someone as “homeless”; that causes others to dehumanize them. They are often dismissed as “drug addicts,” “crazy,” or just “too lazy to get a job.”
“They are us,” Pastor Kathy said.
She referenced the lack of media attention when a homeless person dies. “Media reported [of] a pedestrian being struck and killed by a car [when Janet died], but no one mentioned that she was unhoused or anything else about her.”
“People like to talk about ‘dumping’ homeless into our community, but when I go out that’s not what I see …Yes, there are people who have problems with drugs, but what I also see are many people living on the street who grew up here and went to Chatsworth High School. I see the working poor living in their cars with their kids who shower at the local gym before going to work. I see unhoused children going to school. I see seniors who can’t afford an apartment because they only receive a small social security check. I see people who’ve lost their jobs and homes. I see a lot of young people who’ve been aged out of foster care.”
Pastor Kathy repeats, “They are human beings — they are us.”