(photo/R.W. Dellinger)

When things got really bad growing up in Inglewood, Rasheed Ali Claiborne’s single mom always told him and his four siblings to pray. Hard. Real hard!

“My mother, you know, she raised us to pray,” he remembered. “She just raised us to pray and believe in God. When everything fails you just pray. God will take care of you. Rather than, you know, trying to handle things on your own. ‘Cause it always messes up when we do things on our own. My mom told us to pray — period!”

And he did all through Centinela Elementary and Frank D. Parent junior high in Inglewood.

But things went bad fast in high school. Rasheed managed to stay out of local gangs, because whenever he tried to tag along, the ‘bangers were, like, “No! That’s Pam’s son. Send him back home!” But there were drugs and lots of other ways to mess up.

He found odd jobs helping out his family and wound up working for a taxi company. But not driving. He also started his own family, fathering three kids. But when he lost that last job, and his family, too, there was another dark night in his now 20-something life, something he didn’t want to talk about. Rasheed was able to handle the building stress for a while, taking his mind off stuff by jogging at Hollywood Park Racetrack.

Then, man, everything changed.

“I just woke up one morning and couldn’t lift my arms, ‘cause, you know, there was this pain in my spine. So I was disabled,” he told me. “That was in 2010 in March. Now life started to get real after that. Because, you know, when you’re disabled, a lot of people don’t want to accept you for a lot of other reasons.”

He went to all kinds of doctors. Got X-rays and MRIs. They told him the only thing that would help was major lower back surgery — a risky operation that just might leave him paralyzed from the waist down. So he decided no way. He’d live with it.

Sooner than later, Rasheed wound up living in his ’96 Chevy Tahoe. Which wasn’t too bad. For restrooms, he used McDonald’s and nearby parks like Kenneth Hahn, hoping no one would come knockin’ on the damn door for 10 minutes. He cooked on a barbecue grill. Bought lots of those Albacore Tuna packages and canned goods that wouldn’t spoil. He shopped mostly at — where else —  99 Cents Only stores.

Weeks turned to months, then years. While he got GR (General Relief welfare of $128) and $221 worth of Food Stamps from the county, getting Social Security disability turned into an eligibility nightmare lasting seven years.

“Forget the money, I needed somewhere to stay,” he said. “My legs kept going out on me because I slept in the car. You know how uncomfortable that is for a person with a spine problem? It’ll drive you nuts! You go from back seat to front seat. Then you get out of the car. Then back in.”

After pausing, he pointed out, “It’s in the base down here,” turning and making a face, reaching way down his back. “It’s like I feel everything in my stomach, you know, the nerves coming from our backs. And mine feel weird.”

But the emotional pain was way worse: “By this time, all the stresses in life from being homeless, you know, just hit. The stress in having this problem, I didn’t know about or expect. I look kinda healthy. It, like, tears you up inside. You don’t want to eat. You don’t want to talk. You don’t want to do nothin’.”

Early on being homeless, Rasheed met a younger woman named Paige. He was reluctant to be her boyfriend because his life was so unstable, but he really appreciated her friendship and just having someone to talk to. She was looking for a friend, too, having her own problems with her parents. Five years later they had a baby girl she named Alina.

Now for a good minute Rasheed went silent, his head in his lap. He wiped his eyes before looking up. But did not make eye contact. “I didn’t want to become involved with her. She’s a good person,” he said. “It just made matters worse for her with, you know, her parents. So...” And his head dropped again.

L.A. homeless up 23 percent

A number of heads dropped when the findings of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count 2017 came out this month. The “chronic homeless” like Rasheed Ali Claiborne — who had been homeless for a year or been in and out of homelessness a number of times —  rose by 20 percent, from 14,644 to 17,531 in Los Angeles County.

But even that disturbing fact was overshadowed by the finding that overall homelessness in the county jumped by 23 percent to nearly 58,000 and 20 percent or 34,189 in the City of Los Angeles. The largest county rises happened in the Antelope Valley and East L.A. at 50 percent. The big increases in the city occurred in Council District 1, covering northeast and northwest Los Angeles, with 49 percent and 45 percent in Council District 8, which takes in Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw district, Leimert and Jefferson parks, West Adam and other communities in South L.A.

About 8,000 people experienced homelessness for the first time in the Los Angeles area last year.

And as any Angeleno can attest, the rise of people living in vehicles and encampments spread across the county into new communities and neighborhoods. The overall increase was 26 percent, with people living in cars — like Rasheed — as well as vans, campers and RVs, tents and all kinds of makeshift shelters. The total tally this year was 14,412, up from 11,472 in 2016.

These figures both surprise and don’t surprise Mary Agnes Erlandson. For 30 years, she’s been director of St. Margaret’s Center, a Catholic Charities of Los Angeles ministry site serving Lennox, Inglewood and other working-class and poor communities in South Los Angeles.

“In one sense, this surprises me because I know how much work’s going on now to place homeless people in permanent housing,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been involved with. A lot of agencies have been doing that over the past couple years. But it doesn’t surprise me in the sense of just seeing how rents go up in this part of town. And, especially, because of the football stadium going up in Inglewood. Rents are going up really high.

“So then even though we’re placing homeless people into housing, you have more people becoming homeless because of rising rents. So I think housing and the affordability of housing is the major issue. There just isn’t enough of subsidized housing, affordable housing, Section 8 housing.”

Another nonsurprise was the finding that while African-Americans make up 9 percent of Los Angeles County’s population, they account for 40 percent of its homeless population.

“You’re getting into institutional racism, about bias, about the high percentage of African-Americans who are incarcerated and how much harder it is for them to become employed,” Erlandson explained. “If you have a record, even for a drug crime, you’re denied public housing. So it’s like a caste system.”

But the 63 percent jump in the number of Hispanics experiencing homelessness caught her off guard. Like the folks at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LASHA), who conducted the survey in late January, she believes that particular result needs more research because she’s always thought local Hispanics — with many being undocumented — are more hidden and, therefore, harder to count. And this year the agency did more thorough counts in all Los Angeles County census tracts instead of just selective sampling.

“So I think with the better count they’re identifying what’s really out there,” she noted.

Still, St. Margaret’s Center has been overwhelmed for years with people signing up for English As a Second Language classes and other services serving mostly Hispanics. And the number just keeps rising. The center used to give out 40 lunches a day, three times a week. Now it’s up to 100 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

While men make up the bulk of L.A.’s homeless population, with 39,268 individuals counted, women continue to creep up, according to LASHA. This year the increase was 16 percent,  to 17,882. Erlandson has noticed in recent years the bump in the number of women waiting to be bused to winter shelters to get out of the cold. She thinks people would be surprised to learn that 31 percent of our homeless total are women.

Nearly 18,000 (mostly women) reported “domestic violence/intimate partner violence” was a factor in becoming homeless. That’s more than double the 2016 total of 8,233. Almost 11,000 women, 1,700 men and 400 transgender homeless individuals said they had been sex trafficked.

Erlandson was also disappointed with the 2017 count for veterans. In 2015, government leaders couldn’t stop crowing about the 3,769 vets who were placed in permanent housing. And while that placement figure only dropped a little (3,584), 4,828 men and women homeless veterans were counted in January.

And then there’s the common belief that most of SoCal’s homeless come from somewhere else for our mild Mediterranean-like year-round climate. Not so, according to the LASHA survey.

About 57 percent lived in L.A. County for more than 20 years, with another 9 percent residing here for 10 to 20 years. Only 12 percent said they had been here a year or less.

Survivor

Thinking about it now, Rasheed Ali Claiborne, 30, didn’t know how he made it the last seven, eight years living out of his car. Today he’s in a black Honda sedan. Because a lot of homeless folks he knew didn’t survive. They got caught up in the day-to-day hassle of finding a restroom to wash up and take care of their bodily needs. Then there was coming up with something to eat. And, of course, sleeping — or, more accurately, trying to sleep.

And now there was Paige and three-month-old Alina. They were living off and on at her parents. But then something would flare up — usually, you know, about their relationship — and they’d come to live in the Honda. Then he had to try to keep the temperature in the car just right for Alina. And there was heating up her formula. Just seemed to be one thing after another.

“It’s not just me,” he confided. “It’s a lot of other people out there suffering. Older people as well. And it just seems sadder for them, ‘cause you think, like, ‘Why is this old person homeless? What just happened to them?’

“And you think about, ‘What the f --- am I born for?’ Excuse my language. ‘What am I here for?’ So it gives you, like, a different survival feeling. So my feeling is, like, ‘I’ve got to survive!’ So you’ve got to do whatever.”

An outreach worker at St. Margaret’s Center found a place for him to live. She called it “shared housing,” meaning there was not only a common bathroom and kitchen. You also sleep in shared rooms.

At first, Rasheed turned it down. And he told me why: “Because I’m disabled and I need a place that’s gonna take notice of my disability. I don’t have no other problem with me. Just I’m disabled, and I’ve been homeless for almost eight years.

“I don’t want to go to a halfway house or nothing like that. I want to have some peace. I’ve had a lot of traumatizing things happen to me. I don’t want to hear nobody talk about that stuff. I’ve been through it. I’ve seen it already as a kid, and I’ve survived outside. I don’t want to go inside of another home and be hearing it. I’d rather stay in my car than go to a home hearing about people and their addictions.”

After a moment or two, the angry young man calmed down. “It’s out of all respect,” he said in a whole different voice. “I appreciate the help from St. Margaret’s. They’ve been a lifesaver. I don’t know where I’d be without their help. I got a good sack lunch today and a new backpack.

“And I need some type of other help,” he said, smiling a little. “Probably need some mental health, too. That’s why you see these tears and stuff.”

Later Rasheed changed his mind about shared living. Yeah, he’d give it a try. But when he saw the place, he decided “no way!” And the outreach worker hasn’t heard from him since.