The gray metal Toyota van stops at a cracked sidewalk bordering Echo Park. The two women religious in dark blue habits from the Good Shepherd Center get out and start walking up the grassy knoll past a suitcase and dirty bedding under a Eucalyptus tree. Sister Rosaline Vu reaches the wrinkled woman sitting on the ground with her ankles crossed. Beside her is a growling German Shepherd mix. But she pays him no mind.

 “Hi, how are you?” she asks, squatting down.

Sister Anne Lanh Tran, the center’s director, is close on her heels. “Do you need something?” she inquires.

The woman with grayish wild hair mumbles something, looking up.

“You didn’t have food yesterday and today, too?” asks Sister Rosaline.

“Yeah, you’re my angel.”

The younger nun smiles. “Oh, Jesus sends me to you, huh? Thank God for that,” she says in a half-serious voice. “Anyway, I have turkey-and-ham sandwiches, chicken dinners, slices of cake, milk both chocolate and white.” Then adds, “But you don’t want us to find you any shelter to stay? And we have a longer transitional program, too.”

The woman shakes her head.

While Sister Rosaline goes back to the van for food, Sister Anne hands her a Good Shepherd Center postcard. On one side is a map, address and services available —case management and referral services, breakfast, lunch, groceries, clothing and toiletries — with a phone number on the other side along with a photo of Sister Rosaline talking to a homeless woman.

‘Sister U-turn’

For the next two hours, the Toyota van makes more than a dozen stops at other local parks, alleys and sidewalks with the two members of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Los Angeles. Sister Rosaline, who has run the outreach program since 2005, says she never really knows where she’s headed on her runs three days a week, usually with volunteers. But this morning she’s with Sister Anne, who did the mobile outreach program from 1986 to 2002. “Wherever the Holy Spirit is guiding me,” she says. “Whoever I see needs help. That’s why the police call me ‘Sister U-turn.’ ” And she breaks up.

One of the last stops is at a sprawling encampment under a Hollywood Freeway overpass. There are three dome tents, connecting tarps and a row of shopping carts stuffed with blankets, pillows, furniture, toaster ovens, broken toys and canned goods. Sister Anne coaxes a woman in a black dress out of the first tent with a brown paper bag of sandwiches, a piece of orange frosted cake and a bottle of water. But the woman is noncommittal about coming back to the Good Shepherd Center. Still, she gives her name and some other basic information to the nun, who writes it down on a clipboard.

Meanwhile, Sister Rosaline makes her way to the last tent. And when she peeks inside, a woman in a white blouse is sitting, hunched over crying. The nun squats down next to her to ask what’s the matter, but the woman is too distraught to explain. When Sister Rosaline leaves to get some food, there’s a skinny man in a black T-shirt and torn jeans outside.

“Why is she crying?”

He shrugs. “She’s been through a lot. She’s not in talking mode right now. Better to leave her alone.” He says they’ve been living here for almost a year.

“Really? You haven’t gone to a shelter?”

“No. We’re getting help without it. The police are helping us.”

Sister Anne hands him a postcard and brochure.

“If she moves into Good Shepherd,” says Sister Rosaline, we can help her get emergency care and then transition into housing, too.”

The man nods. “Yeah, I know. That would be a great thing. But that’s up to her, though.”

Good Shepherd Center

The Good Shepherd Center for most of its existence since 1984 has offered a continuum of care to homeless women and their children that’s in addition to the mobile outreach. The program of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles operates the Languille Emergency Shelter and Drop-In Center at 267 North Belmont Ave. in Los Angeles, which provides food, clothing, shelter, referrals and supportive services to 30 women a night.

For homeless women and their kids, this can lead into Hawkes Residence Transitional Housing. Besides private rooms for 30 families along with a community area and kitchen, the yearlong program offers case management, job training and employment assistance.

Nearby, Angel Guardian Home has 12 subsidized two-bedroom apartments to help homeless women with disabilities and their children. And the Farley House, named after Good Shepherd Center founder Sister Julia Mary Farley, also offers transitional housing and assistance to women with minor children.

These programs, together with the Village Kitchen, make up the center’s Women’s Village.

But this spring, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cut funding to the center and 57 other local agencies. Those cuts led to 2,000 housing and shelter beds being lost. In April, the center found out it would be losing $395,000 it had been receiving for Hawkes Residence Transitional Housing.

In a homeless assistance application explanation, HUD stated it recognized that transitional housing can be an effective tool for addressing the needs of specific subpopulations, such as underage homeless youths, persons fleeing domestic violence and homeless persons with substance abuse addiction.

But then it dropped the bomb:

“However, recent research shows that transitional housing is generally more expensive than other housing models serving similar populations with similar outcomes. It is often more service-intensive than most homeless households need, and the criteria for entry into many transitional housing programs are so rigorous that transitional housing beds are underutilized because homeless households cannot overcome the barriers to entry.

“HUD is strongly encouraging CoCs [Continuum of Care] projects and recipients to carefully review the transitional housing projects within the geographic area for cost-effectiveness, performance and for the number and type of eligibility criteria to determine if rapid re-housing may be a better model for the CoC’s geographic area.”

The federal government expects women and their children — no matter how long they’ve been homeless or what personal problems they have — to find and move into permanent supportive housing within 12 weeks.

That’s impossible, according to Sister Anne and her staff. For now, the Good Shepherd Center is operating the Hawkes residence with money from foundations and private sources.

“We wanted to have ladies here have the chance to stay longer to help them successfully move out — not just into permanent housing — but with jobs,” says Sister Anne in a meeting with Good Shepherd staff after the outreach ride. “But in this short time now, they cannot do it. Very few ladies get jobs before they move. And it’s not easy to find housing in Los Angeles. So it’s a very big problem.”

Adriana Sandoval, the center’s development director, is nodding. “So we’re still funding Hawkes exactly the same way as we’ve been operating it — 30 women with an average stay of about a year,” she says. “There are women who need transitional shelter. We provide emergency services at Languille. We get them on their feet a little bit there. And then once they get to Hawkes, we deal with all of the other issues before getting them into permanent supportive housing.”

But for how long is uncertain.

“So now we’re supposed to get them fully functional and into an apartment in 12 weeks with no transitional program,” she points out, “which I think in Los Angeles is an impossibility.”

Alexandria House

Like the Good Shepherd Center, a vital part of Alexandria House is its transitional housing for homeless women and their children, which actually occupies two restored houses in Koreatown. Its program was also cut: $86,000 by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) for HUD, and more than $30,000 from United Way.

“The primary reason is that we’re not willing to move people after 90 days if they don’t have a place,” says Sister Judy Vaughn. “Because we’re in a housing crisis. So as much as you want to talk to me about how most people only need housing, most people can’t get it now. I think those of us who are small, who are committed to a vision and have a different analysis, are saying the same thing.”

The other part of HUD’s plan to address homelessness that really bothers the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet is “they want everybody to go through a coordinated entry system.” That means filling out a vulnerability form, which is given a score. Then scores are prioritized.

While that may sound great, she says women with children have a “huge fear” of losing their kids if their score is too high. Many believe the Department of Children and Family Services will take their children away.

And then there’s the two- or three-week waits for replies she hears about all the time. Or they can’t even leave phone messages.

“So what kind of emergency services is that?” she asks. “And they say it’ll take three to five years before any new affordable housing is built. What are families going to do for the next three years? So it’s a broken system without transitional housing.”

Even if there was housing available, the women Alexandria House serves, mainly victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, can’t be made whole enough to go out on their own in just 12 weeks.

The nun, who holds a doctorate in social ethics, says the shift to funding permanent supportive housing at the expense of transitional programs has actually increased homelessness in Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of reasons why it’s worse in LA, and definitely one is the housing crisis,” she points out. “When LASHA did its last count, everything was up. But families especially were up. So, yes, it is worse. It’s definitely worse.”

Alexandria House also includes emergency and, in fact, some permanent supportive housing, as well as being a community center for neighbors. Sister Judy says it’s all needed. And she questions why Los Angeles city and county officials, along with downtown business leaders, have so eagerly endorsed permanent supportive housing.

“Of course, who they want to prioritize are the veterans and people living on Skid Row, chronically homeless people,” she notes. “But they really want to gentrify downtown. So I think there are alternative motives that are either conscious or not conscious in terms of why this would be the new priority.”

Union Rescue Mission

The Union Rescue Mission, one of the largest on Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row, has lost millions of dollars in funding the last few years. Not from HUD, because it accepts no money from the government, but from foundations following the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s lead of supporting mostly housing first initiatives and permanent supportive housing programs.

The Rev. Andy Bales, a Christian minister and chief executive officer of the 125-year-old mission, says for a number of years small and large shelters were demonized or at best characterized as “Band-Aids.”

When he approaches foundations, he often runs up against the traditional image of a shelter that takes homeless in for the evening, gives them dinner, a place to sleep and then kicks them out after breakfast to wander the streets.

“That model never worked, and permanent supportive housing proponents should quit using that as the model that they argue against,” he says, sitting in his black wheelchair in his cozy second-floor office. Behind him is an aquarium and a wall lined with framed awards. “I’m talking about the Union Rescue Mission and people like us who have 24/7 365-day comprehensive care: medical clinic, legal clinic, mental health counseling clinic, learning center that meets people where they are. And we can do it much more effectively for more people than permanent supportive housing in the short term.”

Still, he’s often told by foundations if somebody is living at his mission, they’re still homeless. It’s a term he doesn’t like to use, preferring people currently experiencing homelessness.

“But that’s their argument,” says Rev. Bales. “And one of my arguments back to them is people get lonely and they overdose, and they die in that lonely permanent supportive apartment. And then they’ll say, ‘At least they died with dignity.’

“Well, we don’t want our people to die with dignity. We want them to flourish and overcome and transform and gain sobriety and recover in community. So that’s the other advantage that we have. Some people need the community of a mission to hang in there for support.

“You talk about the guys alone in prison,” he adds. “Why would you move somebody who’s been addicted and lonely on the street forever into a secluded lonely apartment? I have a friend who’s very cynical. And he says what the current policy is trying to do — it may be overly cynical — is move people to obscurity so that we don’t have to see them on the street.”

He reports how many former critics of homeless shelters and transitional programs have acknowledged recently the value of both along with permanent supportive housing to really address this vexing social problem. But he also points out that the damage has been done. And a prime example is the shift towards housing first in the proposed plan right here in Los Angeles by the city and county.

Rev. Bales talks about the record number of 1,290 people living under the Union Rescue Mission’s roof right now. And that includes for the first time more women and children than men. Much of that increase has occurred since HUD changed its funding priorities.

So the Skid Row mission, which also operates a transitional housing campus for homeless women and children in Sylmar called Hope Gardens, hasn’t changed its mission.

“We’ve stayed with our beliefs that we need to be the emergency response. We need to be the life-transformation-response-with-intensive-recovery programs,” he says. “And even though we’ve lost funding over the years, we’ve doubled our budget in 10 years by staying faithful to what we do.” 

Jesuit ministries seeking to make an impact on homelessness

Transitional housing offering safety and hope 

Domestic violence shelter suffers deep cuts