Housing Shortage. Homelessness Surplus.
PASADENA, Calif. — On Jan. 31, 1984, President Ronald Reagan said, “What we have found in this country, is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times … the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.''
Homeless by choice.
Though every state in America has been affected by homelessness, Reagan chose to launch his political career in California where 12 percent of the U.S. population resides – and 25 percent of its homeless languishes.
Pasadena is the 6th largest city in Los Angeles County. Known for its iconic Tournament of Roses parade, NASA-run Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Hollywood hotshots, the city is lesser known for its growing homelessness crisis.
“You should see the emails we get from upstanding citizens who berate the city for allowing homelessness – they want it gone,” said Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek. “There is so much hysteria from homeless advocates over our housing efforts not being enough. But where are they when we do deliver affordable housing?”
Affordable housing, however, does not equate with housing the homeless.
Pasadena Housing Director Bill Huang said that, by way of an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, the city has built over 520 affordable housing units since 2001. Yet, none of those units have been allocated for homeless persons.
“Homeless clients we’ve successfully housed have been in private apartments with a rental voucher and services, or in permanent supportive housing projects,” said Huang. One such city-assisted project is Marv’s Place, home to more than 60 formerly homeless persons.
Huang and Tornek chose housing and development careers immediately after college.
Huang held director-level positions at the Community Design Center and Community Development Commission in Los Angeles.
Tornek managed a portfolio worth more than $380 million for a Japanese-owned real estate developer. He also owned and operated a commercial building management firm and served as a board director for LINC, an affordable housing nonprofit.
“My credentials on affordable housing are bulletproof,” Tornek said. “The city makes an honest effort, but the need is so much greater than the resources.”
He said homeless advocates simply do not appreciate the public fatigue on the issue.
Alfred Noel Catanese said he knows a lot about fatigue. The tall 67-year-old has hollow eyes, bright white shocks of hair and only one band of brittle teeth. He said he has been without a home for nearly a decade.
Catanese is slow on his feet and little more than skin and bones. He said sleeping is an exercise in futility in Pasadena’s Central Park, a 10-acre meadow with an identity crisis that pits playgrounds for families against hangouts for the homeless.
While savoring a mini blueberry muffin, he said, “I studied at Columbia (University) — anthropology and history. But nobody around here wants to discuss the Boxer Rebellion or the Crimean War. When the family moved to Vegas, I took a different path and became an event planner.”
According to U.S. Public Records Index documents on MyHeritage.com, a person named Alfred Noel Catanese resided in Las Vegas between 1995-2004 and was originally from Tuxedo Park, New York.
Catanese said he has learned to make many tough choices. “Sometimes it’s a choice between asking for food or bus money. If someone would choose to put up with me for a few years, I will work to pay them back. If I die before then, I think they might forgive me.”
Marcy Dyment, 54, rests her rail-thin body under the shade of a camphor laurel situated only fifty yards from Catanese. She said that her 28-year teaching career for the Los Angeles Unified School District feels like a distant memory, and living outside is a temporary financial solution.
An oversized hiker’s backpack stuffed to the gills and a 13-year-old shaggy, white dog named Bullet lie at Dyment’s feet. Bullet pants heavily. Dyment rubs his belly. She said she named him bullet because she rescued him from railroad tracks where he ran as fast as a speeding bullet to catch a train.
Dyment is weathered but fit. Her tinted sunglasses hide her eyes. Clusters of vivid tattoos line her lean biceps.
“A domestic partnership issue forced me to move to an apartment and sell my house,” she said. Her fingers trembled, her gaze drifted. “I had no choice – I couldn’t take my cats or dogs with me, so I had to give them to the local Humane Society. I’ll never see them again. It’s so hard.”
Dyment said she ran out of money three months ago and had to sell the rest of what she owned – she could neither afford storage nor a place to live.
“If I had a choice, I wish I could have a safe place to store this heavy backpack during the day, because I have to move around a lot,” she said. “I was outside a church, which was like a home base for a while, but I eventually felt like I had overstayed my welcome. I just wish I could sleep past 5 a.m.”
A full teacher’s pension awaits her in six months, she said, and it could not come soon enough. She was recently attacked by another homeless woman whom she thought she could trust.
Richard Padilla is a Pasadena police sergeant who said he formerly served as liaison to HOPE – the Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation team. “In order to avoid unnecessary enforcement situations, our officers work with licensed mental health workers to engage our homeless citizens with benevolent and solutions-centered responses,” Padilla said.
Though people choose to be sheltered, he said, they do not have any control over when that will be. “More and more folks have to go to Union Station (Homeless Services) every single day to ask if they can get a bed or a meal. And where’s the organization’s facility? A block away from the park where many of the homeless wait and wait for a chance to be helped.”
Union Station Homeless Services (USHS) is Pasadena’s most recognizable homeless services provider. Anne Miskey is the organization’s new chief executive officer. She said that a dearth of housing options limit her choices to fully support enough constituents.
“The homelessness sector is actually doing a really good job providing services and housing and helping (the homeless) become stable,” she said.
“But we’re faced with the fact that there is (limited) housing, and we have systems pouring people into homelessness, not to mention the cutbacks in the social safety net,” Miskey said.
Ryan Izell is the chief program officer at USHS. He said the organization’s programs have been highly successful, but the sheer numbers of homeless make for a herculean task.
“We have a 95 percent annual retention rate with clients in permanent supportive housing. Yet, we’re housing three people a week, but five people a week are falling into homelessness.”
A lanky, spirited man who calls himself “Rick” wears a dark blue Los Angeles Dodgers cap and sits beneath a cluster of towering pines and laurels on the south side of Central Park. His perch is only a couple hundred yards from several other homeless citizens, including Catanese and Dyment.
Despite his circumstances, Rick’s speech has a unique if not buoyant cadence. Asked if he were currently homeless, he said, “Let’s say I’m a traveler.”
The 61-year-old said he was adopted in Youngstown, Ohio, and he worked at Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co., formerly one of the nation’s top steel manufacturers, but jobs dried up long ago.
Rick said he has been in Pasadena for three-and-a-half years and has not had a steady paycheck or roof overhead since 2000.
“Housing around here is too expensive. And shelter is a different way of life,” he said. “I dare you to put up with one month upstairs or downstairs (at a shelter) — lots of insomniacs, drug addicts. I don’t have to go in the woods to get bitten by the snake — I’ll stay away from that briar patch.”
Rick said that he spends a great deal of time in the park simply thinking about “how to get out of here.”
He said if it were his choice, he would work and live a quiet life. “I would like to have an eight-hour job, have breakfast in the morning and go to work, keep busy.” He scratched his scraggly whiskers. “I wish for a little cabin by a little lake, and a fireplace. And I would like to tend to a vegetable garden.”
Rick was “traveling” in Pasadena during the tail end of a significant five-year decline in homeless numbers before a 28 percent spike from 2016 through 2017 upended all the momentum.
In April of 2018, Mayor Tornek said, “This is the year that we’re not going to have enough money to really support the services that we think we need.”
Pasadena’s median household income is approximately $73,000, which is 20 percent higher than the national median. The city’s largest revenue source – property tax – was projected to rise from $56 million in 2017 to more than $64 million in 2018.
Pasadena is also a recent beneficiary of Measure H, a ¼-cent, decade-long sales tax that the city earmarks for homelessness prevention. Pasadena Homeless Programs Coordinator Jenni O’Reilly-Jones said that over $800,000 in Measure H funding is on its way, and considerably higher revenues are expected in the years to come.
Despite these increasing funding streams, Pasadena faces the stark choice of fiscal insolvency or placing public education, safety and social services resources squarely on the chopping block.
As the city wrestles with homeless housing solutions, San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity recently completed construction of a nine-house project on a former army training compound under Pasadena’s famed Colorado Bridge. The location is adjacent to a particularly affluent neighborhood.
Mark Van Lue is the organization’s executive director. He did not say whether any of the new homeowners had been homeless, but he did say that three are veterans.
“This project took over 10 years to finish. Our families worked so hard to complete their sweat equity, including all of their rigorous financial and management training.”
Van Lue said the greater Pasadena area has not been affordable for a long time, which contributes to the lack of choices for development. “Even though we are utilizing new construction models and methodology, we need to increase our capacity to meet the problem where it lies,” he said.
“Costs here are through the roof. It can wreak havoc on our ability to build affordable housing. But that’s the price of living in paradise.”
While Mayor Tornek said there is “no magic wand,” and Union Station CEO Miskey said “housing” is in fact that magic wand, both said the fight to end homelessness is not a choice — it is a moral obligation.
Said Tornek, “I literally think about this issue every single day.”