Covering homelessness and other issues for KPCC — Southern California Public Radio, reporter Rina Palta began to notice that shelters in Los Angeles County often had empty beds, despite large numbers of homeless people who needed somewhere to sleep. She secured a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and dug for months to get the story.
Palta reviewed public documents from multiple sources, including monitoring reports from the city’s Homeless Services Authority, inspection reports from the health department, coroner’s reports on specific cases, surveys from the Department of Mental Health, and police reports.
She found that more than half of city-funded shelters in one review were not filling all their beds. Overall, city-funded shelters had a 78% utilization rate – well below the 90% required in their contracts.
Palta documented unsafe and unsanitary conditions at shelters across the city, including bedbugs, cockroaches, rats, mold, blood on the walls, toilets that didn’t flush and more. She also dug into specific cases, including the case of a military veteran who died in a shelter bed and wasn’t discovered until his body was in the early stages of decomposition.
Palta’s investigation also found that shelters were rarely shut down after negative monitoring reports, health citations and grievance complaints.
Importantly, Palta’s report combined these records and data with scores of interviews with homeless people. She interviewed one man who showed her the tent he lived in and explained that it was far cleaner and safer than the shelter he left.
Six months after Palta’s story aired, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance creating universal health and operating standards for homeless shelters. The ordinance included funding for several new staff members to monitor compliance and help enforce the new standards.