A man who has devoted his life to helping the homeless propels his wheelchair through Skid Row, greeting transients outside their tents in downtown Los Angeles.
The Rev. Andy Bales rolls up chair-to-chair to Donovan Figgers, also missing a right leg, to give him a Friday morning high-five.
“He’s cool,” says Figgers, 48, who has been living on the streets nearly a dozen years, watching the head of the Union Rescue Mission cruise hand-to-wheel down the putrid Skid Row sidewalk.
Nine weeks after he lost the leg doctors said had become infected by Skid Row diseases, the 58-year-old Bales returned to the same urine-soaked streets swimming with the same flesh-eating germs.
His mission was the same, he said. To get people housing across Los Angeles, known as the nation’s homeless capital.
“The number of people that are experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles has greatly increased,” said Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, the city’s oldest and largest homeless shelter. “Encampments have skyrocketed. People living in their cars have increased.
“We need to declare a state of emergency.”
Last month, Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to pay for long-term supportive housing to help the city’s 28,000 homeless residents from the San Fernando Valley to downtown to San Pedro.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a measure for the March ballot asking voters to support a quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless services in L.A. County, where the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority says there are more than 47,000 homeless people.
The problem, Bales and other advocates say, is that city-backed Proposition HHH will take up to a decade to build housing for the homeless. And it will put a roof over just a fifth of the region’s homeless residents.
If passed by voters, the county’s supportive housing sales tax will only commit a fraction to emergency shelters. Still leaving tens of thousands of residents without substantial homes — in tents, in bushes, in cars, or in garages and on couches across the region.
And as the holidays march into the cold winter months, shelters such as Union Rescue Mission now bulge with a record number of needy residents.
Last year, the mission hosted up to 705 residents per day; now that number has swollen to 1,305 guests, Bales said. Last year there were 168 single women; this year there were 350. And for the first time in its 125-year history, the five-story mission on San Pedro Street houses more women than men.
In addition, there are now nearly 200 moms and kids at the mission’s Hope Gardens shelter in Sylmar, more than during the Great Recession, Bales said.
“The answer is immediate shelter. You can’t leave a precious human being on the streets.”
Before leaving on his curbside rounds, the Iowa native sits in an office with a photograph of his late father, Carl, living homeless in a tent set up by his grandfather Pete, who likely suffered from shell shock long after the Great War.
The minister’s desk is cluttered by such books as “Love Kindness” and “Hope Heals.”
It was a few years ago that Bales, who has Type I diabetes, developed a festering blister, which was suspected of exposing him to flesh-eating bacteria prevalent on his daily walks around Skid Row. The E. coli, strep and staph infections caused his foot to deteriorate and his lower leg was amputated in late September.
Since then, Bales has stepped up pressure on city officials to permit regulated tent cities like those in Seattle and Portland, allow churches to open up parking lots to homeless motorists, and convert unused buildings into emergency shelters run by nonprofits.
Pushing his own wheelchair with a pair of bike gloves, the minister greets shelter residents, including a mother and baby left homeless by a recent eviction. He also hails Adrian Rogers, who gives him a hearty “Hey, Rev!”
The trash strewn street is lined with tents, with a river of morning urine not far from a city bathroom kiosk that more often doubles as a brothel or shooting gallery for drugs.
“I appreciate him,” said Rogers, 63, who has lived at the Union Rescue Mission for three years. “He was the first one to let me in after 30 to 40 years addicted to alcohol and drugs. By the grace of God.”
Bales, who has run the mission nearly a dozen years, said the loss of his leg gives him an advantage in being able to serve the downtrodden.
“I resemble Job,” he said, referring to the biblical figure. “I’ve had some heart attacks. A kidney transplant. Spent two years in a wheelchair before the amputation. I know the Redeemer lives.
“I’d give my other leg and more if we could get a roof over everyone’s head.”