Union Rescue Mission Interview: The Hurricane Of Homelessness In Los Angeles Requires A Massive Emergency Response

Rev. Andy J. Bales, the Chief Executive Officer of the Union Rescue Mission, unequivocally maintains that the manner in which Los Angelinos, and people across the United States, respond to the issues surrounding homelessness at this juncture in time is not sufficient. Bales describes homelessness as “a disaster of epic proportions.”

Bales makes clear that the approach to addressing the plight of homeless individuals and families can no longer be the plodding process historically utilized. Rather, he states that there must be a clear recognition that homelessness, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, is a true crisis. It is a situation that warrants an all-encompassing, direct, and immediate response of the type utilized in the aftermath of major weather catastrophes, like hurricanes and floods. “The response must be as if we are in hurricane recovery,” Bales stated.

Bales has been involved in working with homeless individuals and families for 32 years, the last 13 at URM. Prior to coming to URM, served homeless individuals and families in Pasadena for 5 years and in Des Moines, Iowa, for 15 years. Thus, he brings significant experience and a broad perspective to bear on matters associated with poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles.

About the Union Rescue Mission

The Union Rescue Mission, located in Downtown Los Angeles, is considered one of the largest missions of its kind in operation in the United States. Additionally, URM represents one of the oldest organizations serving those in poverty and lacking housing in the country, having been founded in 1891. The organization initially was known as the Pacific Gospel Union, and was established by Lyman Stewart, the founder and president of Union Oil Company.

According to URM, over the past 100-plus years, the mission has carried forth and expanded its efforts in a manner that feeds both the body and soul. URM is deeply committed to breaking the cycle of poverty and aiding individuals and families to achieve true and lasting self-sufficiency. URM pursues its objectives with an unequivocal commitment to its core mission statement, which is set forth simply and powerfully:

“We embrace people with the compassion of Christ.”

URM has established a set of founding principles, derived from its straightforward mission statement:

  • We will serve the whole person in mind, body, and spirit
  • We will always serve others with humility
  • We will treat all people, who are created in the image of God, with dignity and respect
  • We will meet, or exceed, the expectations of those we serve
  • We will actively find new ways to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us
  • We will be truthful and accountable in our work together
  • We will do what we say we will do
  • We will intentionally look at new and innovative ways to do our work
  • We will share our expertise with others

The Human Population Served by URM

Bales shared essential information about the number of people served by URM. He reported that about 1,300 individuals enter the doors of URM each and every night of the year. The breakdown includes:

  • 800 adults with children (the majority of which are women with children)
  • 325 children
  • 550 single men

Bales explained that approximately 8,000 different individuals are served through URM annually, the typical person relying on the mission for assistance for multiple days, weeks, or even longer.

In considering the rate of employment of guests of URM in the mission’s Gateway program, an estimate can be made that about 40 percent of the adults who seek assistance via URM are employed. According to Bales, these individuals simply are not earning adequate wages to cover their basic needs, particularly when it comes to housing in Los Angeles. Bales noted that the number of working-homeless women and men is increasing and has been for some time.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that chronic homelessness in California outpaces every other state in the nation, including New York. Los Angeles is the epicenter of this human disaster.

In the Matter of Homeless Children

During the interview, one issue that Bales returned to multiple times is the vital necessity to sharpen the focus on homeless children. “Homeless children move to being chronically homeless adults,” Bales said. “So many kids are destroyed because of homelessness.”

In addition to the future of children currently homeless being at risk, they face life and death challenges that no young person should ever face. Bales shared a recent tragedy involving a homeless family. The family included a mother, father, a 2-year old girl, and a 9-month old boy.

On a recent night not too long ago, the family was together in their car – their “home” for the night. In order to stay warm, the windows were closed up and the engine turned on to run the heater.

The entire family died.

The coroner’s report is yet to be issued as to whether the family died because of carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Another alarming element of these tragic deaths is found in the stark reality is that this isn’t a rare occurrence. Homeless people, including children of all ages, lose their lives every year in Los Angeles for no other reason than they do not have a proper roof over their heads.

The Mental Health and Homelessness Misconception

During the interview with Bales, the recurring question about the percentage of homeless individuals who are mentally ill was raised. The intent behind the query was based on the wide-spread belief that a notable segment of the mentally ill population end up without proper housing.

In response to this line of questioning, Bales noted that some mentally ill people do end up homeless. He went on to state that the “mental health of a larger number of people suffers greatly after they become homeless.” Homelessness is the precursor to declining mental health and not the other way around.

Bales explained that any person, after spending even a couple of days without a roof over his or her head, likely faces the very real prospect of experiencing a degradation of his or her emotional and mental health. In the overall scheme, while there are some mentally ill people who end up homeless, homelessness impacts the emotional and mental wellbeing of individuals in that situation significantly.

Limited Positive Developments in Regard to Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles

When asked if there was anything significantly positive occurring in regard to homelessness in Los Angeles, Bales pointed to one thing and that alone. He indicted that he believed that there is “more interest in the public to address the growing epidemic of homelessness.” He went on to cite two reasons why this is occurring.

First, there has been an increase in the number of former homeless women and men who are publicly sharing their stories. Bales believes that these personal stories are capturing the attention of segments of the population that heretofore have not focused on issues related to poverty and homelessness. These individuals provide flesh and blood proof that people can break from the plight of homelessness and the so-called “cycle of poverty.”

Second, Bales believes that an increasing number of Los Angelinos are being exposed to the true plight of the homeless population in Southern California. This is the result of three primary factors:

  • Enhanced media attention on the issue of homelessness
  • More families having members who have been or are homeless
  • Seeing the results of homelessness across the city

Bales explained that homelessness can be seen in virtually any neighborhood in Los Angeles. He remarked that when a homeless encampment “appears in the Palisades, people start paying attention.”

Bales does believe that this enhance visibility has resulted in more people being drawn to take an active role in assisting in addressing the plight of homeless individuals and families. This includes an uptick in the number of people who financially support efforts to aid homeless people. In addition, this increased visibility has also brought out more people to volunteer to assist the homeless population in different ways.

Beyond an increase in awareness, Bales makes it patently clear that there have not been any other truly positive developments in appropriately addressing homelessness in Los Angeles as of this time.

Action Plan to Effectively Address Homelessness

As mentioned previously, Bales believes that homelessness in Los Angeles, and throughout the United States, requires an immediate, massive, emergency response like what follows a hurricane. He also notes that an organized response to homelessness must be creative. The efforts that have been undertaken in years gone by to address homelessness have consistently not proven to provide any lasting, or even particularly significant, results.

Bales believes that the time has more than come to move away from the so-called “housing first” movement. The most immediate need is to get a roof over the heads of homeless people. This can include the use of innovative technology, life 3-D printing, which can create safe, sound, and highly affordable housing for homeless individuals and families.

He also maintains that shelters need to provide comprehensive services to homeless families and individuals. URM is a prime example of a mission that does provide its homeless guests with a broad, comprehensive range of vital, necessary services.

Examples of the comprehensive range of services provided at URM include emergency services. Emergency services at URM include:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Clothing
  • Personal hygiene
  • Clinics
  • Day care
  • Family community center
  • Hospitality center
  • Individual assessment and counseling
  • Life management classes
  • Spiritual encouragement

Other programs include the Gateway Project at URM provides specialized programming to help single women and men break their own cycles of homelessness. The program is customized to meet the specific, unique needs of each participant. The URM Life Transformation Ministry works with men to overcome addictions. The URM Learning Program assists adults in enhancing their educational backgrounds in a number of different ways.

Statistical Data on Homelessness in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority maintains statistical data regarding homelessness in Los Angeles. This data must be considered with a caveat. In the final analysis, accurately tracking and accounting for the homeless population in this mammoth city is impossible. The data referenced here is something of a “best-guess estimate” and very well may underreport the true homeless population in Los Angeles.

With this noted, the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority has made a valiant effort to try and count the homeless population since 2005. During three days in January each year, the agency – with the help of thousands of volunteers – spread out throughout Los Angeles County to count the homeless population (as best as they can).

Nonetheless, this data is illustrative to a point. In the end, however, what is most important is recognizing the children, women, and men who find themselves without proper housing in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The total homeless population in 2017 in all of Los Angeles County was estimated to be 57,794. Of this number, 14,966 were sheltered while 42,828 were not. The unsheltered segment of the homeless population take refuge, when the can, in cars, encampments, or wherever they can outside.

The homeless population is thought to break down racially as follows:

  • Black – 40 percent
  • Latino – 35 percent
  • White – 20 percent
  • Asian – 1 percent


Support URM

URM is a nonprofit endeavor. URM depends upon donations from people like you to support its mission to lend lasting and vital assistance to homeless individuals and families in Los Angeles. A donation of any amount truly is helpful to further the mission of URM.

Volunteer at URM

URM is always in need of volunteers to assist in a myriad of different ways. Information on how to volunteer for URM, and help homeless individuals and families in a meaningful, hands-on way, can be obtained at the URM website.

Final Thoughts on Homelessness in Los Angeles

At the conclusion of the interview, Bales stated unequivocally that one point about homelessness is abundantly clear. “We all must have a heart change. We are all responsible to watch out for our homeless brothers and sisters,” Bales concluded.