It's a sweltering, 90-degree November afternoon, and the putrid smell of sweat and urine, punctuated by the occasional waft of cigarette or marijuana smoke, permeates Skid Row. The sidewalks are dominated by massive, festive colored tents — red, orange and blue. People are everywhere. The streets have a kind of manic energy about them, especially lately. Lots of shouting, lots of sudden movements. Everyone is packed together; there is no personal space. Homeless encampments have sprung up all over the city, but there is nothing like Skid Row, nothing that amounts to this concentration of human suffering.
“Cold water!” Phillip calls out. “Union Rescue Mission! Cold water!” He pushes a large cart loaded with plastic water bottles down the middle of San Julian Street. The tents have made the sidewalks impassable for anything wider than a skateboard. Smooth jazz is blasting from a speaker.
William, a large, muscular man with an L.A. Rams cap and a Band-Aid across the bridge of his nose, follows behind Phillip, hands out a bottle and informs the recipient, “Jesus Christ gave you that bottle of water.” He clutches a soft-cover copy of the Bible.
“Thank you, Jesus, for the water,” Phillip says, to no one in particular. Homeless since the age of 8, he has been staying at the Union Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter founded in 1891, for more than a year. “Beautiful day out here,” he says, and he looks as if he means it.
The Rev. Andy Bales follows close behind, gliding along in his wheelchair, a 24-pack of water balanced on his lap. He wears a gray suit and a red tie, black Ray-Ban Wayfarers and black, fingerless cycling gloves. What's left of his right leg, which was amputated just below the knee, is propped up at a 90-degree angle.
He has the calm, plainspoken demeanor of a Midwesterner. He seems to know half the people out here.
“You get a water, Elena?” he asks a woman sitting outside a tent. She did.
He rolls a little more and stops beside a man splayed out on the concrete, tucking a bottle between the man's chest and arm.
He stops to talk to another man and holds his hand, gingerly, for a few seconds. “When can I come to see you?” the man asks. “Tomorrow,” Bales answers. He doesn't linger. There's too much to do.
As CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, a privately run, Christian-based homeless shelter, Bales hands out water on Skid Row whenever it's 85 degrees or hotter. He believes it was on one of these treks, around two years ago, that he came into contact with the flesh-eating bacteria that would eat away at his leg.
Bales had a history of health problems that made him susceptible to infection. He has Type I diabetes, has had two heart attacks and received a kidney transplant from his wife in 2013. Five weeks after the transplant, he competed in a triathlon, during which he developed a blister. The blister festered into a wound and, even though Bales wore a protective boot, that's probably how the bacteria found a way into his body.
He was on a plane to North Carolina when his foot began to ache. He felt feverish. By the time he made it to a doctor, his foot was covered in blisters. It looked like something out of The Walking Dead.
“Please cut this off,” Bales recalls saying, in response to the excruciating pain. He'd contracted three types of bacteria — E. coli, strep and staph. He had to be hooked up to an IV drip of antibiotics for six weeks.
The doctors couldn't save his foot. First they took out a bone, which seemed to stabilize it, for a time. But the foot continued to deteriorate, and two months ago Bales' leg was amputated.
“There was nothing left,” Bales says. “The bones were mush.”
The horrifying injury shocked public officials and served to highlight the consequences of allowing so many people to live in such squalor.
“I think it inspired a lot of people to step up their game,” says Councilman José Huizar, whose district includes Skid Row. “The conditions there are just inhumane.”
Bales, through his work and, to a certain extent, his injury, has become a prominent spokesman for homeless Angelenos — “precious human beings,” he calls them. Lately he's become highly critical of the political establishment and its “housing first” policy, which places the emphasis on long-term supportive housing and is the driving ideology behind Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure passed by L.A. voters in November. “Housing first,” Bales says, has come at the expense of short-term interventions such as emergency shelters (including Union Rescue Mission), which get men, women and children off the street more quickly.
“People need a safe place to stay while they wait for permanent supportive housing,” Bales says. “It's not there yet. So L.A.'s latest plan is to allow people to be on the streets while we build the housing, and I disagree with that.”
According to Bales, city officials like Huizar and Mayor Eric Garcetti talk about homelessness as a crisis, but few of them act with any sort of urgency. Why not turn city- and county-owned abandoned buildings into homeless triage centers? Why not lease warehouses and turn them into temporary shelters — or designate city-owned parking lots as safe places for people sleeping in their cars?
“Andy sees the tragedy, he lives it every day,” Huizar says. “He's constantly urging that more has to be done. And the fact is, on our end, we're kind of going at it at a government pace. For good or bad, that's the way government works.
“For Andy, it's taking too long.”
Andy Bales' grandfather was homeless for much of his life. He moved his family back and forth from Des Moines, Iowa, to California, riding in freight cars. On the wall of Bales' office hangs a photo of his dad, at the age of 14, outside the family's home at the time — a tent in Azusa Canyon. They later moved to a garage in Compton, then a shed in Baldwin Park, then back to Des Moines.
Bales' dad did a bit better: He got a job and earned enough money to get his family off the streets before he was 18. He joined the Army, married, started a family, went into business manufacturing parts and cleaning solution for car washes, and lost everything when Andy was 14.
“I remember him lying on his couch, depressed,” Bales recalls. “I was in the eighth grade, and I said, 'Get off your butt and go to work.' As kindly as I could.”
Bales, who was raised a nondenominational Christian, grew up wanting to be a preacher, but the first time he tried his hand at public speaking — in speech class at Biola College (now Biola University) in La Mirada when he was 17 — he fainted, passing out against a chalkboard. So he became a youth pastor. It was the tail end of the Jesus movement, which was sort of like Christianity's answer to the 1960s. Burned-out flower children everywhere were turning to new-age religions (or in some cases cults). Some chose Christianity.
“I remember singing in a gospel team and having all these long-haired guys that were on drugs and in bands and turning to church,” Bales says. “I was like their young mentor.”
After graduating from college, Bales took a job teaching at a Christian school in Des Moines. One day, he witnessed a student being bullied. He went home, picked up his Bible and read from Matthew 25:40: “The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” The next day, he taught the lesson to all six of his classes — that which you do to the least fortunate, to someone who is hungry or who is hurting, you do to God himself.
That weekend, Bales went to his second job, taking tickets at a parking garage. He was married with four kids and was struggling to make ends meet. He was sitting in the glass booth watching the NFL on a small television, on a frigid winter's night, and he heard a knock on the window. He looked up to find a man with a long, filthy beard, missing teeth, staring at Bales' sandwich. The man asked for it.
“No, sir, I need my sandwich,” Bales replied. The man's face fell, and he disappeared into the cold.
“And I realized, 'Andy, you missed your chance,'” Bales says. “You had a chance to practice what you preached on Friday, and you missed it.
“So I prayed and I hoped for another chance, and I found him on the street, and I fed him dinner.”
A few weeks later, Bales was offered a job at a mission in Des Moines. That was 30 years ago.
“Since that day, from the meal I failed to feed, I've fed millions of meals to hungry people,” Bales says. “Now I'm to the point of, I can't bear to leave a precious human being on the streets.”
There are around 3,600 homeless people living within the roughly 50-square-block area known as Skid Row, according to the latest count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Nearly half of them are unsheltered, inhabiting tents, cars or makeshift encampments, or simply lying out on the sidewalk. There is nothing else like it in America.
Back in 2005, then–Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched the Safer Cities Initiative, which put 50 additional LAPD officers on the streets of Skid Row, or about one on every block. This was before the “housing first” approach became the consensus solution. Back then, many officials still thought that one way to end homelessness was to make it harder to live on the street. Bill Bratton was police chief, and “broken windows” policing, by which signs of blight are eradicated in an effort to psychologically dissuade criminal behavior, was very much the order of the day. The effort to clean up Skid Row was lauded by business groups such as the Central City Association — and decried by social justice activists like the L.A. Community Action Network (L.A. CAN).
Perhaps surprisingly, Bales aligned himself with the Central City Association and LAPD. He favored a crackdown on the gangs that were terrorizing the streets of Skid Row.
“At times, Andy has taken what we would say is a problematic stance in allying himself with the approaches that criminalize homelessness,” says Eric Ares, spokesman for L.A. CAN.
But Bales isn't permanently aligned with anyone — not the cops, not the business community and certainly not the supportive-housing providers. He's spoken out against court rulings that have made it illegal for police to confiscate homeless people's property, which he says have allowed the encampments to flourish, bringing with them crime and unsanitary conditions. He's also been critical of LAPD's reaction to those court decisions.
“The police became hands-off,” Bales says. “They retreated to their cars and gave up their walks.” The result, he says, has been chaos.
Then there's Bales' criticism of the “housing first” policy supported by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The policy emphasizes permanent supportive housing — apartment buildings with on-site mental health services — to combat chronic homelessness. It's a model that's been proven effective, but it's useful for only about 20 percent of the homeless population. Which is why Bales thinks it's seriously flawed.
Homeless advocates, including Bales, say the people who make up the other 80 percent require more subtle and less expensive approaches — things such as housing vouchers, drug and alcohol treatment, job training, mental health care and other supportive services. The approach that utilizes these tools is called “rapid re-housing.”
Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion bond measure that will be funded by property tax increases — and which L.A. voters overwhelmingly approved — doesn't allocate any money for rapid re-housing. And it remains to be seen if L.A. residents will support such housing anywhere but Skid Row.
Even more troubling, from Bales' perspective, is that permanent supportive-housing complexes will take at least three to five years to build. In the meantime, people dealing with chronic homelessness will be left out on the street.
“They somehow think that focusing on the few will help those few, and that's all we can do, that's all the resources they can come up with,” Bales says. “They're not haunted by the many that are suffering on the streets, the kids that are going to be harmed forever by suffering on the streets.”
The permanent supportive housing that already exists on Skid Row is supposed to serve as a refuge from the suffering. But Bales says that some of the supportive-housing complexes don't have the supportive services they need and have themselves become hazardous. “Some have been taken over by gangs, because they aren't well managed, they don't have strong security,” he says. “They allow drug and alcohol use and drug sales. We have people move in and they come back here [to Union Rescue Mission] and say, '[I] can't live there, it's dangerous, how do I stay sober?'”
This kind of talk is anathema to much of the city's homeless-services community, which holds out supportive housing as the one true solution to homelessness.
“I know there are some that are irked,” says Anita Nelson, CEO of SRO Housing Corporation, which runs both supportive and transitional housing. “I'm not. I've known Andy for years. He's entitled to his opinion.”
From practically the moment he set foot in Southern California, Bales ruffled feathers.
In 1999, he moved to Pasadena to take a job as associate pastor at Lake Avenue Church. He was hired specifically to lead efforts to help impoverished people of the area, a task he took to with characteristic zeal.
Twice a week, Bales handed out coffee and sweet bread to day laborers who lined nearby East Villa Street. He also started holding Sunday night dinners for 300 people who were homeless. Those programs caused a backlash — Pasadena residents thought that kind of outreach encouraged homelessness and attracted illegal immigrants.
“A city councilman and a neighbor threatened the church,” Bales says. “[They said] that if I kept doing what I was doing — which is what I was hired to do, outreach — that the church was going to run into all kinds of troubles.” (Bales won't name the city councilman.)
In response, Bales filed paperwork to run for the City Council himself, on a platform of helping the poor and undocumented immigrants.
“I said, 'In Des Moines, Iowa, we had 1,300 shelter beds and we knew it wasn't enough. In Pasadena, you have 54 beds and you think it's enough. Des Moines does a better job.'
“That ticked off everybody.”
“I worked my whole life to end up on Skid Row — and I finally made it.” —the Rev. Andy Bales
The church board told Bales to cease his political activities. He refused and said he was running to make a statement. The board put him on paid administrative leave. Two hours later, he was notified by the election board that he had failed to qualify for the ballot — too many of the people who signed his petition to run had been living in temporary housing, in places other than the homes where they were registered to vote. Of the 43 signatures he'd gathered, only 16 were valid — he was 25 short.
He'd lost his job for nothing.
“The guys that used to stand out on the streets told me they felt like dirt,” Bales says. “Well, for the first time in my life I felt like dirt, because I had really blown it.”
Then the Union Rescue Mission called. Bales had applied to be its CEO, and the mission's board thought Bales was perfect. The job paid about twice what Bales had been making at Lake Avenue.
Says Bales: “I like to joke, I worked my whole life to end up on Skid Row — and I finally made it.”
When Bales took over as head of Union Rescue Mission in 2005, it was already the biggest shelter on Skid Row, in terms of size. But Bales didn't think the facility was using the space well enough. Its fifth floor was virtually empty, reserved for volunteers and visiting VIPs. Bales turned the fifth floor into transitional living for recently released female prisoners. When the great recession hit, the floor filled with homeless women and children.
A few weeks ago, a group of women was sleeping on cots in the mission's chapel.
“We just don't feel that we can leave women and children on the streets,” Bales says, “because it's dangerous.”
The biggest change Bales made was expecting something from the “guests,” as he calls them. It used to be that guests would sleep at Union Rescue Mission at night and leave in the morning. Now, they don't have to leave; they can keep their same bed and footlocker, but they are expected to stay sober. If they have any income, either from a job or a disability check, they are expected to pay $5 a day and to save, for themselves, another $2 a day.
“When I did that, a lot of people criticized me,” he says. “But we went from 300 guests who were really stuck and going nowhere [to] 400 who are climbing and getting on their feet. It had the effect I hoped it would have. It affirmed people's dignity, it taught responsibility, it caused people to feel [a sense of] ownership.”
Despite the sense of community that Bales has fostered, many advocates for the homeless bristle at the idea that more shelters should be built.
“Sheltered is still homeless,” says Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “Investing in housing people is the key to ending homelessness.”
Bales doesn't disagree with that. But investing in housing — building housing — takes time. And for him, people living on the street, particularly women and children, don't have time. Living on the street is too damaging, too traumatic. He says homelessness can't be treated as a long-term problem at the expense of treating it as a short-term one. It's a problem that requires urgent care.
After all, if Bales can catch a flesh-eating virus walking around Skid Row, other people can — and have, he says.
After his recent amputation, Bales thought about retiring. “I sat on my back one day and just said, 'Well, is it time to hang it up?'”
The answer, he decided, was no. “I'm just gonna keep going.”
“He loves what he does,” says David Dow, chairman of Union Rescue Mission's board of directors. “It propels him. Occasionally, I will say, 'Slow down, Andy.' Well, that's like talking to the wind.”
In a way, Bales' amputation has given him a renewed purpose. Before, he was a witness to the degradation of Skid Row. Now he's a casualty of it.
“It's not just me,” Bales says. “There's a lot of vulnerable people out there, with wounds.”
“Andy Bales' case is a reflection of the fact that this is not just a discussion about living on the street and housing the homeless. It's a discussion about health and welfare,” says Carol Schatz, who recently stepped down as president of the Central City Association. “He's the most poignant example of it.”
But Bales' injury is more than just a symbol of martyrdom. It's allowed him to become closer to the people he helps.
“They used to think I was a cop,” Bales says. “They used to say, 'Officer walking!' when I would walk around. And now they know I'm not a cop, and they know I'm not intimidating, and they just welcome me and fist-bump me.”
He says he considers his disability a secret weapon, one that allows him “to communicate with people without any barrier.”
“They know my story,” he says. “I am one of them.”