The majority of unhoused people don’t stay on the street. Many more are like Sarah.

Ethan Ward Capital & Main

(Editor’s note: The first of a three-part series from Capital & Main.) 

Beneath a glaring porch light over her grandmother’s driveway, Sarah Fay is on her smartphone, searching once again for a place to sleep for the night. 

As is often the case when she needs a place and has not already burned through the last of her monthly income, the 28-year-old scrolls through in search of a bed and four walls.

Sarah could lie down on a makeshift bed surrounded by storage boxes and bowls to feed two dogs in her grandmother’s uninsulated two-car garage — and sometimes she does. But that means lying feet away from her 64-year-old mother Karon Fay, who has been sleeping there for more than a dozen years.

Sarah’s grandmother says that her granddaughter has always been welcome to stay in the cluttered garage, but the situation is more complicated. Sarah’s cigarette-smoking mom, who wrestles with breathing problems — as her oxygen mask makes clear — already lives in there. Karon also tries to manage her diagnosed bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t always go so well, her daughter suggests. 

Sarah has tried for the past four years to find an apartment — her last steady residence was her college dormitory. When Sarah needs to get away from her mother and the rest of her life on the periphery of her grandmother’s one-story ranch home in Culver City, California, she splurges on a motel.

Due to a COVID-19 scare at work, Sarah works from her Grandmother’s garage, where she often sleeps.

When she doesn’t have the money, she gets more resourceful. She will sleep in her 2018 black Ford SUV, which she is still paying off. When it is not too cold, she pitches a green pop-up tent on the beach in Playa Del Rey. But most nights, Sarah closes her eyes in the garage next to her mother — and hopes for the best.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “homeless” through four categories. Sarah does not fit the most dire category of “Literally Homeless,” which is generally those who live in public places or shelters. She likely could fall into the next tier, “Imminent Risk of Homelessness,” typically someone who will “imminently lose their primary nighttime residence” and lacks the resources to get permanent housing.

At minimum, she is “housing insecure,” a description for people, experts say, who double or triple up in overcrowded apartments or who move frequently. The term also applies to people without a lease or a contract that grants them legal rights to live somewhere and have no space of their own. Their desperate state may be dressed up as couch surfing, or the sort of measures that Sarah takes, but it is a form of homelessness nonetheless. 

Sarah does not use that term to describe her circumstances. She says, “I would say I’m housing insecure.”

Unhoused and invisible

When many people refer to “the homeless,” they may be talking about people settling in tents, underpasses or cars, but such people are a fraction of the many like Sarah without a stable place to live. 

In Los Angeles County alone, nearly 70,000 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2022 point-in-time count. By contrast, a September 2021 report from the Mayor’s Office of City Homelessness Initiatives estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of people like Sarah wrestling with housing insecurity in the city. (Nationally, there are well over half a million unhoused people, and millions more at risk of joining them.)

“The image in most people’s minds when it comes to homelessness in California is the chronic person living in a tent on a sidewalk,” explains Ned Resnikoff, policy director for California YIMBY and the author of a new report on ending homelessness. “That’s a significant and growing portion of the homeless population in California, but when you’re talking about the typical experience, it is usually not chronic but the more intermittent form, like one housing situation to another.”

That’s crucial to keep in mind for Mayor Karen Bass, who pledged to “drastically reduce homelessness” and “end street encampments” in Los Angeles. On her very first day in office in mid-December, the mayor declared a state of emergency to respond to the housing crisis. The City Council approved it the following day. 

To really put a dent in visible homelessness, Bass will need to galvanize a wide array of resources to produce structures to house people on the streets. She will also need to stabilize the situation for people who sometimes still have a private place to sleep. 

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority calculated in 2020 that a network of supports were helping an average of 207 people out of homelessness each day in the city, but that the overall situation was worsening, with 227 new people losing their housing.

The housing crisis in Los Angeles is based on some fairly simple principles. There is far more demand for affordable housing than there is supply, so prices have soared in recent years, and few renters’ incomes have come close to keeping up. The result, according to a February 2022 report, is that renters in Los Angeles County are the second most “cost-burdened” in the nation, and rents grew about 20% in a year.

A recent analysis by the personal finance site SmartAsset shows that three in every 10 renters in Los Angeles pay more than half of their income for housing. Sarah, who works full time, would have to become one of them to afford a simple market-rate studio apartment.

Personal finance experts generally consider people who spend more than 30% of their income on housing to be prone to accumulate debt. People who spend more than half of their income on rent tend to be extremely vulnerable to a single bad event — the loss of a job, a breakup, car trouble, a broken arm or falling out with a housemate — that can force them out of where they live. In extreme cases, they can slide straight onto the streets. 

But many more end up trapped, like Sarah, in an in-between world, relying when they can on loved ones who have their own problems. 

Not-so-rapid rehousing

Ideally, Sarah would not be looking for a place for the night; she wants a place to call home. She just can’t seem to convince landlords to give her a chance.

Her latest full-time job, as an executive assistant for a nonprofit focused on homelessness in West Los Angeles, pays her $24 per hour. She grosses around $4,000 per month. To people unaware of the surge in rental prices, that might seem like enough. But the median rent for a studio in Los Angeles on Dec. 10 was $1,825 — a $275 increase over a year earlier. After taxes, the market-rate rent would consume most of what she earns. 

But in Los Angeles and other housing-squeezed cities, having the resources to pay the local median rent is a far cry from actually getting an apartment. There are, however, supports in place to help people like Sarah. 

In 2019, when she earned about $2 per hour less, she qualified for a Rapid Rehousing subsidy from the L.A. Homeless Services Agency, but that did not guarantee that she would receive it. The process struck her as complex. It involves working with a Rapid Rehousing case manager to find an apartment in the right price range, then connecting the case manager to the landlord and hoping that they could work it out.

In theory, they agree to allow the subsidized tenant to rent the place based on various criteria, and then the tenant starts out paying a percentage of their rent that will grow in subsequent months and years. The exact amount of the subsidy depends on a variety of factors, including the tenant’s income and the rent, and the process involves the input of the case manager. 

Sarah at her grandmother’s home with her dog, Titan, and grandfather, Matt Fowler, 84.

The problem for Sarah has been convincing a landlord to choose a low-income tenant with mandatory bureaucratic processes over plenty of people in simpler circumstances with larger incomes and better credit applying. Nothing requires landlords to take on tenants like her, and the shortage of affordable lodging means that market forces have been blowing the other way.

Sarah says she repeatedly found apartments within her budget, told her case manager, filed the necessary paperwork — and lost out to someone else. She knows she’s not a perfect applicant; she has long officially lived with family so she has no real rental history, and she has a “poor” credit score.

“It’s a straight up competition between those with vouchers and rental assistance versus those who don’t,” she says. Sitting on a white lawn chair on her grandmother’s driveway, she explains: “I think landlords will always choose those without it.”

Maia Eaglin, director of family services at St. Joseph’s Center, a nonprofit focused on homelessness that has worked with Sarah, notes there is a lot of competition in the low-end budget range. “Landlords are asking for things like triple the income and looking at credit scores,” Eaglin says. “That makes it very challenging for anybody. Particularly when you are unhoused.”

One other technique that people often use to make housing affordable — getting one or more roommates — creates additional obstacles in the world of Rapid Rehousing because it makes the application process slower and adds more bureaucracy. Instead of one person to worry about, a landlord has to examine two or more. “I can’t get a co-signer,” Sarah says. “Been there, done that. Begged for it.” She gave up.

Housing roulette

Sarah said she Googles “apartments in L.A.” or in Culver City — to stay close to her family and job — and plugs in rents for $1,600 or less and rarely finds anything. The fair market rate her subsidy allowed for was capped at $1,770 for a one-bedroom apartment. 

But L.A. County has a shortage of roughly 500,000 affordable housing units, according to LAHSA, so competition for such units is intense. Authorities’ efforts in recent years to stimulate the construction of housing affordable to people like Sarah has not kept up with the growing  need.

To help in her search, Sarah signed up for 10 online newsletters focused on rentals in Los Angeles, to go along with her online searches. “If I find a unit I like and it’s something I can afford, I proceed with filling out the application,” she says. That typically requires her to pay an application fee that can range from about $25 to $45. It can feel like housing roulette, and she’s able to play only when she has that money, and so far, she has only lost on such bets.

Over the last few years, she estimates that she has filed about $4,000 in housing applications — money that could have gone toward paying for an apartment.

At her grandparents house, Sarah finesses a video while her dog, Titan, and grandfather, Matt Fowler look on.

The repeated rejection has, along with challenges in her personal life, taken a toll on her mental health and has made her question whether she will ever manage to get a place of her own. “It’s like pushing a boulder uphill,” she says.

That’s partly because people tend to have other things going on in their lives — job switches, ailing family members, imperfect relationships. Sarah has a complicated family situation that included a brother who suffered from depression and her ailing mother. Sarah, who also struggles with depression, works in a professional space that takes an emotional toll; early this year she was a campus peer navigator for young people seeking transitional housing and, more recently, she became the assistant to the executive director at a nonprofit focused on homelessness. She says she had also attempted in recent years to help care for her octogenarian grandmother and ailing husband. 

When the world weighs on Sarah, it can lead her to make less-than-optimal financial decisions, such as splurging on motels at $100-$200 per night to gain some peace and privacy. That money would help her pay for her own place — if she could find one.

The hotel room money pit

In the dark of night in front of her grandmother’s home, Sarah slaps away a mosquito nipping at her ankle and continues to tap and scroll on her smartphone, her glittery nail polish reflecting light from the screen. 

“I stay away from motels and hotels known for prostitution, even if they are cheaper,” Sarah says. “If the hotel has a reputation for turning tricks, the staff won’t [care] about cleanliness.”

She does what she can to avoid bed bugs, roaches and dirty showers. “If I’m paying to sleep somewhere,” she explains, “I want the bed to be clean.”

Sometimes, when she’s between pay periods — and short on cash — Sarah opts for motels that can be rented by the hour so that she can clean up for work and nap, or simply escape the pressures at her grandmother’s home. 

But such spending, along with her basic living expenses, is part of why she maxed out three credit cards and owes nearly $8,000. That creates a personal finance spiral in which she ends up paying for a prepaid debit card that charges a daily rate and a $5 fee each time she adds cash to cover incidental expenses and the like.

On a late-autumn afternoon, at a hotel near the Westfield Culver City mall, Sarah wears a red dress and leopard shades, carries a black purse and food for her dog, Titan, a large Australian Cattle Dog and Pitbull mix. She is happy to have found a deal on Priceline for $146 for the night with her emotional support dog and a $50 incidental to cover any unexpected charges. 

In the hotel, Sarah provides her reservation information, and the hotel clerk smiles and says, “Welcome back.” Sarah says she has stayed here dozens of times. Within six minutes of her arrival, she is in her room. “I’ve gotten so used to staying in hotels, it’s like a routine.”

“Usually I get a room with a microwave so I can heat food up,” she says. “But this hotel comes with complimentary breakfast.” The room also comes with things she appreciates, like soap, shampoo and conditioner hanging in the shower. She has no luggage since everything she needs is in the back seat of her car, which she can see in the parking lot from her hotel window. 

Some housing-insecure people used to be able to use housing funds, in certain cases, for hotel rooms, according to Molly Rysman, the chief programs officer at LAHSA, but the organization ultimately decided to limit that strategy. “What we found is that all the money was eaten up by hotels and no one got permanent housing,” she says. 

“At the end of the day you’re still homeless if you’re in a motel and it’s more expensive than an apartment. It eats up the money in the homeless system and nobody gets out of homelessness. We want to make sure we dedicate money toward rent, and not just paying motel fees.”

The problem for Sarah is that she has come to count on hotels when she is in a pinch, and that is far more costly per day than an apartment of her own would be. 

In the three years since Sarah began searching for a home when she qualified for “rapid rehousing,” a lot has changed. She has switched full-time jobs, lost family members, a pandemic transformed the city, and she learned that she would no longer qualify for the Rapid Rehousing program. This means she is no longer able to access financial support if she secures an apartment. 

What hasn’t changed is her precarious housing situation, as well as her longing to find a place to call home — even if she has no idea how that might happen.

“I do hope someone will hear my story, or a landlord will be willing to work with me,” she says, noting that she earns enough for rent, albeit little more. “Don’t worry if I don’t have enough money to eat. I can go to a food bank. But at least I’ll have a shelter.” 

This is the first article in a three-part series. Ethan Ward is a contributing writer for Capital & Main, a nonprofit publication that reports on economic, environmental and social issues. The article is co-published with permission.