Imagine going to work every day knowing that people you're trying to help might hide from you. And even when they ask for help, you're likely not able to offer the thing they most need. And no matter how hard you work, the ultimate problem you're tasked with solving keeps getting worse.

This is the challenge for hundreds of homelessness outreach workers who fan out every day across Los Angeles. As the number of unhoused people keeps going up, L.A. has hired more such workers to try and connect them with social services, and eventually permanent housing. Although there's not nearly enough of that to go around.

NPR spent time with one outreach team to see what their days are like, in a place with more people living on the street than any other in the U.S.

One RV encampment grows after another is cleared out

On a commercial strip in South L.A., shabby RVs are lined up bumper-to-bumper along both sides of a busy street. It's the day's first stop for this team with the nonprofit group HOPICS, which contracts with L.A. county's Department of Health Services. And on this September morning, there are more RVs than there were the last time this team was here. The county recently cleared out another such encampment, and it seems like some people who didn't want to give up their RVs for temporary shelter just came here instead.

In front of one camper sits a man named Anthony Boladeres, who wants someone to check out his swollen leg. The problem could be diabetes-related, says nurse Anthony Velbis, who bends down and chats with Boladeres as he washes his leg with antiseptic.

"It's nice being able to meet the client where they're at," Velbis says. "A lot of our homeless population, they don't like to go into hospitals because they feel there's a stigma." When asked why he does this difficult work Velbis says, "I love it. Because I'm able to give back to the community, to serve them in a way they weren't ever exposed to."

The camper door opens, and a woman steps out and asks another outreach worker if someone will come offer them motel housing soon. Case manager Audrey Pearson tells the woman she'll look into it and then asks whether she needs help with getting food aid, mental health support or a job. It turns out the woman has just spent a few days in jail for driving a stolen car — she says she got it from a friend after hers was towed and that she didn't know it was stolen.

Pearson takes down a phone number and says she'll connect the woman with legal aid. She stresses how important it is that she follows up. "You can't get employment to start a new life if you got legal issues," Pearson says.

Once they finish tending to people here, the six-member team drives to their next stop, parking on the edge of a large lot outside a shopping mall. They walk along a highway and then down a steep dirt path to a small group of tents under a bridge. A woman is screaming and chasing after a man while most others stay inside their tents.

Of the dozen or so people in this encampment many are "suffering from mental and substance abuse," says team coordinator Mychal Johnson, but "they are receptive to us." His main goal is to help several of them get identification documents, because — whenever the time comes — they won't be able to enter housing, even a motel, without them.

Johnson isn't put off by the distrust and suspicion he often encounters. He says many people living on the street feel lied to and abandoned, and he works hard to counter that.

"If I have somebody that has been engaging with me, and they've put their trust in me, I don't want to let that person down," Johnson says. "I'm going to do everything that's necessary so that when they come back around and say, 'Hey, did you do this?' 'Yes, absolutely.' "

"Outreach industrial complex"

Los Angeles County has 55 full-time outreach teams — up from 34 two years ago — plus 14 others that focus on mental health. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority also funds 104 smaller outreach teams. All of them are expected to keep expanding. But not everyone is sold on their growing role.

"I'm going to call it the outreach industrial complex," says Pete White, executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Community Action Network. He calls outreach a kind of smoke and mirrors, designed to make it look like the problem is being solved.

"Why do we invest so much into thousands of outreach workers if there aren't thousands of units to put people in? That money ... has to be spent toward permanent housing."

In 2016, L.A. city voters did approve a $1.2 billion bond measure to build permanent supportive housing for the homeless population. It's been slow in coming, but thousand of those units are finally starting to open. Still, demand far outstrips supply. And as rents have skyrocketed in recent years the number of unhoused people has kept going up, passing 75,000 across L.A. county in the latest count. On average, for every 207 Angelenos who exit homelessness every day, 227 others fall into it.

This upward trend mirrors what's happening nationally, and it's left many people frustrated.

"I understand that frustration, and we all share that frustration," says Cheri Todoroff, executive director of L.A. County's Homeless Initiative.

Todoroff defends outreach workers as a crucial first step to bring people into the social services system, so they can eventually be connected with the shelter and housing that's available.

The county recently launched its own version of an L.A. city program that has shut down dozens of street encampments and placed people in temporary motel rooms. But L.A. has struggled to then move them into permanent housing. A city report blamed a shortage of housing as well as housing navigators to manage the complex transition.

Todoroff says county workers will help people find a permanent place, "going to view those apartments, providing the transportation, helping them fill out those forms, and providing the financial assistance so that the rent is affordable to them."

"I think there's a frustration all across the board," says outreach worker Mychal Johnson. "You're caught in a conundrum because you want to help this person so bad," he says, but there's often not housing available at the place and time when someone is ready for it. He also doesn't think there are enough outreach workers, and finds it hard to imagine an end to the daily trauma he witnesses: "It'll be an ongoing issue until it's not, and we don't know what that looks like."

Small successes can happen unexpectedly

At the team's last stop of the day, Johnson walks down an alley of tents and makeshift shelters, with mounds of discarded items and trash in between. There are several takers for the needles, pipes and condoms he's handing out.

The occupant of the first tent in the row is boxing with a small punching bag he's attached to a fence. Friendly and chatty, Andy Romero says he grew up in this area but has been without stable housing for nearly two decades, since his parents separated when he was 12.

"Unfortunately, you got to work with what you got," he says. "You can't give up, you got to keep surviving." As for a move to housing, "I would love to, but it's not up to me. It's a waiting game."

All of a sudden, a woman appears and in a loud voice asks for rehab. Then she walks up to a woman on the team and whispers in her ear that she's being abused and needs to get away from the man she's with. The team calls a shelter. They're in luck — space just opened up. But then the woman turns reluctant, crying and saying she can't leave behind her sister, who has a serious mental health condition. Coordinator Johnson, drawing on his other job as a minister, employs all his powers of persuasion with both women. "You're putting yourself in a position to become healthy," he says.

In the end, the first woman disappears but her sister gets in the van.

She is tearful and silent on the ride to the shelter. Nurse Velbis notices a jagged wound on her arm and she lets him clean it. When they arrive, it takes more encouragement from Johnson before she gets out of the van.

During sign-in, a man checks the small bag the woman has packed and takes out a bedsheet — she won't need this, he says. A case manager asks to store it, just in case. A security guard scans a wand, the woman crosses the lobby and heads through an open door, and it clicks shut behind her.

Back in the van, Mychal Johnson takes a moment to process his own emotions. He wonders if she'll stay put, especially without her sister. But for now, it feels good to have helped one woman to a safe bed.

At least for one night.

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