Metropolis

Inside L.A.’s Housing Crisis, From Someone Who Lived It

A woman walks past a Skid Row sign pointing out a population of "Too Many."
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Listen to What Next:

If you want to understand the sheer desperation some Angelenos feel when it comes to housing these days, just watch this video from a few weeks back. It shows Rep. Maxine Waters surrounded by frustrated constituents. They’d turned up at an event in downtown L.A. where they thought they could get these rare vouchers for permanent, subsidized housing—Section 8 vouchers. But the vouchers weren’t actually available. The congresswoman tells the crowd there’s been a misunderstanding.

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I asked Ethan Ward, who reports on homelessness for KPCC, to talk through this tape with me. At one point, the congresswoman gets defensive when a constituent presses her for help. She says, “There is no one else in Washington who works for their people any fucking harder than I do!” Some saw this as unprofessional. Ward says that kind of frustration is almost a natural response to how confusing the situation is for unhoused people in Los Angeles. “People are at their wits’ end,” Ward say. “At the last count, there were roughly 66,000 people who were experiencing homelessness, and the fact of the matter is there’s just nowhere for people to go.”

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There’s one more thing you need to know about Ethan Ward, which is the reason he understands this story so well is because he’s lived it. Before becoming a reporter, he was unhoused himself. He looks at all these frustrated people confronting their congresswoman, and he knows how hard it is to break out of the cycle they’re in. “As someone that has experienced this and been on the other side of this, it really does feel personal to me,” he says.

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On Monday’s episode of What Next: how Ethan Ward went from living in his car to reporting on homelessness. And why he doesn’t want you to think he’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: When you’ve talked about your own experience with being unhoused, you’ve said that you fell into homelessness. Can you explain how it happened?

Ethan Ward: Honestly, there was a lot of things that were going on. I grew up on the East Coast. I had a really tough childhood. And I moved to L.A. thinking I’m going to be an actor. And I was so dead set on that.

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It’s the American dream.

And then I got here, and I tried to do it for maybe four years, and I quickly realized that this is not for me. But I ended up falling into a really, really deep depression over the whole ordeal because I didn’t have a plan after that.

And I also was not able to find work in L.A. consistently that was able to keep up with the rising cost of housing. So, for example, when I moved into my apartment—one of the last apartments I lived in before I became unhoused—my rent was like $1,400. Five years later when I was leaving that apartment and about to start the process of living in my car, my rent was like $1,950. And my wages certainly had not kept up with that growing cost of rent.

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At this point, I had decided to go back to school and get my degree. And I thought, I have a finite amount of resources. I cannot afford to stay in this apartment even if I had a roommate. I think that the smartest play for me is just to live in my car. And at the time I thought like, Oh, well, how bad could it be? I literally Googled, “How do I live in my car?”

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Did Google know?

Google had a lot of resources, basically like how to charge your stuff, the best way to refrigerate your food, and things like that. But what it did not prepare me for, as someone who was already struggling with depression, was the mental health toll that it takes on you and then the shame that came along with being unhoused, because I’d never told anyone.

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Can you tell me about the first night you made a decision to sleep in your car?

I had come to an agreement with the landlord to leave my apartment, and I actually didn’t immediately go to sleep in my car because I was so scared. I ended up sneaking back into my old apartment for almost a week because the door was unlocked.

What were you scared of?

I was just terrified. If you’ve never been unhoused before and you’re now faced with having to stay in your car overnight—it was really overwhelming for me, and I honestly don’t think I was prepared for that. But then one day I ended up going back to the apartment, and the door was locked. And so then I had to.

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That first night I rode around—I had class the next day at 8 a.m.—for like five hours, just driving around, trying to find a place to park my car to sleep. Because L.A. has parking signs that are like, “You can’t be here overnight.” And I was terrified that I would be asleep in my car and somehow I would wake up to my car being towed with me inside of it or something like that. Or the police would be tapping at my window, and as a Black guy in L.A., I definitely was not trying to have any interactions with police. So it was really, really stressful.

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While you’re dealing with navigating sleeping in your car and all of the drama that comes with that, I had to figure out where I was going to shower, where I was going to wash my clothes, where would I use the bathroom.

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Where were you getting food? Did you have a whole setup for that too?

I literally would eat maybe once a day because I didn’t have access to a restroom. So I would have to stop eating after a certain point because I was terrified that once I was locked into my parking spot and I found a safe spot to be, there was no way that I was going to be able to get up and use the bathroom until I was able to get to the gym in the morning when they opened to take a shower and get ready for class. The bathroom literally started to run my life. I even look at pictures of myself now from that year, and I’m like, Oh my God, I was so thin. I was so skinny and didn’t realize it because I really was not eating.

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I know you were in community college. Did you have a plan to get out of your car? Were you like, If I can do this for a year, something will change?

That was the only thing that kept me going the entire year that I was in my car. If I were able to transfer to a four-year university, I had a bet that housing would probably come along with that offer of admission. Obviously, that was not a guarantee. To remind you: I went back to school late. I’m a nontraditional student. By the time I transferred, I was turning 36.

But you were like, it could happen, so that’s the plan.

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I think at this point it was just like a glimmer of hope that I would be OK that kind of got me through.

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This plan worked. After a couple of years, you were able to transfer to USC, and they did offer your housing. How long did it take for you to consider yourself no longer unhoused?

I actually had survivor’s guilt that I struggled with after I got into USC. After I finally moved, I ended up selling the car that I was living in because I was so traumatized by the entire thing. And I just wanted to be clear of this memory and move on. But the first night I slept in a bed after sleeping in my car for a year, I could not sleep. I literally was crying the first night because I missed the car. It was such an adjustment because even though you’re in a house and grateful to be finally in a home again, I also had conditioned myself to live a certain way for an entire year. So it was a really, really big adjustment.

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And did you have anyone you could talk to about that?

I had journaled the entire year that I lived in my car. That was the person that I talked to—myself. That was how I expressed and dealt with a lot of the things that I was going through and processed a lot of my thoughts. And even now, when I read back over them, I’m like, you were really in the sunken place.

It’s jarring to read your state of mind at a time in your life when you have grown so much since then.

Give me an example.

There was one point in my journal when I was contemplating suicide. I was sitting in my car, and I was watching all these cars drive by. And I felt this intense sense of rage and jealousy. Everyone’s life seems to be going fine. I bet they’re going home to the little perfect apartments or their perfect homes and their perfect families. Maybe I should just drive through a light and just end it all.

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It was really, really bad. And my journal was the only thing that I felt comfortable talking to, and I’m glad that I did that because it has helped a lot to have that perspective now when I see that I’m OK and I’m back in my own place again and I have a great job. It just reminds me that those things are temporary and they’re transitory. And you eventually do come out the other side, which I’m really grateful for.

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And now, as a journalist, you’re speaking to people who may be in that place now.

Yes, and I feel so much empathy because I remember what it was like to have to fight every day to just keep that light switch turned on in my head that says I care—I care about my parents, I care about going to take a shower, I care about showing up to class, I care about turning in this paper. I care about these things because it is so easy to just be like, I don’t care anymore.

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Ethan Ward wasn’t always so sure that he was going to cover homelessness as a journalist. But when he transferred to USC, something changed. In his application essay, he’d written about living in his car. After he got in, the communications department got in touch and asked if he’d feel comfortable talking a bit more about his story.

And I’m like, “Absolutely not.” I do not want everyone at this campus to know that I was unhoused and living in my car for a year. Absolutely not. But then I thought, I should just do it. What am I ashamed of? I didn’t want to carry that shame, so I did it, and the story comes out. And then I ended up finding out that the community college that I had just transferred from, they somehow read the story. And then they told me that they were opening up bathrooms and laundry facilities for students who were experiencing homelessness.

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After they heard your story?

Exactly, because I had never told anyone. But when they told me that, I was like, Oh, maybe there was some good for me sharing that story, because now students that will come after me will have it a little easier.

You saw a way to make change?

Yes, I was like, I’m not the only person that has experienced this. I felt lucky that I had my car to sleep in. A lot of people don’t have that privilege. They are living in tents on the street. And so me having the opportunity to report on homelessness, I’m really, really grateful for that because I do really, really try my best to make sure that I center the voices of unhoused people in my work and really try to convey to people who are reading and who don’t know about it because they don’t know people who are unhoused and they have their own lives and their own families and their own jobs. But if you stop to read one of my stories, I really want you to come away having learned something about unhoused people or the systems and the barriers and the structures that they’re up against, that they have to struggle with to even get access to housing.

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There’s just so many things that I don’t think people really understand about that goes on behind the scenes of being unhoused. It’s just so much that you have to put up with and get through on a day-to-day basis. And a lot of people that I speak to, they are really just trying to get through their day. So even when I’m telling them, “You can go to this particular agency or this particular department,” that turns into, “Well, I can’t leave my tent, I can’t leave my belongings because someone will steal them.” And so you’re trapped in a vicious cycle of If I can just get through this day, then I will be fine.

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You published a story where you highlighted folks who are saying that Los Angeles should be treating its homelessness problem as a natural disaster. I’m wondering how that framing would help.

Most people understand homelessness to be a humanitarian issue. But declaring a state of emergency would eliminate all of the red tape that people have to currently go through to either build housing or to get access to housing. FEMA would be able to come in and pretty much put checks in people’s hands so they can go find housing.

It speeds things up. 

Exactly. And even the processes to build housing, there are city regulations, county regulations, state regulations, health regulations, environmental regulations. And so declaring that state of emergency would kind of eliminate all of that and allow people to grasp the enormity of the situation.

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You obviously got out of your car. I wonder if when you’re talking to people on the streets, you ever try to give them advice. Or do they ever ask you about your experience and how you transitioned from one place to the other and what you tell them?

It does come up from time to time. I honestly try my best not to be like, Look at me, I’m an example, because I kind of hate that. It’s like when people say, “Well, you did it, so other people can do it too.” And it’s like, Sure, yeah, I did it. But also my circumstances were a little different. So I try my best to focus on their issues and let them tell me what they need so I can be of service to them.

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It’s interesting. It sounds like you know really well how your story could be used. And you don’t want that to happen.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that I was able to climb out of that. But I also wasn’t struggling with, like, drug addiction that would have prevented me from maybe going to class and doing assignments and things like that. And so I never really like people to use that as like, Well, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps so you can too. I feel like everyone’s story and everyone’s situation is unique, and some people really need support.

I always tell people if you come from a family where you have a great relationship with your parents and you have siblings and a really strong family support system, you are very lucky because I personally believe that that is the exception, not the norm. So then you are at the mercy of the state or the government or whatever benefits are available to you. And what a lot of unhoused people are experiencing now is that those systems that are supposed to be in place to help are really not working as efficiently as they should to get them into housing.

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