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'Samaritans' Podcast Follows Woman's Journey Through LA's Homeless Services System

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are more than 66,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. Today we're going to hear about one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAMARITANS")

CHRISTINE CURTISS: I was a little surprised that you picked me of all of the people that are homeless. That surprised me. Although, I think, well, you're looking for somebody stable - right? - that wasn't loco in the cabeza?

SHAPIRO: That's Christine Curtiss. She was unhoused for seven years before she started getting social services. A few years ago, LA County raised its sales tax so it could pour hundreds of millions of dollars into street outreach for homeless people. Even with those extra funds, homelessness is still growing in LA. Anna Scott of member station KCRW followed the story of Christine Curtiss for a new podcast called Samaritans.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: When I first met her, I thought she'd be a relatively easy person to help. She was always in the same place. She was easy to find. She wasn't dealing with any serious mental illness or addiction. She was open to help. She was open to talking about it, but I found that it was actually not that easy.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You reported on homelessness in LA for a long time. How unusual is Christine's story? Is she pretty typical?

SCOTT: Well, you know, there's really no way to generalize. In this series, I was looking at a particular sliver of homelessness, which is - you know, there's probably hundreds of thousands of people who become homeless in LA County in a given year. And most of them you never see. They stay with friends. They sleep on a couch, perhaps. And they're able to exit the situation without any formal assistance. But there's this one group of...

SHAPIRO: But the number alone is just shocking - hundreds of thousands each year in addition to the...

SCOTT: I know.

SHAPIRO: ...Preexisting homeless population.

SCOTT: It is a shocking number. And there's a small number that do end up with nowhere to go and land on the street. And then of those people, there's another subset that stays there for a really long time, for years. And with those individuals, it's often not just one thing, you know, that can explain it. And that's definitely the case with Christine. Her story's complicated, and her needs are complicated.

SHAPIRO: There are all of these kind of heartbreaking moments in the podcast where she gets services that she hasn't had for years, you know? She goes to see a doctor, and the doctor gives her prescriptions. But, like, the prescriptions run out, and she doesn't get a refill. Or she doesn't take one of them because it's going to make her have to use the bathroom often, and she doesn't have regular access to a bathroom. Like, there's just this disconnect over and over again.

SCOTT: Yeah. And that was something really striking to me because even as a reporter covering this issue, you know, you don't always realize sometimes, like, how things that sound very logical on paper just don't always play out that way on the ground level. She was receiving medical services, for example, which is a good thing - I mean, absolutely, you know, providing people on the streets with medical services. But when somebody doesn't have a place to go to the bathroom regularly or a way to eat regularly and you're there on the street with them, you see the limits of those services and how it's just not realistic to think that those services can be transformative in somebody's life without a stable place to live.

SHAPIRO: There is this really telling moment that gives some insight into what Christine's life was like for those seven years before she had regular contact with any city or county services, where she tells a story about coming out of a 7-Eleven and seeing, like, a limousine with government license plates. And turns out, it was the - Mayor Eric Garcetti. Let's listen to this little clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAMARITANS")

CURTISS: I didn't tell him I knew who he was. I knew who he was. And he just wanted to give me some advice 'cause that week, he said it was going to rain really bad. And it turned out it did. He said I should go to a shelter.

SCOTT: But Christine didn't know of any shelters nearby, which wasn't surprising. That year, in all of LA County, there were about three times more homeless people than shelter beds.

CURTISS: That's all he had to say. I said, well, thank you for your concern. That's all he said. (Laughter) That's it.

SCOTT: Yeah. You know, that encapsulates so much to me about what I discovered doing this story. I mean, on the one hand, this is a nice anecdote - right? - that it's the mayor in a moment of compassion, connecting with somebody on the street.

SHAPIRO: It's like compassion disconnected from reality.

SCOTT: Yeah, it was really, in the end, this kind of useless advice. And I think it honestly speaks to the history of how homelessness has been treated in LA for years. So, you know, as much as the crisis today is the result of the current housing market and policies at every level of government, it's also about this backlog of people living on the streets of Los Angeles that has built up over decades.

SHAPIRO: You say at the top that it feels like Christine knows everybody in the neighborhood. And you zero in on one really close friend of hers, a retiree who lives nearby, who is sheltered and has a home, named Kim (ph). And early on, we hear Kim describe the similarities between herself and Christine.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAMARITANS")

KIM: We had more things in common than we didn't. She went to Hollywood High. I went to Fairfax. We both grew up in - going to All American Burger on Sunset. And I'm 61. She's 60. It was all in the same time period.

SHAPIRO: Christine tells you that if it weren't for Kim and other people like her, there are times she would starve. It's kind of heartwarming to hear this generosity and kindness but also a little scary that it just takes strangers providing food to keep Christine from going hungry.

SCOTT: Yeah, it's both. I mean, it's pretty extraordinary that Christine had this whole network of friends in the neighborhood and especially Kim and their friendship - it really is the heart of this story. And I hope that it's inspiring for people to hear that individuals can just make a difference with, you know, people in their neighborhood. But it is scary that that was how Christine survived for so long. And without that help, which a lot of people don't have, she could be dead.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You're often on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, talking about homelessness issues in Southern California. Spending a year following one story like this, how did it change your view of this issue that you already knew so well?

SCOTT: Well, I don't know if this sounds obvious or not, but, you know, one of the things that I wanted to do with this podcast - because to listeners - because this is the experience I had in reporting it - was I wanted to grab them by the shoulders a little bit and give them a shake and show how awful this situation is because I think it's easy to get desensitized to it. And I think that a lot of us just go through our day-to-day life. And we accept that we're going to see a large number of people sleeping on the streets. But when you really get to know somebody and come face-to-face with the life-or-death consequences of homelessness, which - those really are the stakes, you realize just how terrible this is. And, again, I know that might sound obvious. But I hope listeners have a little bit of that experience and maybe think about the issue a little differently and maybe feel a little more urgency around finding ways to solve it.

SHAPIRO: Do you think you're going to stay in touch with Christine?

SCOTT: Oh, yeah. We talk all the time. We talked every day. We aired the episodes on KCRW. We spoke after every installment. We just talked yesterday. After the first episode, she said, well, you really put it all out there.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SCOTT: Which is to say, she - you know, I think that she - it's weird to be the center of so much attention and have all this stuff about yourself be public. But I think that she's proud of it. And I think she was moved by it. And she treats it with humor, which is pretty typical.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Anna Scott, thanks so much for talking with us today.

SCOTT: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: She covers homelessness for KCRW. And her new podcast is called Samaritans.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLS' "CURLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.