2016 Homeless Count Results – A Provider’s View

As President of the Los Angeles Mission, I serve on the LA Central Providers Collaborative, and on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Coordinating Council. In these and other official roles, I have gotten an inside look at the work done by LAHSA, the City of LA, and the County of LA. I have had the unique opportunity to observe the labor of an assemblage of excellent service providers who work on the issue of homelessness.

First and foremost, I would like to commend everyone who continues to work tirelessly to solve this tough problem. Trying to remove the stigma of homelessness in our city is no small task. Their efforts have gotten individuals housed but it is absolutely clear to me that we need to do better.

The sad thing is this. Despite all of our hard work, the total number of those experiencing homelessness in our city has grown by eleven percent. It has grown a bit less (by nearly 6%) across the county. All the details are not in yet. But we do know that the efforts to house veterans and families have been somewhat successful. We have reduced but certainly not ended homelessness for veterans and families.

Despite our focus on the chronically homeless, those numbers continue to grow.

I believe there are two reasons for this. First reason: the rate of those becoming chronically homeless outpaces the number of those who can get housed. The Los Angeles rental market has been called the most impacted in the nation. This is compounded by the fact that our current housing policies are cumbersome to say the least. Simply put, these inadequate policies do not work to help get people into homes. Second reason: the focus on those who are chronically homeless has caused a logjam. Families, veterans and young people who are not chronically homeless right now will be forced into that category unless those policies change.

The challenge of housing the chronically homeless is complicated by the issues that contributed to their becoming homeless in the first place. The longer people are living on the streets, the more difficult it is for them to become housed. It is a tricky process to navigate successfully without extensive help in the form of life skills training and necessary supportive services.

For example, just this morning, my staff told me about several individuals who had gotten their Section 8 vouchers. The problem was these people had no transportation to get to where they needed to go. So they were stuck because they had no bus passes to travel to locate a place or to reach the place identified for them to go.

Others get a place to stay but they have nothing to put in that apartment but an old tent, sleeping bag and a bunch of stuff stored in a trash barrel or shopping cart. Normal household goods like: beds, pillows, sheets and towels, pots and pans, dishes and utensils, not to mention refrigerators and furniture are not usually part of a homeless person’s belongings. What things they do have are often in terrible condition. So we are asked if we can help them. Sometimes we can help, but not always.

It is more than just a need for “stuff”. It is interpersonal relationships that can make the difference in this maze of trying to get housed. And those former personal relationships are often uprooted in this convoluted process. The need for mentoring and support during this experience is paramount. However well-intentioned, the occasional visit by a case worker or medical provider does not replace the need for friendship and everyday support.

I compare the needs of the homeless to the needs of a stranger who goes to live in a strange land. Life is similar but bafflingly different from what they are used to. In such a foreign situation, a mentor or sponsor can make a world of difference in a person’s ability to navigate those dissimilarities. If you have ever been alone living in a foreign country, you can relate to the need for a point of contact with a local mentor.

Imagine you lived on the streets of Skid Row. You ate your meals at the Mission or took handouts for years. Then you finally have a place to live and are on your own. You have to shop for yourself, plan a meal, cook and cleanup in completely different surroundings. Your former relationships from the street are gone. Your family may not be a part of your life either. At the same time, there is the ever-present fear of falling backwards into your prior nightmare of no place to go. Meanwhile, you have to get your bearings in a completely unfamiliar foreign environment. You have to find the grocery store, get a new doctor, etc. You need more than just a voucher and a set of keys. You need someone to help you transition. Left alone you may be tempted to drown your sorrows with alcohol. You need a job, and a sobriety group — not daytime TV.

In my view, homelessness is a series of broken relationships that must be painstakingly reestablished to create long term health and success. HUD, LAHSA, LA City or LA County are not going to provide those vital relationships, individual human beings are.

“Housing first is not housing only” is the latest slogan from HUD. I agree 100 percent. The issue is never simply providing a roof overhead. I am not talking about setting people up to become perpetual wards of the state. Jobs are necessary. Jobs are not only nice to have but should be an essential expectation for everyone. It is very clear to me that those who want to assert the rights of those who are temporarily homeless, must also address and encourage the accompanying personal responsibility.

The city and county are trying to come up with a strategy and the money to build affordable housing that is sorely lacking in LA. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over many years to develop the housing stock we need. Finding the necessary funds is a daunting task. Selling this idea to the public is very tough. Convincing them to agree to tax or fee increases is going to be even more dicey. Nevertheless, it is an essential part of the solution.

However, it seems ridiculous to spend millions of dollars to build housing and move homeless into it and then, what? Provide support forever? Everyone needs the dignity of being able to care for themselves if they can. The solution to homelessness isn’t making everyone who is on the street a permanent ward of the state.

Formerly homeless and recovered homeless people can be trained to be the most advantageous mentors around. The cycle of homelessness can be broken by those who have been through it. At the Mission, some of our most vitally important employees are people who come through the worst of living as addicts on the street only to turn around and help others get clean and move into meaningful lives. Relationships, mentors, church families are essential to restoring someone to a life of self-respect and contributing to society.

Behind the numbers in the homeless count are 45,874 individual people. Each and every homeless person was once someone’s precious child. Every one of these individuals has unique health, educational and relational challenges. Also, as we have learned through recovery at the Mission, they have something unique to offer. Each one can reach back and help others with their experience by sharing what they have learned. The cadre of well-qualified homeless mentors exists. They come from the ranks of those who have survived and thrived despite what seems like impossible challenges.

Can we find some single, one-size-fits-all, magic way to solve the puzzle and end homelessness? No, not unless we understand that housing by itself is not the complete answer. Housing and counseling and other supportive assistance have to go hand in hand to solve this conundrum. Housing accompanied by actual personal help is what is needed to end homelessness. We must work smarter. We can do better.

Thanking God for the Kindness of Strangers

The reason for the first Thanksgiving was simple gratitude.  Gratitude for simply surviving.

The colonists were grateful to God for their survival in a new land.  The native inhabitants of that land had shared their know-how and their bounty with the new arrivals.  That generosity had, in turn, helped them to survive.  The colonists were most appreciative of the kindness shown to them by strangers.  They brought forth their own harvest to be shared by both native and new Americans in a Thanksgiving feast.

All of us are taught these stories in school.  Today our nation celebrates the kindness of strangers on Thanksgiving with a sumptuous meal enjoyed by families of every kind.

Thanksgiving is a big deal for the Los Angeles Mission for several reasons.  It is an opportunity to thank God for each and every person He puts in our path.  We spend this day reaching out to our friends and neighbors with a great feast of the best food we can prepare and serve.  Famous chefs come forward each year to work with our kitchen staff to prepare a memorable meal.

We relish the chance to create afamily atmosphere for those who are often isolated on the streets of this city.  We want to become family to those who could use some simple human kindness.

But feeding people out of the goodness of our hearts is only one of the reasons we shut down 5thstreet to put on a lavish Thanksgiving meal.  To be honest, we hope to focus attentionon the issue of homelessness.  In addition to that, we want to shine a spotlight on the often-unnoticed good work being done in the Skid Row area.  Our ultimate goal is to focus constructive public attention on the painful reality of people living on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Spotlighting that harsh reality is the reason we invite celebrities to show up to serve the homeless.  Their very presence gets the media to come here to see what The Los Angeles Mission does day in and day out.  We ask them to share their thoughts about the need to end homelessness with their fans, the public.

We want to raise awareness about the issue of homelessness.  We think it is essential that we do this during a holiday that focuses people on their gratitude for home and family.

We want everyone to realize and to understand that thousands of people in Los Angeles have no home – or at best, temporary and terrible living arrangements on the street.  Now, more than ever, it is crucial to understand that we can all rise above racial and ethnic differences to work together to end homelessness.

Right now in 2015, the government counts more than 41,174 people in LA County who have no reliable place to live. This represents a rise in homelessness by 16 percent since 2013. The increasing cost of rent seems to be driving 13,000 people every month out into the worst circumstance of all: living on the streets.  Some keep moving from place to place, some stay overnight in shelters and many more camp wherever they can outdoors.

We are appalled by this situation.  We see a repulsive rotation between the sidewalks of our city, our hospitals and our jails.  We don’t think this is right; to say the very least.  The causes of homelessness are as varied as the population.  Some have lost jobs.  Some have gotten divorced or become victims of domestic violence.  Some people have mental health issues.  Still others have drug or alcohol issues.  Some suffer from a tragic combination of these issues.  People with intractable addiction and mental health problems cannot possibly be expected to successfully fend for themselves on the streets.

We work each and every day to reach people that everyone else turns away from and forgets.  There are hundreds of such individuals who now live productive lives after first coming in to share a meal at the Mission.  Over the years, we have seen how a person can change from the inside out.  We know what amazing people they can become because we have seen it happen.  Each of them deserved a chance to reclaim the life they lost on the streets.  We thank God for them — each and every one.

At the Los Angeles Mission, we have spent 79 years earning a reputation for being a reliable resource for people in need.  We welcome everyone.  We offer help, hope and opportunityto those in need.  We can promise you, wholeheartedly, that we are careful stewards of every one of your donations.  We work hardto help those who have no place to call home.  We ask you to remember to help these lost and lonely people as you thank God for your own home and family this year.