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.