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Forum on Homelessness, Part 4: Helping Hands and the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”

Douglas Walker, board president of the East Hollywood Los Feliz Homeless Coalition introduces speakers at the May 26 Homelessness Forum

On Thursday, May 26, the East Hollywood Los Feliz Homeless Coalition hosted a forum on the issue of homelessness, which aimed to shed light on the reasons behind the current homeless crisis, why the issue historically has been so hard to deal with, and how things have changed for the better in the way the city is approaching the problem.

The event was moderated by Douglas Walker, board chair of the EHLFHC.  Panel speakers included City Council Members David Ryu and Mitch O’Farrell, LAPD Captain Art Sandoval, Jonathan Hans from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Zahira Mann from the United Way’s Home for Good program, and Rudy Salinas from Housingworks, a non-profit group that addresses issues of AIDS and homelessness.   

The Buzz is presenting a series of stories that summarize the forum’s presentations and provide a look at the public and private partnerships that are beginning to provide a brighter horizon for the homeless in Los Angeles.  This is Part 4 of the series.

When most people see a large  homeless encampment or a troubled homeless individual on a neighborhood street, the first call they usually make is to the LAPD.  But according to City Council Member David Ryu, speaking at the May 26 forum on homelessness, “Law enforcement is the last person you want to call.”


LAPD Captain Art Sandoval, another speaker at the forum, agreed with Ryu about calling the police .  Homelessness itself is not a crime, said Sandoval, and just being on the street is not illegal.

Sandoval said there’s a fine line between keeping the peace and respecting the rights of all citizens, including the homeless, who don’t give up their rights just because they’re in “a bad situation.”

Sandoval also pointed out that simply arresting homeless individuals is just a very temporary measure and does nothing to solve the actual problem, which is much more complex.  “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.  He also noted that most complaints against homeless people are for are minor infractions that are dealt with by issuing a ticket, not an arrest.  And, as both Sandoval and Ryu pointed out, even when homeless individuals are arrested, they are often released again almost immediately and return the the streets.

According to Sandoval, however, the LAPD is trying to help with more meaningful solutions.  He said his division has a “homeless outreach car” that patrols the area to offer services to the homeless, build relationships with homeless individuals, gain their cooperation and help find more permanent housing solutions.  The car’s officers will also arrest individuals who do break the law.

Sandoval also said that there are several new laws, recently instituted, that will change the ways the police deal with the homeless, but those regulations are so new that the police are still “waiting for direction” in how to apply them.

LAPD is “here to keep the peace,” Sandoval said, “to prevent crime and improve the quality of life.”

United Way’s Home for Good – Coordinated Entry

So if the police aren’t the solution, what other tools and organizations are available to help?

Zahira Mann, from the United Way’s Home for Good program, addresses the forum audience

Zahira Mann, from the United Way’s Home for Good plan, said her organization helped produce one revolutionary new tool, a Coordinated Entry System, recently rolled out throughout LA after a trial period in downtown’s Skid Row.  The CES, according to its website, “stitches existing programs together into a no-wrong-door system, connecting homeless adults to the best resources for them.”  In other words, a single application can now connect an individual with many different organizations and services…which is revolutionary in a city where services and resources used to be completely piecemeal and operating independently of each other.

Home for Good was started in 2010 as a collaboration of the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. It cooperates with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), law enforcement and other groups (businesses, faith-based organizations, etc.), with the goal of ending all forms of homelessness in the next few years.

According to Mann, the project’s work is data driven, and operates under an “economic imperative” that shows it’s less expensive to move homeless individuals into housing than it is to leave them on the streets.  In other words, housing the homeless makes good economic sense for both the city and its businesses.

Mann said that for most homeless people, living on the street was not a specific decision, but the last step in a lengthy process that often started with affordable housing, then spiraled down to living in a car, and then on the street.

Home for Good, said Mann, looks at four key elements when addressing the complex issue of homelessness:

  • building public and political good will (engaging groups and individuals in the fight against homelessness)
  • identifying best practices (how well are current programs working?)
  • providing sufficient resources (such as funding, housing vouchers, volunteers, etc.)
  • efficient delivery of services (moving people from the street to housing as quickly as possible, even though each individual has a unique story, needs and circumstances)

Mann especially stressed the need for attention to individuals, saying it’s important to know people by name and actively engage with them on an ongoing basis.  Most homeless people, she said, don’t want to be on the street, but also don’t have an appealing alternative.  Careful assessment, she said, is a key to success, so people can connect with services appropriate to their specific situation and make sure they get into stable, retainable housing.  And that is exactly what the CES now makes it possible to do.

But Mann says there is still more work to do.  “This isn’t a problem we can solve overnight – it’s an evolution.”  She said organizations like the United Way and Home for Good are still working on improving how to engage and coordinate all kinds of community agencies (police, libraries, etc.), as well as individuals who would like to play a part.  And she noted that while the recent homeless census was a big step in learning who and where the homeless are, we also need to understand more about how those counted became homeless…and how to move them back into housing, which the census doesn’t tell us.

Housingworks – Permanent Housing as the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Housingworks’ Rudy Salinas discusses the “light at the end of the tunnel”

One organization working on moving homeless people back into permanent housing is Housingworks, a non-profit organization that helps move the chronic homeless from the streets or temporary shelters into permanent housing and helps them stay there.  Housingworks program director Rudy Salinas said at the forum that this is definitely a realistic goal: Housingworks has housed more than 500 individuals in the last 10 years…with a 98% retention rate (a figure that earned enthusiastic applause from the forum audience).

According to Salinas, the keys to providing permanent housing for the homeless are working closely with landlords (to convince them to accept Section 8 housing vouchers), and educating potential tenants, who have been on the streets for a while, to provide them with the basic skills to live independently in real housing (which requires a different skill set than living on the street).

Salinas, like other speakers at the forum, noted that the focus of homeless service providers has shifted in recent years.  In the past, he said, food donations and temporary shelters were the main resources provided.  Now, however, he said aid workers often hand out housing vouchers like they used to hand out sandwiches.

In the past, according to Salinas, much of the federal funding for the homeless used to go to cities to provide temporary shelter beds.  And people in need of both housing and other services were required to go to a temporary shelter, sign an agreement to abide by a long list of rules, stay off of drugs and alcohol for a lengthy period of time and then, if they could do all of that, move to a long-term shelter…and then, after another 18 months or so of clean living, be declared eligible to be placed on a waiting list for permanent housing.

Much changed, however, according to Salinas, after the United Way presented data showing that it cost $864,000 per year to support 6 people through the temporary shelter system…while you could place 90 people in permanent housing for that same amount of money.  Service organizations and city government began to realize that if you could find housing units and the staff to guide people into it, the public price tag would be much cheaper.

Salinas said that when organizations began to re-tool and focus on getting people into stable housing as soon as possible (and even before addressing other issues in their lives), those people also stayed housed…and service organizations began seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Now, said Salinas, thanks to tools like the CES and data that shows “housing first” really works, service providers are cooperating with each other and are more motivated than ever to move the homeless back into stable housing.  The only problem, he said, is that there just isn’t enough affordable housing.  Less than 2% of housing in Los Angeles falls into the “affordable” category, and while public assistance provides benefits of $1000-1100 per month, people just can’t live on that amount here.

This puts aid organizations in the frustrating position of finally knowing what works…but not being able to afford the cure.  So Salinas says groups like his are “desperate” for solutions. Very often, he said, it means moving homeless people from the streets in Los Angeles, where they’re from, to permanent housing in less expensive cities like Pacoima, where they know no one and have no personal connections…which he says is “heartbreaking.”

Still, said Salinas, now that the benefits of permanent housing are known, and now that both city and private groups are working together on the problem for the first time, “for the first time we have the recipe to end homelessness,” and the future is much brighter than it has been at any point in the recent past.

Next:  Questions and Answers

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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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