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 the 5th and final part of the series.
The May 26 forum on homelessness presented a wealth of information, from a variety of knowledgeable speakers. They painted a well-rounded picture of the origins of the problem, how city and federal agencies are providing funding and other resources, what the data tells us about the current homeless population, and how new coordination and “housing first” efforts are creating at least some light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel in dealing with the issue of homelessness.
At the end of the presentations, however, audience members still had a number of questions, which prompted the panelists to provide even more helpful specifics.
How will private, city and county hospitals coordinate care for individuals who use their emergency rooms for medical service?
According to Zahira Mann, who spoke earlier about the new Coordinated Entry System developed by the United Way’s Home for Good effort, local hospitals are “very much at the front lines” of helping the homeless, and there are currently a number of efforts underway to coordinate efforts among hospitals, and between hospitals and other kinds of service providers. Also, most hospitals deal with the same kinds of issues with homeless patients, such as repeat visits, and what happens after homeless individuals are released (they can’t be returned to the street). So funders are looking for solutions that will work for all hospitals – such as the new Coordinated Entry System and ways to get homeless patients into permanent housing.
Housingworks’ Rudy Salinas said one L.A. County Health Services project – Housing for Health – has already housed more than 1,500 people who came to them through L.A. county hospitals and clinics. He said three private hospitals were looking for a similar service a while back, and Housingworks was able to help them for a while, until funding for the effort ran out. He said they are currently seeking new funding, however, since all the organizations involved know that it’s much cheaper to pay rent for the homeless than it is to treat them repeatedly in emergency rooms or elsewhere in the hospital.
Finally, City Council Member Mitch O’Farrell suggested that people keep an eye on the City Council’s Homeless Committee, which is also working on this issue.
What can people do if they find someone camping in a neighborhood yard or on a neighborhood sidewalk?
According to LAPD Captain Art Sandoval, it is not illegal to be on the street or sleeping there, but if an encampment is on public property or obstructing a public sidewalk, the police can issue a citation. If someone is camping on private property, however, you’d have to work with the property owner to remove the individual, or have the owner report the person as trespassing.
How is the increasing loss of affordable housing affecting homelessness?
O’Farrell noted that this is a big problem (the city has lost more than 400,000 affordable housing units in the last few years), but a state law known as the “Ellis Act” makes it legal for a property owner to remove affordable housing from the rental market under certain conditions. He noted, however, that the city does have some ability to mitigate the provisions set by the law, and that he is a signatory to a recent City Council motion that would make Ellis Act evictions more difficult.
City Council Member David Ryu agreed, saying he introduced the motion O’Farrell referred to, and that because real estate prices are rising so fast, we have to both build more affordable housing and preserve the existing supply.
If 2/3 of homeless individuals are mentally ill (as noted by City Council Member David Ryu earlier in the evening), does that figure include people with alcohol and drug addictions? And, if so, how do you place those individuals in permanent housing?
Salinas said you can’t make sobriety a condition for housing, and organizations that find housing for the homeless operate under the principle of harm reduction – they look for ways to lessen the effects of addiction, so individuals can live on their own while seeking help for their addiction problems. He noted that many homeless are “self-medicating,” but can’t get access to mental health services right away (there used to be a four-month wait, although it’s a bit better now). Once people are in stable housing, however, aid organizations can more easily help them find the other services they might need, and support them in connecting with those services – even to the point of driving them to appointments, if necessary.
Ryu noted that there is still a huge stigma surrounding addiction and other mental health issues, but as with any other health problem, factors like diet, exercise, and medication can be better managed when an individual is permanently housed. He referred to one project in New York, which targeted the “anchor tenant” in the top 50 worst homeless camps in the area and put those individuals into permanent supportive housing (not unsupervised board and care facilities), with great results.
How can community members contribute in a meaningful way to the current efforts to end homelessness?
According to the panelists, there are a variety of ways for the average person to make a difference. First, organizations at both the city and county level – including those represented on the forum’s panel – are constantly looking for funding. People can donate directly, or get involved with advocacy, policy discussions and even ballot measures that would help support the organizations.
Also, all the organizations – and others like the Midtown Homeless Coalition – need direct volunteers, in a wide variety of capacities…such as donating things like tables and chairs to furnish apartments…participating in the annual homeless census…or more complex activities such as helping to find available apartments for homeless placements and negotiating with potential landlords (since homeless placements compete with all other possible tenants for available spaces). In addition, the United Way sponsors a 5K Home Walk every year, to help raise money and awareness, which is an easy place to start.
Other stories in this series: