Bellflower bargains to solve its homeless problem

May 8, 2020
A rendering of the Bellflower shelter, converted from an old warehouse. | Courtesy of Studio One Eleven It’s building its very first shelter exclusively for residents with ties to the city

In 2018, the leaders of Bellflower, a small city in Los Angeles County, had what Mayor Juan Garza calls a “wake-up moment.”

For the first time in the Bellflower’s history, a citywide poll had found homelessness, not crime, to be the issue that most concerned residents. “Bar none, every single year, crime had always been the No. 1 issue,” Garza says.

The city didn’t have a single homeless shelter, but it did have 166 homeless residents, according to a point-in-time survey, and most of them were living on the streets and in tents and cars or RVs.

In September 2019, Bellflower’s elected leaders did something astonishing. They voluntarily joined a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit that was forcing cities in adjacent Orange County to build homeless shelters.

They could have built a shelter on their own, but the settlement presented a win-win opportunity, Garza says.

The city agreed to build 50 beds available only to homeless residents who have ties to the city, like a previous address or attendance at the local high school. And, in exchange, it would win the right to enforce anti-camping and “anti-nuisance” laws against anyone living on the streets who declined a shelter bed.

“If we didn’t make this exclusive to Bellflower, our residents would have rejected it,” Garza says. “And my City Council that is traditionally very conservative went along with it.”

The agreement was signed on September 23, when city manager Jeff Stewart says he and his team at City Hall got to work. At first they zeroed in on an empty piece of land near the San Gabriel River but changed course as the cost to develop it ballooned—the utility connections alone were priced at $2 million.

By December, they had decided to either buy or lease an existing building. In three days, they inventoried every available large commercial property in the city. One week later, they signed a lease for a 1960s prefab warehouse nestled behind a feed store on Lakewood Boulevard.

Right before Christmas, Michael Bohn, an architect who had just finished a food hall made of shipping containers for Bellflower, got a call from the city’s contractor, Howard CDM.

“They said, ‘The city wants this to happen fast. They don’t want this to be a five-year process and not a one-year process,’” he says.

Through his Long Beach firm, Studio One Eleven, John had also designed subsidized apartments for homeless residents. He says he understands the urgency of putting a roof over the heads of people who live on the streets, because the people who live on the streets are dying.

“This is about: How do we get people off the streets immediately?” Bohn says, referencing a September 2019 report that found nearly three homeless residents die daily in Los Angeles County.

In the span of five months, a remarkable timeline by LA standards, Studio One Eleven sketched out a blueprint for free-standing rooms and offices within the steel-frame building. Howard CDM built out the spaces. And Mercy House, the nonprofit social-services provider that was selected operate the shelter, moved in furniture.

“We started construction literally two months after we got the call in December and started sketching,” Bohn says. “We’re very proud.”

Now the shelter is on track to open within a couple of weeks, at the cost of about $2 million. The timing couldn’t be more critical. There are at least 196 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death in the county’s homeless population, a disease that’s two to three times more deadly for people experiencing homelessness than the general population.

If the Bellflower timeline sticks, it will open two months before a homeless shelter in Los Feliz for which planning started 27 months ago. An $8.5 million shelter in Venice Beach opened in February, taking nearly two years. Both were beleaguered by lawsuits from neighbors.

The settlement that Bellflower joined is buffering the city from those types of lawsuits.

“What the judge has committed to is that he would claim jurisdiction to any lawsuit filed regarding the settlement and that Bellflower would be insulated from such litigation as long as we follow the guidelines in the agreement,” Stewart says.

That doesn’t mean Bellflower residents never got fired up about the plans, the mayor says.

At one City Council meeting in December, “the fever pitch was extremely high,” he says. “There were bad words, name calling, getting up to our faces, literally almost touching nose to nose.”

A similar federal lawsuit to Orange County’s is playing out in Los Angeles and is heading toward a settlement. One of the biggest issues in the case is finding housing as soon as possible for people living on the streets. In the face of a deadly pandemic, that’s never been as pressing as it is now.

U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter—the same judge who oversaw the Orange County case—has indicated in court records that his priority is to help the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County come up with ways to provide “immediate access to shelter.” There are a few ways to do that. Homeless advocates have staged stunts and demonstrations to pressure LA Mayor Eric Garcetti to commandeer thousands more hotel rooms. Whatever the solution, everyone agrees: It must happen now, and it’s not happening fast enough.

Bellflower has the advantage of being a smaller city; plans can be vetted and approved more quickly. It has a population of 77,131 and covers just 6.1 square miles (the city of Los Angeles stretches for 502.7 square miles). Still, its shelter won’t go down as the fastest shelter ever built in LA.

In March, the county opened a temporary 40-bed shelter in a former health clinic in San Pedro, a project that only took six weeks to build once plans were approved. Also in March, Garcetti announced plans to reopen 42 recreation centers that had been shuttered during the coronavirus outbreak as temporary shelters. But within about a week, that number was slashed because of social distancing requirements: 24 are now open, with beds for 988 people. An estimated 11,177 people live in vehicles, tents, and makeshift shelters in the city of Los Angeles.

Bohn says the Bellflower mayor and the other elected leaders deserve a lot of credit for joining the lawsuit. “What Judge Carter is doing that’s so phenomenal is forcing cities to deal with the issue,” he says. “There was a burning desire to respond quickly. And this is the perfect time to speed these things up.”

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Welcome WIN Trenton!

January 23, 2020

OCLA issues software license in Trenton NJ to support Mercer County Homeless Youth.  OCLA Founder & WIN visionary Denise McCain-Tharnstrom welcomes WIN Trenton at the  Launch ceremony in Trenton City Hall, Hosted by Mayor Reed Guciora January 18th, 2020

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‘They see the trash… But they have to understand that this is someone’s home’

January 17, 2020
An RV is towed from an encampment Wednesday in South LA. | Photos by Samanta Helou Hernandez What’s it like for RV dwellers during a city-sanctioned cleanup

Margarita Moreno sat surrounded by boxes of cooking supplies, bags of blankets, and a lamp, belongings she had kept in the RV she called home, but that was now being towed away because its registration had expired.

Until Wednesday, Moreno had lived in the RV, which she parked on Gage Avenue in South Central, for three months. She landed there, she says, after losing her job as an in-home caretaker.

“I’m going to stay with a friend until I can get back on my feet again,” she says.

Moreno was one of about 12 people who had their RVs impounded Wednesday as part of a scheduled cleanup of an encampment in the area. The operation, which started at 8 a.m., was one of many that happen across the city every day.

City cleanups are typically a collaboration among the Los Angeles Police Department, city sanitation department, and outreach workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

While LAPD enforced the impounding of vehicles on Wednesday, sanitation crews cleaned up the sidewalks, and case managers talked to residents and encouraged them to sign up for shelters.

In Los Angeles County, an estimated 16,527 people live in cars, vans, or RVs. In the city of Los Angeles, it’s illegal to do this in residential neighborhoods, leaving only a patchwork of commercial streets available for those sleeping in vehicles overnight.

Community members and businesses in the surrounding area had complained about the RV encampment, citing health and safety concerns, said LAPD Sgt. Joe Ward, of the Newton division.

“The main reason the clean up is happening today is if you look around you can see the RVs, a lot of them are dilapidated,” he said. “The ones we are taking have human urine coming out as well as human feces coming out, and it’s causing kids who walk to school to step in it.”

Residents stand with their belongings, most of which had been inside their RV.
Eight LAPD officers stand by during the cleanup.

On the day of the sweep, sanitation workers drained septic water that was leaking from one of the RVs and rounded up bulky items, such as shopping carts and bins that blocked large parts of the sidewalk.

Many activists have argued that these cleanups, which they refer to as “sweeps” because they can displace camp residents, are not the answer to LA’s homeless crisis. That’s especially true, they argue, in the weeks before the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, where the data collected helps guide funding and the delivery of services.

In an open letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and city leaders this week, advocates and grassroots organizers who work with homeless residents say “enforcement actions aimed at encampments may affect the integrity and accuracy of the count.”

“With just over a week before the count is set to begin, these enforcement actions create additional problems above and beyond their typically damaging impact on the lives of homeless individuals. Specifically, sweeps requested by local politicians are creating potential problems for the integrity and political neutrality of the count,” they wrote.

Residents experiencing homelessness tend to agree.

“They see the trash, and it’s a problem. But they have to understand that this is someone’s home. They’re gonna have a lot of stuff,” says Esmeralda, who has lived in an RV on this block for two years with her mother, father (who is in a wheelchair), boyfriend, and two pets. Before living here, the 22-year-old paid rent on an apartment for her family, but could no longer afford it when she lost her job at a perfume factory.

This was the first time they had experienced a cleanup. “Why don’t they give us an appropriate spot where we can all park or at least provide showers, porta-potties, dumpsters, anything would be helpful,” she says.

After the RVs were cleared from the site, sanitation crews were set to clean up sidewalks.

About a half dozen RVs were towed during the operation.

“If they’re parked illegally we tow them, if they don’t have registration we tow them, and or if they’re a hazard to the community, like issues with leakage, we tow them,” said LAPD Sgt. Sean Wells, who works with the department’s homelessness coordinator’s office.

According to Ward, residents of the encampment were notified by service workers two months in advance. Some left before the cleanup started, but for others, moving wasn’t so simple.

Esmeralda and her family were receptive to the service workers, and were in the process of finding a place to park through Safe Parking LA when the sweep notice came. But on Wednesday, the day of the cleanup, she says their RV wouldn’t start.

“They didn’t even give us a chance to at least pull it,” she says. “I wish instead of taking it, they found a way to help us move it.”

According to Wells, once RVs are impounded, owners can pay fees, which average $339, plus a $53-per-day storage fee, to get them back; buy them back for a low price after they’re sold at a low price (sometimes they’re even given away) during the impound lot auction; or find an alternative place to sleep.

Because they don’t have a storage space, whatever belongings Esmeralda and her family couldn’t carry, were to be thrown away by sanitation crews. Their plan is to stay at a shelter for a while until they find a more stable place to live.

“We have nowhere to go to sleep, we don’t have a place with a roof on top of us,” she says. “I’ve lost my home. I’m stuck.”

By noon, most of the RVs had been towed. All that was left were a few pieces of furniture, some mattresses, and an old suitcase.

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The Intersection of Human Trafficking and Homelessness

January 15, 2020
This post is authored by Karen Romero, Freedom Network Training Institute Director at Freedom Network USA.  January is the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness month, an annual effort to increase awareness about what human trafficking really is, and what it looks like, in the United States. The relatively new awareness of this crime has provided much needed protections for survivors, but has also introduced misconceptions.

What is Human Trafficking?

At its essence, human trafficking exploits a person through force, fraud, or coercion for forced labor or commercial sex. Traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of individuals in poverty, experiencing homelessness, or who are part of marginalized populations. Communities that are poor, disenfranchised, and underserved are often the most vulnerable. Trafficking victims are generally left financially destitute, which in turn makes them susceptible to re-exploitation. Individuals who lack safe housing are more likely to engage in dangerous employment to meet their needs, making them vulnerable to trafficking. A 2016 study by Loyola University and Covenant House found that nearly 1 in 5 youth who received shelter services from Covenant House had experienced some form of human trafficking.[1]
In the US, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) has defined trafficking as ●     sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or ●     the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.[2] A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within these definitions.

Human Trafficking in the US

Trafficking happens in every state and can occur in any industry such as education, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, restaurants, among others. We also know that labor trafficking is the most common type of trafficking worldwide.[3] Because human trafficking is underreported and under-identified, there is no clear figure as to how many people are trafficked in the US. Not all victims of trafficking have been able to access services or have reported their experience, therefore statistics can be unreliable. One way to get a sense of the magnitude of human trafficking in the US is through the number of survivors receiving federally funded services. Grantees of the Department of Justice reported serving 8,913 clients between July 2017 and June 2018. [4]

Survivors Need Access to Housing

Safe and stable housing is a critical resource for survivors of human trafficking as they exit their trafficking situation and continue their journey towards healing. Anti-trafficking service providers often rely on emergency housing resources such as homeless or domestic violence shelters to meet the immediate needs of survivors. However, these short-term options can leave survivors homeless once their stay has ended.

Safe Housing options allow individuals to concentrate on their psychological needs, including any effects of complex trauma that they experience. When a survivor’s basic needs (including safe and affordable housing) are not met they must concentrate on basic survival. This creates an environment that makes them more vulnerable to new exploitative situations.  – International Institute of St. Louis, Missouri[5]

Providers in the housing and homelessness field are likely already serving survivors of trafficking without knowing it. Not all survivors will disclose their trafficking experience and some may not be aware that their exploitation is considered trafficking. Housing programs have the opportunity to ensure that their services are trauma-informed and person-centered. By creating systems that focus on providing the individual choice and voice in their housing, we can ensure that all clients, including those who have experienced violence and exploitation, can access housing options that feel safe for them. As providers, we have an opportunity to expand current referral systems and build connections between housing and homeless services and the anti-trafficking field. If you want to learn more, please visit Freedom Network USA’s Housing Project and the Resource Library, which contain materials including fact sheets, videos, and templates for providers to access practical tools and respond to the individual needs of survivors in a person-centered, trauma-informed manner. To learn more about this project, visit For inquiries, contact Karen Romero at Notes [1] Covenant House [2] US State Department [3] International Labour Organization, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery [4] US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2019, page 486 [5] Freedom Network USA 2018 Member Report The post The Intersection of Human Trafficking and Homelessness appeared first on National Alliance to End Homelessness. Continue Reading

New Homelessness Numbers Reflect Uneven Progress, Increased Urgency

January 9, 2020
Despite Significant Decreases Among Families, Youth, and Veterans, Overall Homelessness Increases 2.7 Percent The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress reveals that an estimated 567,715 people were identified homeless on a single night in 2019. This represents a 2.7 percent increase over 2018. The increases during this period were particularly striking among the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. This population rose by 8.7%, including increases of 15% among unsheltered women, and 43% among people who identify as transgender. Other populations that increased included the total number of people experiencing chronic homelessness (+9%), and those who experience homelessness as individual adults (+6.3%). The report reflects deep and persistent racial inequities among the people who experience homelessness: African Americans accounted for 40% of all people experiencing homelessness in 2019, despite being 13% of the U.S. population. Despite the increases, three noteworthy populations experienced year-on-year declines during this period, including people in families (-5%), youth under 18 (-4%), and veterans (-2.1%). The report shows that homelessness overall declined in more states (29 and the District of Columbia) than it increased in (21 states).  “This year’s report is as an urgent call to action to federal, state, and local leaders,” said Nan Roman, President and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “We know how to end homelessness. Family homelessness has declined every year since 2012. And veteran homelessness went down seven of the past eight years. Now is not the time to abandon the practices that drove those results. Now is the time to get serious about funding them to scale.”   Roman attributes that success to alignment from the federal government, the homeless services sector, and philanthropy around evidence-based best practices for ending homelessness, and specifically to the adoption of Housing First principles. These approaches prioritize getting people into stable housing as quickly as possible, and connecting them to needed services to address health, substance use, child care, employment or other needs. This contrasts with stairstep, services first, and punitive programs which are far less effective and more expensive.    “Homelessness did not go up in 2019 because we don’t know how to solve it: we do. People who are housed are not homeless. It is from the safety and security of a home that services will work best for those who need them, and that people can connect with jobs, schools, churches, family and other community supports that will help them get back on their feet. So, we must do much more to get people back into housing faster,” Roman said. “The reason for the increase is that more and more people are falling into homelessness. They don’t make enough to pay for the housing that’s available. This year’s numbers must motivate our federal leaders to ramp up the resources for the evidence-based, housing-focused solutions to homelessness that are proven to work.”

A Renewed Focus

The report was released at a time when homelessness and affordable housing are increasingly in the public consciousness, and tensions run high about the causes and solutions. For the first time ever, most candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign have elevated the nation’s affordable housing shortage as a priority domestic issue. At the same time, several of the West Coast’s largest technology companies have made major monetary commitments to address an affordable housing shortage for which they are often blamed. Meanwhile, numerous communities attempted to pass harmful ordinances that would criminalize people for not being housed. These efforts were set back in December, when the Supreme Court declined to hear Martin v. Boise, a 9th Circuit Court case that had ruled that a city could not make it illegal for people to sleep outside if it had not made a sufficient number of shelter beds available. “Any increase in homelessness is bad news. But we must be clear about the causes and solutions,” Roman said. “This isn’t the fault of the homelessness sector, and it is not the fault of people experiencing homelessness. It is the fault of systems that have failed our most vulnerable populations, and leaders who have failed to protect them. Our charge for 2020 is to remain committed to the best practices in ending homelessness, and to remain resolved to addressing the systems that cause people to become homeless.” The post New Homelessness Numbers Reflect Uneven Progress, Increased Urgency appeared first on National Alliance to End Homelessness. Continue Reading

Establishing a Federal Fund for Homelessness Prevention

January 6, 2020
It’s well known that an acute financial emergency is often the breaking point that makes someone become homeless. Perhaps it’s a matter of missed rental payments or utility bills. Sometimes it comes in the form of a medical bill or inexpensive car repairs. Sometimes someone just can’t gather the funds to put down a security deposit. These are the kinds of expenses that can destabilize a person’s housing and push them into shelter – or the streets. Many providers use a combination of charitable, local, state, and federal dollars to administer or carry out programs to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity. By providing nominal sums of money on a limited or one-time basis (along with housing stability-related services) these programs have saved many low-income individuals and families from falling into homelessness.

Potential Federal Resources

The Eviction Crisis Act (S. 3030), which was introduced in December, would establish an emergency assistance fund at the federal level to provide short-term financial assistance and housing services to renters in danger of eviction. The bill is bipartisan, introduced by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rob Portman (R-OH), and has attracted three cosponsors, including Senators Todd Young (R-IN) as well as Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who is the ranking member on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committee.  Efforts are underway to identify sponsors for comparable legislation in the House.  Under Section 8 of S. 3030, the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would award grants to state, local, and Tribal governments to establish “crisis assistance programs” to help extremely low-income households avoid housing instability and homelessness; and those governments may in turn designate entities to carry out the programs. An eligible household may not receive assistance for more than one 90-day period during each calendar year. No less than 75% of the amount received by a grantee may be used on financial assistance, and no more than 25% of that amount could be used on housing stability-related services, as the bill is written.  Section 8 also includes a list of factors for the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture to consider in the establishment of criteria for awarding grants.  Geographic diversity must be considered in awarding grants. Given the finite resources and the immense scope of the housing crisis, the legislation includes a comprehensive evaluation process to help policymakers identify the best methods for ensuring that assistance goes to those extremely low-income households who need help the most and have no other recourse. It would be up to the appropriators, pursuant to the annual Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) Appropriations Bill, to determine levels of funding for the federal emergency assistance programs that would be established under S. 3030.  Obviously, it is imperative that money not be diverted from the Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) programs to pay for the emergency assistance programs. (Of note, ESG funds can already be used for homelessness prevention, but are more commonly allocated to shelter and re-housing efforts.)

Building Support

In order to induce the Senate Banking Committee’s consideration on this legislation, it will be necessary to build support for S. 3030, ideally through cosponsorships of the legislation by committee Republicans.  Most Congressional offices are unaware of the homelessness prevention efforts helping their constituents back home, and would greatly benefit hearing from providers in their districts: the most qualified people to make this case. S. 3030 also includes valuable provisions that would strengthen tenant protections. These include language to:
  • fund efforts by state and local governments to use landlord-tenant courts, particularly if tenants are actually represented, and
  • establish a database to track evictions in order to develop more informed housing policies.

A Shared Priority

The establishment of emergency assistance grant programs is a key objective of the Opportunity Starts at Home (OSAH) coalition, a long-term, multi-sector campaign to meet the rental housing needs of low-income Americans.  Providing housing assistance doesn’t just end homelessness, but bolsters quality of life in other areas – such as civil rights, health care and education. – and is supported by many members of Opportunity Starts at Home. The collective commitment to this objective is a strong endorsement that prevention resources must be a priority in the federal government’s response to homelessness. The post Establishing a Federal Fund for Homelessness Prevention appeared first on National Alliance to End Homelessness. Continue Reading

Housing Chronically Homeless People: Opportunities through the 811 Mainstream Vouchers

December 16, 2019
There’s no doubt about it: we need more resources to end homelessness in this nation. In fact, we need many more resources. But we also need to make sure that we use every single resource that exists. And for communities seeking to address chronic homelessness, there are important resources available right now.

811 Mainstream Vouchers: What They Are, and How to Use Them

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently awarded more than $130 million in housing vouchers for public housing authorities (PHAs) to expand housing capacity for the most vulnerable in their communities. This is great news for more than 300 awardee PHAs. HUD’s Mainstream Housing Choice Voucher program (also referred to as “811 Mainstream Vouchers”) provides critical funding to ensure that non-elderly people with disabilities experiencing homelessness can access housing.

Now the Work Begins

Many PHAs and Continuums of Care (CoCs) worked hard together to forge the partnerships needed for a successful application. But that’s just the first step.  Now, the hard work really begins: getting people experiencing homelessness into units. CoCs and PHAs have to extend their partnerships all the way through lease-up. As CoCs begin the housing process, they should emphasize their vantage points as partners:
  1. CoCs have relationships with the target population
  2. CoCs have experience implementing tenant based rental assistance programs
  3. CoCs have coordinated entry to identify applicants
Similar to the first round of funding in 2018, HUD provided points for applications that included partnerships between public housing agencies (the applicants) and community agencies, especially those that assist people with disabilities who are transitioning out of institutional or other segregated settings, at risk of institutionalization, homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The latest award also included people who previously experienced homelessness and are currently in a permanent supportive housing or rapid re-housing project, e.g., a moving on program.

Continuing the Partnership

Working across systems can be challenging, but CoCs have the expertise required to assist PHAs house chronically homeless people.  Just as CoCs and PHAs worked together to complete the application for the 811 Mainstream Housing Vouchers, we now have to effectively partner up to reach the ultimate goal: to get people with disabilities into affordable units.  The post Housing Chronically Homeless People: Opportunities through the 811 Mainstream Vouchers appeared first on National Alliance to End Homelessness. Continue Reading

Supreme Court Leaves In Place Ruling Barring Prosecution Of Homeless

December 16, 2019
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear Boise’s defense of its policy of sometimes prosecuting homeless people for sleeping in public after a lower court found ordinances in Idaho’s capital violated the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment. US cities continue to struggle  with how to address the issue of homelessness. Read More. Continue Reading

OCLA receives Great NonProfits Seal!

November 6, 2019

GreatNonprofits focuses on helping people make great giving decisions through socially sourced feedback and reviews.”  Bill Gates

Thanks to WIN users and OCLA supporters who submitted their reviews of OCLA’s programs, OCLA has been recognized as a Great NonProfit! The GreatNonprofits seal is the second most trusted rating seal, after the Better BusinessBureau.  (According to a study by Software Advice) We are honored by the recognition and appreciate all of your contributions!  Read our reviews here!

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November is Homeless Awareness Month

November 5, 2019

Join the fight to end homelessness throughout the month of November. Volunteer at at Soup Kitchen. Give Gently Used Clothing to a Local Mission. DONATE to the WIN app and empower someone to find help today. Read Don’t Look Away Homeless People Are Your Neighbors.



By Engaging Their Communities—and Talking to People on the Streets—Angelenos Can Help People Find Housing

Auto Draft | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Photo by Aaron Salcido.


Establish a relationship with a homeless services provider in your area. Don’t be afraid to engage homeless people, and be sure to listen to them. If you give money or your time, make sure your donation reflects what homeless people say they need, not what you think they need.

And most of all, treat the people you encounter on the streets as your neighbors—because they are.

These were just a few of the suggestions at a Zócalo/UCLA Downtown event titled, “What Can Everyday Angelenos Do About Homelessness?” Before a full house at the Downtown Independent on Main Street in Los Angeles, a panel of experts who study and serve unhoused people sought to correct misperceptions that make people fear their homeless neighbors. They also urged people in Los Angeles to channel their frustration into engaging with homeless people in ways that address real needs—and even to attack the economic, criminal justice and health systems that contribute to producing homelessness in the first place.

It is perhaps most essential, panelists said, that our responses to homelessness be flexible, because homeless people are not all the same. And many common assumptions—that they are all mentally ill, or that they don’t have jobs—are false.

California Policy Lab at UCLA director Janey Rountree, who is also a member of the National Alliance to End Homelessness Research Council, said that 80 percent of homeless people in L.A. County have a work history in California, and one in five homeless people are currently working. She and other panelists also noted that most homeless people live unhoused in the same areas where they once had housing.

And people can become homeless in in many different ways and for many different reasons—in one case in Rountree’s research, an unpaid parking ticket was the trigger.

“It’s a very diverse group of people,” she said. “And the one thing they have in common is deep, grinding poverty.”

Rountree said that, as a resident of Hollywood, she will often walk past an encampment with her small child, and “I believe it’s totally safe to do that.” But she also talks with her child and neighbors about what is happening, and she makes a point of knowing the service providers in her neighborhood, touring their facilities, and asking what they need.

When she herself posed that question, a homeless services provider in her neighborhood told her, “‘I want people to show up once a week and have a conversation with homeless people at our coffee hour,’” Rountree recalled. She added that if you’re not as comfortable with volunteering or direct engagement, you should educate yourself on state and local efforts to address housing and homelessness, and push your elected representatives to focus on solutions.

The event’s moderator, Los Angeles Times editorial board member Carla Hall, who has reported extensively on homelessness, pressed the panelists for specifics about what people can do when they encounter homeless people. Should they provide food, or water, or money? Hall herself said she gives money to homeless people, even though acquaintances sometimes warn her that it won’t be spent on the right things—whatever that means. “I ask them, ‘What do you want them to do, put a down payment on a condo?’” she said.

In response to Hall’s queries, Christine Margiotta, executive director of Social Venture Partners Los Angeles, replied: “The first thing is to acknowledge their humanity. Let them know that we see them” because homeless people often feel invisible.

But Margiotta also argued that Angelenos must go beyond everyday engagement, and work to change systems. Employers must pay wages high enough for workers to afford housing. Society must confront racism in criminal justice, which is reflected in a homeless population in Los Angeles that is one-third African American, even though just eight percent of the county’s overall population is, she said.

UCLA sociologist Randall Kuhn, who co-founded the UCLA Transdisciplinary Homelessness Research Initiative, said our desire to avoid engaging with homeless people is natural—and that our frustration is understandable, since declarations of a homelessness “emergency” and the passage of ballot measures to support housing and homeless services don’t solve the problem. When she herself posed that question, a homeless services provider in her neighborhood told her, “I want people to show up once a week and have a conversation with homeless people at our coffee hour,’” Rountree recalled.

But frustration and avoidance are wrong-headed, he added. Kuhn argued that while homelessness may be shocking here—where we have an expectation that everyone will be housed—homelessness and encampments are common around the world. Noting his own research on health programs and migration in Bangladesh, he said people there form informal slum settlements for the same reasons people do in L.A.: to protect and help each other.

“When people are forced to live on the street, they will naturally congregate,” he said.

Kuhn said that in order to do more to help unhoused people, we need a greater understanding of homelessness—both from research (there are not nearly enough studies on those who don’t go to shelters), and from thinking more about how vulnerable and exposed you can feel if you’re homeless.

“Imagine someone was in your living room and watching everything you did … every fight with your spouse, every time you talked to yourself, everything you drank. You would be humiliated no matter what they saw,” he said.

Chris Ko, Managing Director of Homelessness and Strategic Initiatives at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said that homeless people can feel both intensely visible and invisible at the same time. When unhoused and housed people encounter each other, “understanding that the dynamic is awkward for both of us is important to remember.”

Ko said we must recognize that homelessness affects all of us, even if we’re just driving by, because “It’s a reminder to us that that could happen to any of us … If you mess up, if you’re perceived as messing up, there’s a version of that where we throw you away on the street.”

One way to respond to the stress that we feel in encountering homeless people is to help, Ko and other panelists said. Ko argued not just for engaging with people on the street, but also for finding ways to give time and money for flexible purposes. For all the funding now devoted to some homeless services and housing, there are expenses associated with obtaining housing—such as security deposits or furniture—for which there is little funding. You also might consider helping homeless people with their searches for apartments.

“It’s hard to move—imagine doing it without an address or a vehicle,” he said.

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In response to an audience member’s question about protests against establishing shelters or bridging centers for homeless people in L.A. neighborhoods, Ko said that it’s important to listen to such objections. He also said that Angelenos often worry that bringing homeless services to their neighborhood will make it resemble Skid Row, where there are 2,000 beds on one block, and a lot of shelter residents empty out onto the street at about the same time in the morning. In the bridge facilities now being proposed for and built in neighborhoods around the city, there are only 50 to 75 beds, and people stay inside for longer periods of time, with more care and support.

In response to a question about negative media coverage of homeless people, Kuhn, the UCLA sociologist, encouraged people to engage with those who spread misinformation about homeless people on Nextdoor and other social media outlets.

Another audience question involved whether universal basic income could address homelessness; Rountree said she wasn’t sure, but that research suggests that one-time or short-term cash assistance to unhoused people can make a huge impact.

“Be very flexible,” she advised in addressing homelessness, adding: “I really resist the idea that there is one solution.”

The post Don’t Look Away. Homeless People Are Your Neighbors appeared first on Zócalo Public Square.


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