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In Helping L.A.'s Homeless Population, Advocates Must Strike a 'Delicate Balance'

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In Los Angeles County alone, more than 39,000 people are homeless, according to a 2013 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
In Los Angeles County alone, more than 39,000 people are homeless, according to a 2013 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. | Photo: daveynin/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" was based on this story. Watch it here now.

Neill has sat on waiting list after waiting list, hoping for a place to call home. At 46, Barbara has been homeless for a decade, following her mother's death. Charles would be able pursue his passion for cooking if he had a roof over his head. All three are awaiting housing as part of United Way's Home For Good program, which seeks to end veteran and chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County by 2016 -- a lofty goal the organization says it is on the road to reaching.

Launched in December 2010, the plan focuses on a Coordinated Entry System linking chronically homeless people with the housing organizations that best suit them, assessing each person individually and helping collect the documents needed for housing. This type of "front door" approach -- where a coordinator evaluates each person's health needs and how long he has been homeless -- makes it more likely that people will receive the right type of care faster, according to United Way.

Some have been housed in as little as nine days.

"Nearly 14,000 people have been housed," says Jerry Neuman, co-chair of the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness, which helped launch Home For Good. "We've increased the number of folks we've housed per month and decreased the time it takes a chronically homeless person to move to a home. We are at the tipping point."

The Home For Good Funders Collaborative, a group of public and private partners including the The California Endowment and the city of Los Angeles, has raised $215 million for permanent supportive housing, Neuman said.

But while Home For Good is starting to make headway in the homeless community, Los Angeles continues to skirt the issue. This month, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to allow the installation of a controversial pedestrian bridge over Temple Street in downtown L.A.

Geoffrey H. Palmer, the developer who proposed the bridge and whose company developed such apartments as the Orsini and the Medici, called the overpass a means to protect tenants of the 562-unit Da Vinci apartments from homeless people who live nearby. Critics argue such action demonizes the homeless.

In Los Angeles County alone, more than 39,000 people are homeless, according to a 2013 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Of those 39,000, some 10,000 are chronically homeless; about 4,600 are homeless veterans, the LAHSA report shows.

Despite the high homeless population -- L.A.'s population is second only to New York City -- Home For Good is confident it will reach its 2016 deadline. Veteran homelessness has decreased significantly in the Greater L.A. area, from 8,131 in 2011 to 6,248 in 2013, according to LAHSA. Chronically homeless families have decreased as well, from 2,730 adults and children in 2011 to 1,227 last year.

Benjamin Henwood, an expert in housing-first programs at the University of Southern California, says the benefit of such a program is that, simply put, it works.

"Housing-first has an 80 percent retention rate. Intervention success at that rate is almost unheard of," Henwood said. "Ultimately you're saving money from cycling in and out of shelters and jails. Where some of the criticism comes in is that people don't necessarily get clean and sober or get jobs when they move in. But does that mean that housing-first doesn't work?"

People often confuse housing-first with housing-only programs, he said, adding that such programs don't leave people to their own devices, but rather give them the chance to be "self-determined" by getting them off the streets.

But there is no panacea to end homelessness -- the varying viewpoints on how to tackle this problem are as diverse as the myriad people who need help. And Neuman is no stranger to the friction these differing points of view can create.

"People within the system, people in the faith community, and missions see their roles in slightly different terms," he said. "It's not just about providing means of sustenance and shelter for the night, but being part of an integrated system. They're on the front line."

For organizations such as the Midnight Mission and the Los Angeles Mission, placing homeless people in housing is just part of the battle. Equally important to them are the services that promote self-improvement -- curing problems such as alcohol or drug abuse, or helping with mental health issues -- before finding permanent housing.

The missions are now beginning to discuss the best way to approach the problem together, Neuman said, but not everyone is pleased with the direction of the talks.

"It doesn't seem to be much of a discussion," said Bill Gasparovic of the Midnight Mission. "The chronically homeless is a small population that uses a lot of resource while the other [homeless] go to missions. [United Way's] housing criteria are that you cannot require them to go into substance abuse or mental health counseling. Our point is that if you can do that before they are housed, there will be a higher success rate."

The funds to help those who aren't chronically homeless but who still live on the streets plummeted over the last few years, Gasparovic said. In 2008, L.A. had $108 million in its affordable housing fund; this year, it has around $26 million. As a result, the best course of action is a "delicate balance" between the two paradigms, he added.

Some advocates for L.A.'s homeless population argue funds are being redirected from general homeless programs to the housing-first model. Because of that, they say, there will be a line of people left waiting for housing they may never receive.

"Missions have been looked at as an emergency service shelter facility and I don't think that is correct," said Herb Smith of the L.A. Mission. "Most of the missions have long-term transitional, work, and addiction recovery programs that help contribute to people being able to stay in housing."

Homelessness is too complex for one solution, Smith added. Housing-first methods may work for some who are chronically homeless, but the "non-judgmental attitude" of that model may not work for others who need a program geared toward abstinence and treatment for substance abuse. That, he said, is at the heart of the disagreement.

"We still support the Home For Good project, we just agree to disagree on certain aspects. It takes good will on both sides," Smith said. "It's about challenging assumptions and speaking up for the rights of those we take care of and making sure they get taken care of. There is no single cause of homelessness, and therefore there is no single solution."

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